Mafia men kiss goodbye to old greeting

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The Independent Online
Pity the poor bosses of the Sicilian Mafia: they had to do without kisses on St Valentine's day this year.

That at least is what Mafia informers have just told magistrates in Palermo. Apparently the mob's "men of honour" have decided that greeting each other in public with a kiss of respect on each cheek has become too risky. Kisses, along with handshakes, passwords, initiation rites and ostentatious symbolic acts, have been banned.

If the story is true, it would mark the end of an era for the Mafia which has thrived on ritual every bit as much as those other pervasive powers in Italian society, Freemasons and the Catholic Church.

The trouble is the story could just be a fable invented to make the Mafia look antiquated and ridiculous and it has set sociologists, journalists and magistrates arguing furiously over the chances of its being true.

"This is the kind of folklore Italians always fall for," said Odoardo Ascari, a lawyer who has a direct interest in rubbishing the story. His most prominent client is Giulio Andreotti, the former prime minister facing charges of association with the Mafia. Among the allegations is the suggestion that he kissed Toto Riina, head of all Mafia heads, at a secret Palermo meeting in 1987.

Within the tightly defined rules of the traditional Mafia, the kiss of respect was one of the ways fully initiated members of the mob could recognise one another. Another was the code phrase: E la stessa cosa - literally, "It's the same thing", a play on Cosa Nostra. But the mob has changed enormously in the last 30 years, as drugs-trafficking and money-laundering have taken over from small-time racketeering and property speculation as its chief source of income. Warfare between rivals and betrayal has become more common in the atmosphere of high-stakes competition.

Reports from anti-Mafia investigators suggest the bosses are now running scared from informers. Those on the run from police can no longer walk the streets with impunity and clan members are taking extra precautions when they meet. It would make sense, therefore, to ban kisses.