Italy: a Nation Divided Part 2


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.






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.