My wife Finola, who is an Italophile, recommended that I read Alexander Stille’s “Excellent Cadavers, the Mafia and the death of the First Italian Republic”. It was good advice (as usual!).

Stille’s book tells the story of the war between the Sicilian Mafia and the Italian state from 1960 to 1993. It also tells the story of a war within the Mafia itself and  between it and an increasingly exasperated, but passive, Sicilian public opinion.

The heroes of this story are two Italian prosecutors, both Sicilian themselves, Giovanni Falcone and  Paolo Borsellino, who systematically delved into the inner working of the Mafia, gathering evidence that brought hundreds of Mafiosi before the courts. Although they secured convictions, the Italian judicial system allowed many of those convicted out on bail, while they pursued appeals.  Others had their sentences reduced by friendly judges. Falcone and Borsellino encountered jealousy and obstruction from some of their superiors in pursuing these cases.

It was only when Falcone became an advisor to a Minister in the Government in Rome in 1991, that some of barriers to the effective pursuit of the Mafia were removed. One key step was the setting up of a single “FBI” for all of Italy, which could pool evidence gathered all over the country.

Stille suggests that the Mafia enjoyed protection from people at the highest level of the Italian state, in return for its support in elections in Sicily. Until the fall of the Berlin Wall, this  was tolerated because it helped keep the Communists out of power in Rome.

When Falcone and Borsellino were both assassinated by the Mafia in 1992, public outrage about this, combined with separate corruption allegations including the then Prime Minister, led to the collapse of the Italian political system and the destruction of the old parties that had operated it.

 In 1993, the head of the Mafia, Salvatore Riina, was finally arrested.

The origins of the Mafia, a secret society governed by ritualistic oaths, lie in the absence of effective civic institutions to govern Sicily, both under the Bourbon Kings in Naples up to 1860, and later under the new united Italian state since then.

Initially many Sicilians favoured independence for their island, which has its own language. 

This undermined the legitimacy of the civic authorities, and allowed the Mafia to develop a highly sophisticated system of protection rackets, which sucked the life blood out of the Sicilian economy, and diverted money sent as aid from Rome and Brussels to aid , into the hands of the Mafiosi.

This problem is not unique to Sicily, or Italy. People in Northern Ireland are all too familiar with how paramilitary organisations, with ostensibly political goals, can transform themselves into criminal conspiracies that enslave those whose cause they pretend to serve. If, for any reason, the legitimate state authorities are unable to do their job in administering justice, collecting taxes, and providing  basic services, the gap will be filled by Mafia like organisations.

Has Italy overcome the conditions that allowed the Mafia to flourish?

A European Commission report on Italy in 2011 found that the Italian state system was even  then
  • unable to administer EU funds properly, 
  • had inordinate delays in its courts, 
  • was the most expensive place in Europe to set up a company to run a legitimate business, and
  • that corruption costs the Italian economy 60 billion euros a year.


That is why the reform programme of the government of Matteo Renzi is so important. His challenge is not just to reform the Italian labour market, which keeps so many young Italians artificially unemployed, it is also to reform the Italian judicial and administrative system.
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