Italy: A Nation Divided – Part 1

When Anya and I got on the local bus to the small town of Gioiosa Ionica, we didn’t know what we would find. It was a dot on the map. 

On my part, there was a general – perhaps better said vague – purpose in visiting Gioisa Ionica.

I was interested in organised crime.

It was something which began shortly after we arrived in Southern Italy. We flew in to the city of Lamazia, where we stayed for 2 nights. Whist there, I read on an Italian news website in English, that 6 months previous, the city council was dismissed by the central government because of its connections to organised crime. It was a completely novel concept to me: an election campaign was held, people went to the effort to vote and the result: a coterie of puppets was elected, people who would make sure to divert public funds and money from the central government – and the EU – into the pockets of criminals.

During the following days, more research revealed that in some regions of Southern Italy, the dismissal of regional councils was almost a regular event. 

I travel to experience something different and this was certainly different alright.

I was intrigued.

I began looking for information about organised crime in Italy on the net. There was an enormous amount of it. Much of it was shallow and sensational, but among the dross, there were some real gems – e.g., pdf reports from Italian academics and Europol. I spent many hours reading these: they fascinated me.

What soon impressed me was a reality of a nation divided.

There was a powerful economic and cultural division between the north and south of Italy and one of its most obvious symptoms was organised crime. The latter was unique to the south, especially Calabria and Sicily, whilst Italy’s legitimate industry was concentrated in the North – which was highly successful, earning enough to make Italy the third biggest economy in Europe.
The criminal organisations in the south, referred to in some reports as ‘OCG’s´ – organised crime gangs – were in their own grim way, at least as successful as the modern, high tech corporations in the North.

There was probably no other nation in the world where the contrast between two regions was so powerful.

In Calabria, the family clans composing the organised crime circuit were known collectively as the Ndrangheta. In Sicily, they were known as the Mafia or Cosa Nostra. There were other, smaller organisations, but these two were by far the largest and wealthiest. Their income ran into tens of billions of Euros. Outside Italy, the Sicilian mob was far better known than the Ndrangheta, in part due to books and films, but there were many pundits who concluded that the Ndrangheta were far more efficient and wealthier than the Mafia.

There were two basic dimensions to the success of the OCG’s.

The thorough permeation of civil society, so that there almost no economic activity possible, in the government or private sector, which escaped the parasitical attention of the OCG. It imposed taxes on every kind of legitimate economic activity. The mob milked anything where money was involved. For 10 years, for example, the mob had milked funds meant for an assylum seekers centre – EU funds – with the help of the head of the refugee centre and a priest. It was estimated that millions had been siphoned off.

The transplanting of networks to other countries especially those where considerable numbers of Italians had immigrated: the US, Canada, Australia, South America and Northern Europe. Italian based OCG’s coordinated their activities with the ‘branch’ organisations across a broad range of activities including narcotics, counterfeiting, cyber crime, the dumping of radioactive waste and and so on. In order to effectively counter Italian OCG activities, a high degree of coordination between national police departments was required – never easy to realise.


A point came in my research where a basic question occurred to me:

Why had these highly successful criminal organisations appeared in Southern Italy?

Sifting through the accounts of these criminal organisations, I discovered that the answer to this simple question was elusive. At the very least, it inspired a great deal of debate.

Journalists and writers often focused on the more dramatic aspects of the OCG’s, such as liquidations and social life. Or they wrote about the struggle of the police to track and arrest members of the OCG’s in a detective story format. Social scientists focused on the structure and operation of these organisations but only a few addressed the deeper causes.

The most attractive – and least satisfactory – explanation for the OCG’s in Southern Italy was poverty and unemployment. It was beautifully simple, but also, wrong. It was undeniably true that in southern Italy incomes were much lower than in the north and that unemployment was much higher. In June, 2018, a report on the BBC highlighed the reality: in the North unemployment was less than 5% and in the South, between 20 – 30%.

But was organised crime the result of poverty?

