Mafia and Antimafia

John Dickie
University College London
June 2015


Umberto Santino
Mafia and Antimafia. A Brief History
IBTauris, London – New York 2015



The history of the Sicilian mafia, and of the fight against it, has many lessons to teach us. One of the most important lessons concerns the close relationship between reality and representation: between, on the one hand, what the mafia does, and on the other hand, the way the mafia has been studied by academic researchers, described by journalists, seen by photographers and film directors, and talked about by politicians and the general public. Throughout its history, the Sicilian mafia has succeeded in shaping what the world thinks of it. Indeed this power to shape perceptions is one of the many things that make the mafia much more than just a bunch of crooks. In other words, the mafia has an ideology – a vision of itself, of Sicily, and even of Italian history – that it needs to pass off as the truth.

At the simplest level, the mafia spreads that ideology when it needs to escape justice: on countless occasions, defence lawyers, recruited to defend mafiosi, have argued that the mafia is not criminal, and still less a criminal organisation, but rather an ancient attitude embedded deep within the psyche of every Sicilian. Or that violent struggles between mafia factions are merely disputes within and between families. But the mafia’s ideology has purposes that are far more ambitious than the exigencies of the courtroom. The mafia is a network that stretches from the street-corner thug up through the social classes to the corrupt doctor, entrepreneur or statesman; it needs to win the passive or active support of a significant section of the population; it needs to infiltrate the political, administrative and economic system; it needs to confuse the public and discredit its enemies: for all these reasons, the mafia is a power system, and as such it has an ideology to both disguise and legitimate itself. The mafia ideology is certainly false; it is also frequently jumbled and unsophisticated. But one measure of its insidiousness is the fact that a number of academic researchers have produced work that, to a greater or lesser extent, naively elaborates some aspects of that ideology.

So it is appropriate that Umberto Santino begins his Mafia and Antimafia: A Brief History with a critique of the ‘stereotypes and paradigms’ which for so long shaped thinking about the mafia, and many of which have more or less distant origins in the mafia ideology. But this translation of the text is appropriate for a profounder reason: for its author, perhaps more than anyone else in Sicily, is the living illustration of how the forces ranged against the mafia power system and its ideology have, like their enemy, blended reality with representation – in this case by joining research and writing with activism.1 Santino was born in the Sicilian interior in 1939. After roughly a decade of militancy in the New Left milieu, he left politics in 1977 and, with his wife Anna Puglisi, founded the Centro Siciliano di Documentazione (Sicilian Documentation Centre) an independent and self-financed library, archive and research hub based in Palermo. A long season of intense intellectual activity began at that point: Mafia and Antimafia: A Brief History is a synthesis of the many important works written by Santino as part of his work with the Centre.2 While Anna Puglisi has written a series of influential studies of mafia women, Santino’s research output has ranged from a survey of mafia murders, to analyses of Sicilian organised crime’s links to the economy and politics, to globalisation and narcotics trafficking, to the history of the mafia’s earliest manifestations and of the antimafia movement from its origins to the present day. His work is distinguished by its ability to blend a range of disciplinary approaches in what he himself has suggested could be called a ‘socio-history’.

Santino’s prolific research activity was conducted in a climate of rapid change, controversy and, above all, bloodshed. The years following the foundation of the Centro Siciliano di Documentazione were to be the most violent and dramatic in the Sicilian mafia’s history. Propelled by narcodollars, and shielded by its close relationship with sections of the ruling Christian Democrat party, Cosa Nostra embarked on an unprecedented and savage attack against anyone who stood in its way: police, magistrates, politicians, journalists, professionals and activists. Indeed, the mafia murder of one young activist would draw Santino and the Centre into the first, longest and most significant of the many campaigns that have run alongside their intellectual activities. Peppino Impastato was from Cinisi, the seaside town near Palermo airport which was a strategic base for the powerful boss Gaetano Badalamenti and his transatlantic drug trafficking. Impastato was from a family profoundly immersed in the mafia: his father was an affiliate, and his paternal uncle was the boss before Badalamenti. Rebelling against this background, Impastato became a passionate and eloquent, if occasionally tormented, advocate of a range of left-wing causes. He was unrelenting in his denunciation of the mafia, whether it be in his writings, in the satirical broadcasts he made through Radio Aut (a station he founded), or through a public exhibition showing the mafia’s damaging impact on the local landscape. On the night of 8/9 May 1978, just after that exhibition, Peppino Impastato was kidnapped, tortured and then left by a railway track with dynamite tied to his body.3 Just as the boss Badalamenti had intended, his death was dismissed in the press as a terrorist attack gone wrong: ‘Leftist fanatic blown apart by own bomb on railway track’, was one headline.

The police and judicial authorities took the same highly improbable line on Impastato’s death.

Although Umberto Santino and Anna Puglisi had not known Peppino Impastato personally, they were immediately convinced that the mafia was responsible for his death. Together with Peppino’s mother and brother, they embarked on a tireless and courageous effort to get the case reopened, and expose a mafia cover-up. The Centro Siciliano di Documentazione was renamed after Peppino Impastato in 1980, and is now universally known as the Centro Impastato. One of the first magistrates to take the Impastato case seriously was Rocco Chinnici. Until Chinnici’s assassination in 1983, the Centre’s relationship with him became a model of many future practical and intellectual collaborations between magistrates committed to prosecuting the mafia and intellectuals committed to trying to understand it.

After more than two decades of dogged efforts, the campaign on the Peppino Impastato case finally achieved results. In December 2000, a Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry stated that the investigation into the murder of the activist had effectively supported the killers’ attempts to cover their tracks. In April 2002, the Cinisi boss Gaetano Badalamenti was at last convicted of ordering the murder. The years between Peppino Impastato’s murder and this final verdict were marked by bloody milestones in the history of the mafia and the antimafia. In 1982, against the background of the worst mafia war in history, there was the passing of the Rognoni-La Torre law, which defined the mafia in the penal code for the first time, and gave the state new powers against it; the politician who proposed the law, Pio La Torre, was murdered for his efforts. In 1984 came the decision by the mafioso Tommaso Buscetta to become a ‘supergrass’, thus providing crucial insider knowledge of Cosa Nostra for both the authorities and for scholars. In 1986 – 7, the ‘maxi-trial’ against Cosa Nostra, prepared by Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, unfolded in Palermo’s ‘bunker’ courthouse. In 1992, Falcone and Borsellino were themselves murdered by mafia bombs. Throughout these years, Umberto Santino and the Centro Impastato always took a leading role in the frequently heated debates that accompanied the growth of a civic and political opposition to the mafia. Among the most important of their activities has been their work in schools, and in preparing educational material for teachers as part of an ‘education for legality’ drive.

Of the extraordinary research done on the Sicilian mafia in Italy by Umberto Santino, Anna Puglisi and others since the mid-1980s, surprisingly little has been translated into English. As a result, readers outside Italy are often left with a distorted and even confused idea of the mafia and its place in Sicilian society. The translation of Mafia and Antimafia: A Brief History is an important step towards increasing our knowledge. But it also fills a gap in our appreciation of the civic and political importance that research into the mafia has in Sicily, and of its profound relationship with the antimafia movement, in all its manifestations.