Secret of why the clan has never shot a soul

Andrew Gumbel concludes his series with a look at the mythical code of silence

In a famous comedy sketch by the Italian film director Dino Risi, a mafioso is gunned down by a passing car on the church steps of his hill- top village in Sicily. The police come running out and ask the man who shot him. "Shot?" he answers in his dying breath. "I haven't been shot. I don't know what you're talking about!"

Sicily's reputation for refusing to talk about the Mafia has long since entered popular folklore. Everyone knows about omerta, the mythical code of silence that envelopes the island in a shroud of sinister mystery, and indeed anyone who walks unannounced into a Mafia-controlled village and starts asking direct questions is not likely to get very far.

In truth, though, the culture of silence has undergone a radical change. Gone is the time when the post-war Archbishop of Palermo, Ernesto Ruffillo, could bluntly deny the existence of the Mafia and keep a straight face (in fact he was in cahoots with some of the biggest thugs in the outfit).

The dramatic Mafia murders of the Eighties and early Nineties, and the equally dramatic mass arrests and maxi-trials that followed, have made the business of denial rather more delicate.

Since the first mafioso to turn state's evidence, Tommaso Buscetta, started talking in 1984, Cosa Nostra has effectively ceased to be a secret organisation; omerta, at least as applied to Mafia members, is a dead concept. And the word "Mafia" itself has fully entered the public domain, after decades of euphemistic references to "the friends of the friends".

But that is where the linguistic clarity ends. For reasons of fear or of deeply ingrained self-censorship, Sicilians do not willingly stick their heads above the parapet and talk about the organised crime in their midst. These days they will acknowledge the Mafia's existence, but will often try to depict it as something that does not affect them.

Strategies intended to convey this non-complicity vary. One of the most common is simply: "Don't ask me, ask someone else."

The head of the local business association in Niscemi, Giovanni Millitari, responded to a question about extortion and murder in his town with the words: "Sconosco il problema." What he no doubt meant by this was: "I am not familiar with the problem," but the beautifully ambiguous formulation also means "I refuse to recognise the problem".

The snag with such a response is that it borders on outright denial, and denial is usually interpreted in the complex semantic code of the Sicilian Mafia as a veiled admission of complicity. The Mafia works best where it can work silently; refusing to talk is effectively contributing to the Mafia cause.

Another familiar strain, and a piece of pure syllogism encountered all over Italy, is: "What we have is not Cosa Nostra, therefore we do not have a Mafia problem." Cosa Nostra is traditionally the most powerful Mafia group, concentrated in Palermo and western Sicily, and for years the two terms were synonymous.

But there are virulent Mafia cultures spreading through eastern Sicily, Calabria, Puglia, the Naples area and even the north of Italy. Strictly speaking, these other Mafias have their own names such as 'ndrangheta or Sacra Corona Unita, a technicality which intimidated or suspect citizens will willingly exploit to confound the over-inquisitive.

Or, sometimes, they might even say: "What we have is not as bad as the Mafia."

Yes, said the mayor of Niscemi, Salvatore Liardo, we have murders, drugs trafficking, a corrupt police force, extortion and armed robbery, but at least it is not the Mafia. "It is just a problem with delinquency." This strategy is a variation on "What we have is not Cosa Nostra".

The fact that Niscemi is plagued by a different Mafia phenomenon is enough to get Mayor Liardo off the hook.

Turning the issue upside down takes denial one stage further, turning bad to good: "The Mafia is actually better than what we have," some say.

A very different strategy this, the product of a mentality that believes the Mafia to be an honourable organisation at root that has been besmirched by the recent descent into random violence and insalubrious business interests such as arms and drugs trafficking.

Thus one finds the likes of Frank Zeppia, a convicted member of Cosa Nostra in the United States now confined for two years to his home town of Caltanissetta, bemoaning the outbreak of gangsterism in the surrounding area. "These guys ain't Mafia," he said, "they're pieces of shit."

And finally, the ultimate denial: "The Mafia is not Sicilian, it comes from Rome to oppress us."

Costanza, a student leader from Siracusa, explained. "The true spirit of the Sicilian Mafia is Salvatore Giuliano, who fought for our independence by stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. The people they call mafiosi today and put in jail are no more than tools of central government. If Giuliano were alive today, there'd be no lack of Sicilians prepared to fight and die for him."

This argument stems from the very origins of the modern Mafia as a warped resistance movement against Italian unification, and reflects bubbling resentment at the excessively centralised state structure, even in Sicily which has its own reinforced regional government.

While it is true that the Rome government has been severely compromised by the Mafia in the past, it is absurd to ascribe any kind of Sicilian or mafioso purity to Giuliano, a bandit operating at the end of the Second World War with a glamorous reputation but who was used in turn by the independence movement, the Mafia and the Christian Democrat party to commit despicable acts before being betrayed by one of his own men.

The line does not hold for another, more profound reason. As the sociologist Diego Gambetta has argued, the Mafia does not have an ideology, a political programme or even a coherent set of rules of behaviour. It is essentially an economic phenomenon that controls territory through the sale of that double-edged commodity, protection.

That explains the continuing reticence of Sicilians about Cosa Nostra. Protect the Mafia with your silence, and you in turn will be protected. Talk carelessly and there is no telling what might happen.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones