Dating from the 15th century, the old centre of Gioiosa Ionica formed a stark contrast with its outlying suburbs. It was a maze of old buildings and narrow cobble stone streets crammed into a small area on a steep hillside. At the perimeters of the town, the remains of defensive walls and turrets could be seen.
Walking up and down steep, narrow cobble stone streets, illuminated by the strong southern mediterranean sun and lanced by dark shadows, it seemed hard to imagine that such a charming historic town could give rise to a ruthlessly efficient OCG.
In one of the streets, the sound of someone playing a piano sonata on a harpsichord wafted out of the open window of a third story room.
I stood there transfixed.
What a wonderful sound!
Here was the other side of Italy: a land of culture and art. A land with a history of producing great musicians and composers and philosophers, writers and poets and painters; magnificent architecture and statues. Here was the Italy which had, through the ages, immeasurably influenced and enriched Europe.
The metamorphosis from the inhabitants of a small, remote town into the operatives of a billion Euro international business was at the risk of understatement, a dramatic one. It was clear to me that this metamorphosis couldn’t have happened within a short time frame: not years, not decades, but rather, centuries.
It had deeper historical origins.
I picked up hints of this during my aimless tourist wanderings.
In this medieval town there was unmistakable evidence of a past characterised by anarchy and violence and the absence of any effective form of government.
This was the historical environment from which the Ndrangheta clans arose.
In the following days, after a good deal more reading , I was able to expand on this theme.
In Southern Italy, there had never been an occupying power which had introduced a modern legal or economic system – unlike the north, which during the 18th and 19th centuries was ruled by the Napoleonic French and afterwards, the Austrian Hungarian empire. Consequently the north had made a rapid transition from feudalism to capitalism. A basic pre-requisite for this transition is an established system of government underpinned by a rule of law, a bureaucracy, and a civic culture.
The south of Italy had failed to make this transition. It had remained a backward feudal area. Historically it had been ruled by one invader after the other – including the Arabs, the Normans and the Spanish, none of whom had introduced a modern system of government. In the meantime, the area had also suffered the ruthless incursions of violent mercenaries from a diverse plumage. In this setting, family clans, an alternative system of loyalties, along with a ruthless addiction to violence, dominated in an area where ‘society’ in a larger sense, had failed to develop.
There was a profound irony involved in the formation of the country called Italy. In 1860, the supporters of the idea of Italy succeeded in bringing to an end the domination of the north by Austria-Hungary (not by force of arms – Austria Hungary came under pressure from the Bismark and Prussia). With the end of the foreign domination of the north, the way was clear to declare Italy an independent nation.
What price independence?
There were 8 different regions with precious little in common besides the language, but underlying this anarchic jig saw of a nation was the division between north and south. The regions in the north were capable of making a rapid transition to a modern, capitalist society. The regions in the south, especially Calabria and Sicily, were irrevocably locked into a past of anarchy, feudalism – and family based crime.
Irony of ironies: if the France and Austria-Hungary had occupied the entire Italian peninsula, Italian unification would have been far less problematic.
There would have been one Italy, rather than two.
There would have been no O.C.G.’s
Walking around the backstreets of the old town of Gioiosa Ionica, I got a historical perspective on the O.C.G´s of Calabria. Travelling around in Sicily, a week later, I got a somewhat more contemporary – and sinister – view.
We were moving along the northern coast. It was a disappointment after Calabria; more densely populated, bigger cities, more roads and far more touristy. At one point we made a deviation and went inland to a small town, probably around the same size as GI, and stayed there two nights. We went on walks in the mountainous countryside following unsealed roads and stayed in a room above a café. In an area where there was 20-30 % unemployment and where most people drove around in old Fiats and Renaults, it was striking to say the least of it, to see men in suits driving around in the latest models Mercedes and BMW’s.
As we travelled across Sicily, I kept up my reading about O.C.G.’s, though quite aware at the same time that my research would remain just that; there was no chance I would ever get the opportunity to talk to a local about crime.
Days before we were due to fly out of Sicily, we met an American-Italian man at breakfast one morning in a B and B in the centre of Palermo. Initially I assumed he was Italian. Whilst operating the coffee machine, he chatted with proprietor of the hotel – who spoke not a word of English – in fluent and accentless Italian. But when we exchanged a few words with him, whilst piling up our plates, he spoke perfect American English.
We sat at the same table and a conversation ensued.
Partly bald, he had a shaved head, and was wearing a loose black T shirt, jeans, and sports shoes.
His parents were originally from Sicily and emigrated to the U.S.after the war. He had grown up in New York. He was an accountant. He had been in Sicily for a year. He was due to fly back to New York but it was only going to be for a visit. For the time being, he was going to stay in Sicily. We talked about the differences between life in the U.S. and Italy, which in itself was an interesting conversation.
‘In the US you’re working flat out and your family life suffers as a result. You can earn a lot, and it can be exciting, challenging, but you develop a tunnel vision and forget about the important things in life. My wife and I divorced and thank God there were no kids involved, but I was pretty close to burn-out. It was time for a life change so I head to Italy to look up the relatives.
