Hollywood loves a Mafia initiation. Like nothing else it captures the mob’s perverse mix of mystery, honour and brutality. Think of New Jersey crime boss Tony Soprano inducting, or “making”, nephew Christopher into the family business by prompting the pledge: “May I burn in hell if I betray my friends.”
But the existence of real-life rites for mafia members was dramatically underlined this week with unprecedented video footage showing bosses of ‘Ndrangheta, Italy’s most powerful and most secretive crime organisation, conferring on associates the highest level of affiliation.
The surveillance from April, which led to 40 arrests on Tuesday, revealed mobsters being sworn into the Calabria-based crime syndicate’s elite division known as “Santa”. The opening pledges of allegiance begin: “In this holy evening, in the silence of the night, under the light of the stars and under the splendour of the moon, I create the holy chain... the holy society.”
But the verbosity of ceremony (to “safeguard my wise brothers”) soon reaches more pressing matters.
An unnamed mob boss leading the ritual, performed at a farmhouse in the northern province of Lecco, tells new members that if they break the organisation’s strict codes of conduct, they are, under the “oath of poison”, expected to fall on their own swords. “Either you poison yourselves or you take this (gun) which shoots. There must always be a bullet reserved; one for you,” he said.
Milan anti-Mafia prosecutor Ilda Boccassini said, after announcing the 40 arrests, that for successful recruits, affiliation to Santa was “in their DNA and under their skin and they can leave ‘Ndrangheta either by collaborating with the state or through death”.
Previously, the existence of the Santa initiation ceremony had only been talked about by Mafia turncoats. Similarly, information on the basic initiation ceremony for ‘Ndrangheta members has come second-hand. Newcomers are said to pledge allegiance with their left hand placed on a knife, while the master of the ceremony burns an image of the Archangel Michael, supposedly the protector of the crime syndicate.
In addition to the curious notion that one of the holiest figures in Christianity would look out for a criminal organisation, the new video showed the celebration of Giuseppe Garibaldi and Giuseppe Mazzini, key figures in the re-unification of Italy 150 years ago.
These references are significant, says Enzo Ciconte, a lecturer on organised crime at Rome’s La Sapienza University, because they were masons. “This change to ‘Ndrangheta’s initiation rite reflects how the group got involved with Masonic activity in the 1970s,” he said.
Mr Ciconte, the author of two books on ‘Ndrangheta, added that the initiation ceremony provided new members with “a powerful sense of belonging”, and helped it thrive as a global cocaine-trafficking organisation. Some of these themes recur in other crime groups’ initiation rites. Sicily’s Cosa Nostra requires pricked fingers and the images of saints to be burned, after which the newcomer declares: “Burn my flesh like the image of this saint if I betray you.”
Naples’ Camorra requires new members to pledge: “I swear on my honour to be faithful to the New Camorra Organisation... just as the NCO is faithful to me.” For their secret oath, members of Italy’s fourth Mafia group, the Puglia-based Sacra Corona Unita, must promise to put the organisation before friends and family “I swear to disown father, mother, brothers and sisters in the interests of the organisation,” they swear.
In the American Mafia, a “made man” is a fully initiated member of the Mafia – untouchable other than by another mobster, and then only after a “sit down” with the bosses. Other names for members include “man of honour” or in Italy, an “uomo d’onore”. When a crime family “opens the books” to accept new members, the candidate is reported to have to be sponsored by another member of a crime family. That sponsor vouches for their credibility, and should his apprentice become a “snitch”, he could face death.
But for all that, the promises of loyalty made during initiation rites are not always worth much. When young mobster Christopher finally met his end in the Sorpranos it was at the hand of his uncle who had made him swear loyalty to his family and friends just a few years before.
All the major Mafia groups have continued internecine killings as more high-level members become police informants.
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