From omerta to murder: Italian students flock to Mafia studies

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Students have signed up in their hundreds for Italy's first ever course in Mafia studies, launched last week at Rome University's faculty of Law.

Students have signed up in their hundreds for Italy's first ever course in Mafia studies, launched last week at Rome University's faculty of Law.

Videos of The Sopranos and The Godfather are not expected to feature on the worklist. Nor will students receive tips on how to acquit themselves as paid-up members of the Cosa Nostra. Instead, they will immerse themselves in the history, structure and economic ramifications of Italy's various Mafias to equip them better, as legal professionals, for the struggle against them.

Thanks to Puzo, Coppola et al, the outside world has romantic picture of the Mafia, a hazy mix of Sicilian landscapes, horses' heads, omerta, sawn-off shotguns and bloody vendettas.

The reality is enormously complex. "There simply isn't enough knowledge about how the Mafia is structured and how it operates," said Pierluigi Vigna, Italy's top anti-Mafia prosecutor and one expert drafted in to give his expertise to the course.

The 500 students, who will be joined by police officers keen to deepen their knowledge, will study not only Cosa Nostra - the Sicilian Mafia, translating literally as "our thing" - but also the mafias of the mainland: the 'Ndrangheta (a Greek word meaning heroism) in Calabria, the Camorra, originally a quasi-political police force from 19th century Naples, and La Sacra Corona Unita (the Sacred Crown) in Puglia.

The course is the brainwave of Enzo Ciconte, an MP with Left Democrats, Italy's biggest opposition party, and an expert on the 'Ndrangheta. For years, he has advised Italy's Anti-Mafia Commission.

The students will learn of all the phases in the development of the gangs: how they sprung up as informal security gangs "protecting" the huge citrus estates outside Palermo in the early 19th century, their spread across Sicily and their "hibernation" during the Mussolini years. They will study the effect of liberating American troops in 1943, which saw Mafia chiefs appointed as town mayors across Sicily, the development of links with politicians after the Second World War, the massacres of the 1980s and 1990s and the present phase,nearly 12 years of so-called "military silence". Despite the extended break from blood-letting in Sicily, a week does not go by without organised crime hitting the news.

Recent weeks have seen the news that Sicily's governor, Salvatore Cuffaro, is to be tried on charges that he tipped off Mafiosi about investigations into their activities. Mr Cuffaro has rejected the charges and calls for his resignation.

In the past few days, Naples has seen Camorra gangs fighting on the streets amid police claims that areas of the city are controlled by criminal gangs.

Italians were appalled to learn last month that Giovanni Brusca, the man who detonated the bomb that killed the anti-Mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone in 1992, is to be released from prison despite having been sentenced to several life terms for dozens of homicides.

One student said: "My father lived and worked in Calabria, and I saw how the Mafia affected every aspect of life, from buying a car to renting a house. Understanding the Mafia is the best way to understand Italy, and taking part in this course is like paying a tribute to my country and its problems."