The Real Truth About The Sicilian Mafia

What is the Mafia?

The Sicilian Mafia, or simply the Mafia, date back to the 19th century. They are an organised crime syndicate, or criminal society, that loosely comprise of criminal groups that share a common ‘code of conduct’.

Where did it begin?

As early as 1876, Italian politicians Franchetti and Sonnino documented the reigning presence of the Mafia in Sicily. At the time, the Mafia was hired to help wealthy landowners enforce repressive systems of social order. However, as time went on, they became a force of their own.

After a severe economic collapse in the early 1900s, the Mafia began to corrupt the political system. This was despite some of their biggest leaders like Lucky Luciano being expelled to the US.

By the 1980s, things had reached breaking point. Bodies were being found daily in the streets of Palermo. The mafia family, known as Cosa Nostra, held a number of high profile assassinations against politicians. These included Sicilian governor, Piersanti Mattarella, Palermo police chief General, Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa, and Communist party leader, Pio LaTorre.

Good guys or bad guys?

Two major events finally changed public opinion. The bombing of Sicilian judge and anti-mafia campaigner Giovanni Falcone, followed closely by the murder judge, Paolo Borsellino.

Mural of Falcone and Borsellino © Salvatore Ciambra

Mural of Falcone and Borsellino © Salvatore Ciambra

Falcone had spent his career trying to fight the mafia. In an unprecedented move, he conducted the largest trial against the mafia ever attempted.  It was held in a bunker-style courthouse specially constructed for this purpose – inside the walls of the Ucciardone prison. The result was a staggering 342 convictions.

The brutal murder of Falcone and Borsellino helped to turn many in Sicily against the mafia and sparked change in the region. The two men, who worked closely together, have become national heroes to the country’s ongoing attempts to rid itself of the grip of organised crime.

Are they still around today?

The Mafia are still present in Italian society today. Continuing the fight today is Nino Di Matteo. The public prosecutor is considered the most endangered man in Italy.  For the past 25 years he has had around the clock protection against the Cosa Nostra who want him dead.  He continues to investigate the governments own role in making deals with the mafia in the early 1990s.2

“I’ve been deprived of all freedom in my life,” says the prosecutor “I have to notify my escort before I open the door of my house in the morning. I feel as if I can’t breathe. I would so much like to take a walk alone.” He lives like a hardened criminal with a bounty on his head.

Although the days when blood-soaked bodies lay in the streets of Palermo are gone, the fight against the Mafia is far from won. The Sicilian Cosa Nostra is merely pursuing a different strategy. Instead of fighting the government with weapons, they are infiltrating it. As it invests money in the legitimate economy, it makes greater inroads into society.

The Addiopizzo logo

The Addiopizzo logo

Small local business are the ones who feel it the most.  They are often asked to “make a small gift” or else their businesses are vandalised until they pay for “protection”. These businesses include small bars, hair dresses & gelato stands.  No one is beyond the Mafia’s reach.  Some are fighting back, and it is common to see a sticker displayed in many shop windows that signifies they do not pay protection money (see left). This movement is known as AddiopizzoLocals are encouraged to shop with these merchants.

One of the biggest continuing challenges for Sicily is the very common tax evasion.  In the years 2006-2017 alone the government had amassed over €25 billion in outstanding taxes.  The money is greatly needed back in the Sicilian economy with youth unemployment at 57% and major infrastructure and capital projects stalled due to corruption.

Visit the Mafia museum in Sicily on our Sicily Bella tour – see the full itinerary here.


Read more about Sicily’s history here. 


University of Georgia ‘Outline of the History of Sicily’; 1Best of Sicily; 2Sicily. How an Italian island became ungovernable
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