Echoes of Silence: The Rise and Reign of the Italian Mafias

April 22, 2024

A Portrait of Italian Mafias

Sicilian mafia

By Emma Donnelly

On May 23, 1992, four men stand waiting on a hill just outside of Palermo, Italy.  One holds a remote control in his hand while the others lift binoculars up to their eyes.  They watch as cars whizz by on Highway A29, waiting for one vehicle.  In the culvert beneath the highway, they have hidden 881 pounds of explosives.

Their target is Giovanni Falcone, an Italian lawyer who gained fame for prosecuting the Maxi Trial that led to the conviction of 338 Cosa Nostra members in 1987.  As his car passes the hill, the explosives are detonated, destroying a quarter-mile of highway and instantly killing Falcone, his wife, and three police guards.

The message behind the explosion is clear.  The Italian Mafia may have suffered a setback, but it’s power is still unmatched.  Messing with the Italian Mafia means there will be Hell to pay, and unfortunately, their prowess has not faded in the past 30 years.

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Italian Mafias pose a significant threat to individuals and businesses all across the globe. The three Mafia powerhouses (the Camorra, Cosa Nostra, and ‘Ndrangheta) have used illegally obtained funds to finance illegal activities in countless industries and businesses, notably construction, sanitation, and drug trafficking/production. The Mafia’s reach is extensive, thorough, and very dangerous to businesses, organizations, and individuals.

The Big Three

Three Italian Mafias have proven to be more powerful than any others, both historically and currently.

  1. The Neapolitan Camorra is thought to be the oldest of the Italian mafias. Although the history the Camorra have been heatedly debated, some historians speculate that its roots trace all the way back to the first Spanish reign in Italy some time during the 1600s.  It was Italy’s most powerful mafia during the 18th and 19th
  2. Possibly the most famous of the Italian mafias is the Sicilian Cosa Nostra. The Cosa Nostra was formed in the 1830s in Palermo, Sicily by a Camorra associate named Giuseppe Mazzini.  The Cosa Nostra was Italy’s most powerful mafia during the “Years of Lead” in the 1970s, which was a time of severe political instability in Italy that fostered military repression and political violence.
  3. The Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta is currently the richest and most powerful of the Italian mafias. It was formed in the 1860s by a group of Sicilian bandits who had been banished to the mountains of Calabria.  The ‘Ndrangheta gained significant power in the 1980s and 1990s by controlling the European cocaine market.

Instances of Mafia Violence

Mafias are famously characterized by their willingness, even their eagerness, to resort to violence.

In 1993, the Cosa Nostra kidnapped Giuseppe di Matteo, the 12-year-old son of Santino di Matteo.  Santino di Matteo had been arrested for participating in the murder of Falcone, and had agreed to testify against his associates in return for police protection.  The Cosa Nostra, in an attempt to scare the turncoat into silence, held and tortured the boy for 779 days before his captors were given the order to “get rid of the puppy.”  Giuseppe was then strangled to death and is body dissolved in acid to ensure the remains were never found.

On September 8, 2008, the Camorra carried out a deadly massacre against African immigrants, a result of the growing conflict between the mafia and immigrant African drug gangs.  Six or seven men wearing bullet-proof jackets and armed with Kalashnikovs and calibre 9 pistols burst through the doors of the “Ob Ob Exotic Fashions” shop in a resident African community of Castel Volturno.  They fired approximately 130 shots wounding seven immigrants, none of whom were involved in any illegal activities.

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The Business of Mafias

While mafia’s are violent organizations, they are also traditionally very business-oriented.  Businesses provide protection for mafias’ illegal activities and also provide them with a steady source of revenue with which to fund said activities.  Two prevalent ways that mafia influence is prevalent in the business world is through money laundering and drug dealing.

Money Laundering

Money laundering is the practice of concealing money that has been illegally obtained, and is a very common practice among mafias.  Mafias bring in billions every year with their illegal schemes.  It’s estimated that the illegal activities of the ‘Ndrangheta alone account for around 5% of Italy’s total GDP.

In April, 2021, the Italian government uncovered a massive money laundering scheme in which over $200 million were laundered in which 12 companies, 5 fuel depots, and 37 rail distributors were involved.  The case involved two fraud systems associated with the European oil and gas trade (which accounts for around $3 billion in Italy’s industry) in which imported and exported fuels were purposefully mislabeled in order to transport them for a subsidized rate.

Drug Dealing

One of the most lucrative mafia businesses is drug dealing and smuggling.  It’s estimated that the Italian Mafia earns about $34.7 billion annually from the trafficking and selling of narcotics.  The ‘Ndrangheta currently dominates over 80% of Europe’s cocaine trade.

One incident in 2019 revealed just how widespread the mafia drug ring really is.  In 2019, Italian authorities seized at least 1,000 kilos of cocaine that had been smuggled into northern and southern Italy from Latin America.  A two-year-long investigation led to the arrest of 104 suspects and revealed that the scheme was also used to prey on businesses as far north as Switzerland, where the ‘Ndrangheta has assets valued at around $2.9 million.

Successes In the War Against the Mafia

In recent years, there have been multiple successful attempts to being the Italian Mafias to justice.

In January 2023, Cosa Nostra boss and the most-wanted man in Italy, Matteo Messina Denaro, was arrested after 30 years of being on the run.  Denaro was wanted for helping to plan a terrorist-style bombing campaign in retaliation for the Maxi Trial.  He was later tied to the planning of the bomb that killed Falcone and the murder of Guiseppe di Matteo.  He died of cancer in September of the same year.

Another notable success occurred in November 2023, when over 330 defendants from Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Bulgaria, all with connections to the ‘Ndrangheta, were found guilty of a number of crimes.  These included extortion, money laundering, corruption, usury, murder, and mafia membership.

While recent efforts have had success in combatting powerful mafias like the Cosa Nostra, ‘Ndrangheta, and Camorra, it’s not enough to topple them.  The mafias have proven that they are willing to work with anyone if it will benefit them, and this has created a complicated web of underground criminal organizations all around the world.  In order to bring collapse the empire of the Italian Mafia, nations must be willing to set aside their differences and work together.