Where were the equivalents of the Mafia and the Ndrangheta in Mali, Bangladesh and Bolivia?

Poverty gave rise to gangs and crime but nothing remotely like the organisations in Southern Italy.  

In actual fact, organised crime in Southern Italy was the cause, rather than the result, of poverty, low economic growth and low social economic mobility. On the one hand, OCG’s milked money from a diverse range of activities, on the other hand, they had billions which had to be laundered, often as not by investing in legitimate economic activities. Their taxation hobbled the local economy whilst their investments intensified the effect: they didn’t need to start up a firm to make a profit. The profit was only on the books. Furthermore, deep pockets meant that the bureaucracy and politics could be bought. The Ndrangheta and the Mafia had suffered set backs from vigorous anti-crime campaigns launched by the central government, but they had mutated, like a virus, and their parasitic hold on the economy and society remained undiminished. When local councils, whose members were democratically elected, were stooges for the mob, how could any effective policies be implemented at the regional level? Organised crime crippled the possibility for legitimate economic growth at many different levels. 

Another explanation for the prevalence of O.C.G.s focused on the family structure of the crime organisations. This was an important theme.

It is impossible to understand OCG’s in Southern Italy without taking into account that they are based on family relationships. The very fact that the members of an OCG belong to an extended family makes it very difficult for the police to infiltrate these organisations; bonds of loyalty are always stronger when they occur within a family setting. It is no exaggeration to say that behind the OCG is a form of primeval tribalism where the men – macho and imbued with such misogynist ideas such as ‘honour’ – do the ‘work’ whilst the women are confined to being mothers and raising the kids and, the next crop of criminals. 

The OCG family clan is based on a rigid hierarchy. At the top of the hierarchy is the Godfather, who among other things, brokers deals with other family clans. The biggest threat hanging over the heads of the OCG’s is the outbreak of turf wars, which suck them into a vortex of revenge and violence – and give the police an ideal opportunity to penetrate the crime circuit by brokering deals with turncoats.

Is the deep rooted misogyny and family loyalty basic to the OCG the reason for the rise of these organisations? 

Some writers made this connection. I found it unconvincing.

To be sure, this aspect of the OCG suggested that they were specific to southern Italian society and the result of a very different history than the North.

If family was an important characteristic of the OCG, then so was territory.

The family clans had their origins – and were, in many cases still based – in the small towns in the hills and mountains of Southern Italy.

Often, as one account noted, the entire international operation of an OCG corporation was run from a small village or town. The family clan often did business with migrants hailing from their region living in a foreign country.

In the OCG with its ideas of honour, hierarchy, absolute loyalty – and territory – I was struck by the sense of the past invading the present, a feudal past, when the family and ‘men of honour’ ruled the social order. Like an Islamic terrorist organisation, the Southern Italian crime corporation was an atavistic throw-back, one which had mutated into the modern age with lethal implications.

Territory: the south east coast of Calabria was a geographic area which had spawned many of the family clans associated with Ndrangheta.

It was a rugged area dominated by mountains and hills.

For a week, Anya and I travelled along this coast by train, stopping for days at a time at various sea side places to go swimming.

The railway line hugged the coast and for most of the way, the ocean could be seen out the window.



A point came in my reading about the Ndrangheta, when I wanted to deviate from the coast and go and have a look at an inland town.

Gioiosa Ionica came up on my radar because it was relatively easy to reach by bus.

At the outskirts of Gioiosa Ionica, there was a spread of dingy suburbs, where most of the passengers got out. The suburbs were ugly, a mass of concrete apartment blocks and shabby houses. 

Taking one look at these dingy suburbs, it occurred to me that this trip was a mistake and that we would have to stay on the bus and go back to the coast.

Then the driver said something about an old centre.

We got down and began walking. It was a sunny day and warm. 

Wandering around the old centre of town –  which dated from the 15th century – I picked up clues about the historical forces which had given rise to the most successful criminal organisations in the world. 




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