In America, work comes first. In Italy the family comes first. When I arrived I was kind of shell-shocked for a while. I stayed with an uncle. He and his family lived at the outskirts of town. Their place was kinda run down. There was a big garden and it was full of olive trees, figs, oranges and lemons; there was a big vegetable garden. You haven’t really had a meal until you’ve sat down with friends and family and taken your time to eat. That’s when you really can enjoy a meal. In the states, food for me was really just a kind of means of keeping going and my time was pretty well calibrated to the minute. It’s kinda weird but I felt a stronger family bond out here than at home.
My parents left Sicily to find a better life for their kids and well, I don’t know whether that worked out so well for them. My brother is in California and one of my sisters is in Texas and the other in Canada and I’ve come back to Sicily. Spread out all over the place. ‘
I saw my chance and I didn’t waste it. I asked him about organised crime.
‘I didn’t come here to work as an accountant not at first anyway. I was pretty happy to do just about anything. I worked in a Gelateria for a while, then a restaurant. Gave me the chance to polish up my Sicilian Italian. The pay was lousy of course. So when I figured I wanted to stay longer, I started looking around for something a bit better. Tourist season was about to start so I got a job leading groups around. It was ok, I met a lot of people from different countries. I don’t remember how it began, but I mentioned to someone that I used to work as an accountant in the U.S. and before I knew it, I was offered at a job at a big tourist hotel/restaurant/shop/café complex.
‘Who owned this place? No one seemed to know. There was a manager and he talked about a man from Messines who was the owner but no one had ever seen him. A man who owned a hotel and restaurant which was being extended but never came to look at it? That didn’t add up.
Sometimes I saw businessmen turn up, so-called representatives for suppliers, maybe they were, but still. These guys were always real friendly, polite, making jokes. I kinda noticed though that they were driving expensive cars and when they went into the manager’s office, the door was closed and no one was to disturb them and I mean no one. Didn’t take too long before I figured that the place was a money laundering machine. The hotel was pretty kind of swank, with chandeliers and luxury rooms and big dining room, like a fucking ball room, nothing spared in this place, but the room rates were definitely on the low side, as if they wanted the place occupied and didn’t give too much of a shit about the place making a return to off- set the investment.
That’s how crime is working here now, it’s a matter of the sums not adding up. Profit and loss and overheads and income, none of it balances up. The heavy stuff, the violence, that lurks around in the shadows, it’s the unstated assumption behind the system. The days of assassinating politicians and police and that kind of shit, its pretty well over. In a straight out contest, the state is going to win.’
I asked about the Mafia tax system.
‘Does every business pay a tax?
He answered: ‘Who knows?
They have this campaign going, the shopkeepers and small businesses put a sticker on the window saying ‘I don’t pay tax to the mafia’, so lots of places put this sticker on their windows and the public likes it, sure, who wouldn’t, but whether you can trust these stickers that’s a whole different ball game. I wouldn’t put it passed them to put the sticker on their window and pay the tax anyway. Doesn’t matter how cynical you get in this place its hard to keep up that’s for sure.
See no one is going to be honest about this. Not even your closest friends or even your family. There’s this wall of silence. There’s no trust. People will take a stand but what they’re doing in their private lives, that might be different. No one wants trouble. You can kinda understand that. They love their families and friends, they’re gregarious, social. Life’s bigger than the sludge.’
We got on to Italian politics.
The present government was a coalition of right wing populist parties from the North and the South. The party from the south was called the ‘Five Star League.’
‘The Five Star League!’ he laughed.
‘They’re in a coalition with a bunch of populists from the north. The only thing they’ve got in common is that they blame Italy’s problems on immigrants and the E.U. Other than that, nothing. The Five Star League represent southern chauvinism, the belief that the south is too dominated by the north; the northern league represents all those northerners who want to secede from Italy because the south is so corrupt and backward. That’s Italy for you, it hangs together somehow but it’s a nuthouse. ‘
A thought occurred to me. I said:
‘There’s no hope of effectively combatting crime in Southern Italy if the southerners are somehow convinced that they are being repressed by the north. Things will only change when their culture changes. The Five Star League represents the very opposite of this. Would it require a great leap of imagination to suppose that it was being financed by crime money?’
‘Sure, why not? After all, national Prime Ministers such as Berlusconi and Andreotti were financed by the crime. ‘
I asked him:
‘Isn’t it hard to live with this, to accept that nothing can be done?’
I went on about the negative effects of organised crime on the economy.
‘Hey look I can’t do anything about Donald Trump. I can’t do anything about the fuckin’ N. R. A. (‘National Rifle Association). These school shootings get all the publicity, sure they do, 10, 20, school kids shot because of some fuck-up student who’s getting bad grades and can’t make out with the girls go outs and buys a semi-automatic, but actually if you look at America, guns permeate the society and a whole lot of people get shot, 1or 2 here, maybe 3 or 4 there, because someone has got a hassle or is screwed in the head or has got a grievance and then they grab a gun…a lot more folks die that way.
Can I change that? Am I gonna try? Email my congressman?
You know America is no better and certainly no less violent than Sicily. Probably more violent I’d say. You go along with the shit and make your own life.
I’m not a hero, are you?’
I had no ready answer to that.
Later I did, but by then, I was on the flight back to Rotterdam.