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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Presentation highlights mafia’s impact on Italian politics

Published: October 26, 2012
Section: Features

Following the 20th anniversary of the assassinations of Italian magistrates Falcone and Borsellino, who lost their lives in their struggle to combat the mafia, Alexander Stille, San Paolo Professor of International Justice at Columbia University, presented the lecture “Voicing the Outrage of Silence: The Mafia and Italian Politics” to the Brandeis community last Friday.

Denouncing the misperception of the mafia as “enjoying a mythical status as a supernatural being,” having been seen for years as “an anthropological phenomenon running through the veins of Sicily,” Stille expressed the need to sever the mafia’s ties to legitimate political institutions in order to eradicate its power.

Professor Paola Servino (ITAL) began the event, introducing Stille as “one of the most renowned and controversial writers and journalists of New York” citing his lecture as “a most powerful tribute to Judges Falcone and Borsellino.”

Commenting on the fear instigated by the presence of the mafia within a community, Stille recalled a local businessman who explained his lack of ambition by stating “I try to keep my business small, if it gets too big, I’ll attract attention.” Stille himself revealed his own personal experiences dealing with the infiltration of the mafia within legitimate institutions. Originally asked to contribute an essay to a photo exhibition established in Washington in collaboration with the Italian embassy, Stille later received a phone call requesting the censorship of statements connecting the mafia to politics. Due to his refusal, the essay was not displayed with the exhibition, a trend which emerged periodically throughout his career.

As a journalist in the late 1980s for a prominent Italian newspaper, Stille experienced a similar phenomenon when an individual known to have connections to Berlusconi, a controversial political figure in Italy, was appointed editor of the paper. Stille was denied the opportunity to publish a piece on the indictment of several individuals known to be close to Berlusconi for mafia activities under the premise that the newspaper wished to avoid charges of libel.

Tracing the mafia’s power surges throughout history, Stille refutes the concept that Sicilians are inherently violent, instead pointing to the periods in which homicides dramatically fell as evidence to the contrary. He describes the mafia as “an organization comprised of real humans that can be investigated, arrested and put on trial,” as evidenced during time periods in which he explains, “the state was embarrassed into taking action.”

Referencing the revolutionary work of Italian magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, Stille described their innovative method of attacking the mafia issue through the analysis of financial records. Prior to the witness protection program established in 1993, Stille said, “it was inconceivable that there would be witnesses against the mafia,” proving a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to prosecutors. By tracking the foreign currency exchanges and financial relationships within the heroin trade in Sicily, however, Falcone managed to reconstruct evidence without the necessity of witnesses.

Through the establishment of the Maxi pool of Palermo, created by Judge Rocco Chinnici, responsibility regarding the prosecution of mafia trials was established, diminishing the ability of the mafia to halt a prosecution through the specific targeting or assassination of a single judge. The Maxi trials which followed, culminated in 344 convictions, with approximately 100 not-guilty verdicts as well, according to Stille.

The political scene in Italy during the late 80s, however, continued to become unstable, as Stille recalled the circulation of anonymous letters within Palermo containing accusations against Falcone. Describing this moment as “the middle act of a greek tragedy,” Stille said that “the mafia has ways of undermining public representation and discrediting individuals before killing them.” Falcone and Borsellino were assassinated in subsequent bombings following their work with the Maxi trials.

Stille asserted that in order to truly combat the mafia, it is essential “to remove the mafia from their supernatural identity to the scope of a human problem.” According to Stille, following the assassinations, over 7,000 soldiers were sent to Sicily, “as if it was a foreign country.”

Despite these immediate attempts to negate the power of organized criminal activity, Stille cites the parallel interests between political figures and members of the mafia serve as a prominent obstacle preventing the success of these efforts. In particular, he references the election of Silvio Berlusconi as prime minister of Italy, stating his “counterrevolution to the anti corruption campaign” proved “to be sweet music to the ears of those in organized crime.” According to Stille, key members under investigation for involvement in the mafia, such as Giuseppe Guttadauro, were informed of wiretaps in their homes by the Sicilian government.

Accrediting the power of the mafia to connections with political figures, Stille further cited the difficulties in combating organized crime. Building projects aimed at industrializing the south were dominated by the mafia, yet by halting such projects and thus cutting profits to organized crime, the possibility of losing support from natives arises as well. Furthermore, aspects of the Italian legal system, such as the statute of limitations, which places a time constraint on the prosecution of criminals, and the right not to respond to questions at trial, serve as obstacles as well. Stille states “the time between indictment and trial creates the opportunity for threats and bribery,” resulting in the lack of evidence against suspected criminals.

Stille acknowledges the complexities of the struggle against organized crime, yet adamantly asserts “these people are just a bunch of thugs and gangsters. They are below average bums, they can be arrested, they can be targeted, and they can be put in prison.”

Commenting on the romanticized view of the mafia popularized by films such as “The Godfather,” he asserts the need to recognize these individuals as “parasites sucking and feeding off of the lives of the community rather than men of honor that deserve to be respected.” Furthermore, he dismisses the stereotype that members of the mafia only enact violence against each other, instead stating “people need to understand the price of the presence of the mafia … it keeps good, honest, hardworking, energetic people from fulfilling themselves. It is sad that an area has to be proud of the people that got away.”

Dedicated to combating the power of the mafia, Stille has published numerous works, including “Benevolence and Betrayal,” “Excellent Cadavers,” “The Future is the Past,” and “The Sack of Rome” in addition to his career in journalism.

Stille urged voters to generate a “taboo toward politicians having associations with organized crime,” stating that the “mafia’s power is only derived from its connections to the legitimate world.”