170 Years of Taboo and Assumptions: Italy’s Mafia, From its Creation to its Criminalization

Sign in Venice, Italy reads “Stop Mafia” “Venice is Sacred” in English and Italian
Cover photo: Richardjo53, 2014

2nd-year Student in the Middle East-Mediterranean Campus of MENTON

On behalf of the student association Understanding the Mafia / Comprendre la Mafia

Law n. 646, article 416-bis, better known as the law Rognoni – La Torre passed on 13 September 1982 is the first law ever passed in Italy, criminalizing the mafia 1, 5, 8, 9, 10, 11. This is how the law defines the mafia:

Article 416-bis – Anyone related to a mafia-related association is punishable under this law. Mafia related associations are composed of at least three people and which make use of intimidation and establish the principle omertà (the silence of those that do not denounce the crimes committed) within the population, as to commit their crimes. They are able in such way to manage or control in an indirect or direct manner economic activities, grants, authorizations, contracts and public services either to gain profit or unjust advantages for oneself or others. If the association is found to be armed, defined by its ability to use weapons or explosive materials, the punishment augments. Lastly, all materials and means used to commit the crime will be confiscated 1, 5, 8, 9, 10, 11.

The mafia however, is thought to have originated in 1812 2, 3, 7, 10, 12, 13. It took the Italian State exactly 170 years to define and penalize a criminal organization that has reigned in parallel or maybe even within the State. While 170 years in comparison with world history might seem insignificant, it is precisely those 170 years that have allowed for the mafia, through intimidation, to establish a culture of omertà and expand, setting their branches around the world. It is through the culture of omertà, in which intimidation makes it so that on one denounces what they see and know, that the mafia becomes a taboo and misunderstandings, prejudices and stereotypes arise. 

A sign hangs from balcony in Castellammare, Sicily, Italy with the words “No to the Mafia” in Italian
Irene Segone, 2020. All Rights Reserved.

When no one talks about the mafia, assumptions are ever so frequent and people start to imagine all sorts of things trying to give form to this mysterious phenomena. If we start from the beginning and look at the etymology of the word mafia, it is polysemous and uncertain, as many theories arise. Maybe it comes from the scream ‘Mia figlia’ (‘My daughter’) of a mother whose daughter had been raped or maybe it comes from the Arabic words Mu’afak, meaning protection of the weak or Maha, meaning a cave of rocks. No one really knows. It only became first written in 1863 in a theatrical play but then it was used as an adjective, to characterize the way of life of those incarcerated 2. While today the most currently used definition refers to the one given by the law n. 646 of 1982, the phenomenon of the mafia still remains mysterious and misunderstood. Even in Italy, even the ones that have studied the phenomenon in depth cannot give a complete definition and understanding of the mafia. 

When no one talks about the mafia, assumptions are ever so frequent and people start to imagine all sorts of things trying to give form to this mysterious phenomena.

The misinterpretations and confusion around the significance of the term, however, is especially dangerous in foreign countries, where the mafia is imagined to be a criminal organization that is romanticized by the movies that first talk about the phenomena, such as ‘The Godfather’, produced and broadcasted in the United States in 1972. The academic Fabrizio Fioretti in fact notes that ‘The Godfather’ conceptualized the mafia as meaning the respect for the family, being respected, vengeance as justice and a system of rules and discipline 2. While it is true that these characteristics are not completely the fruit of the producer’s imagination, it nonetheless becomes stereotyped and alters the image of the mafioso, neglecting the harm and atrocities committed by the mafia. The diffusion of such romanticized stereotypes cannot however fully be blamed onto the cinematic industry and foreign interpretation of such fragile issues as those became the only source of information for people that were not witnesses of the mafia. It is partially then also the Italian State that should be blamed, due to its late criminalization of the mafia. In the midsth of this long wait for the criminalizatin of the mafia, one must also never forget the number of deaths and innocent victims killed by the mafia, their bombings and useless wars between clans, ‘ndrine or cosche

Since the law n. 646 has been passed in 1982, however, more dialogue has been undertaken about the mafia and a new process has been initiated, aiming at building up the cultura della legalità, culture of legality, in which the mafia is not accepted by society and is denounced. Many projects have been done to sensibilize both Italians and more generally, people worldwide, many of which fall under the support of the association Libera, aimed precisely at building this culture of legality. On an individual basis people have dedicated their lives to fighting against the mafia. In particular, Letizia Battaglia, who has produced a collection of photographs documenting the mafia in the 1970s through 1990s, which can be analyzed today to get a better understanding of what the mafia is and does, or at least, what it was and did, as the mafia is in constant evolution. While she is an example of an admirable advancement in the fight against the mafia, it is a fight that still has a long way to go. But as Giovanni Falcone, Italian judge who spent most of his life in his job to overthrow the Sicilian Mafia, once said: “La mafia è un fenomeno umano e come tutti i fenomeni umani ha un principio, una sua evoluzione e avrà quindi anche una fine (“The mafia is a human phenomenon and like every other human phenomenon it has a starts, an evolution and hence will also have an ending”). The only thing that is left for us now is the continuation of the fight until each and every structure and member of the mafia is dismantled.  ▣


1. Chiabrando, Danilo. “Mafia ed economia: un intreccio pericoloso”. Paramond. pgs. 1-5. https://it.pearson.com/content/dam/region-core/italy/pearson-italy/pdf/diritto-economia/area-giuridico-economica/proposte-didattiche/approfondimenti/AREE%20DISCIPLINARI%20-%20PARAMOND%20-%20GIUREC%20-%202009%20-%20PDF%20-%20Mafia%20economia%20intreccio%20pericoloso.pdf

2. Fioretti, Fabrizio. “Il termine “mafia””. Izvorni znanstveni rad Original scientific paper, 2011. pgs. 64-77. file:///C:/Users/Irene/Downloads/fabrizio_fioretti_tabula_9_64_77_str.pdf

3. Giannini, Fabio. “La mafia e gli aspetti criminologici”. Centro Ricerca Sicurezza e Terrorismo, Pacini Editore Srl 2019, pgs. 4-49. http://www.dirittopenaleglobalizzazione.it/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Giannini.pdf

4. “La legislazione antimafia – cenni storici”. Avviso pubblico. https://www.avvisopubblico.it/home/home/cosa-facciamo/informare/osservatorio-parlamentare/attivita-legislativa/leggi-approvate/la-legislazione-antimafia-cenni-storici/

5. “LEGGE 13 settembre 1982, n. 646”. La Camera dei deputati ed il Senato della Repubblica. 1982. pgs. 1-15 http://www.fe.camcom.it/attivitaistituzionali/albi-ruoli-licenze/normativa/legge-n.-646-del-03-09-1982-disposizioni-in-materia-di-misure-di-prevenzione

6. “Legge 31-05-1965, n. 575 – Disposizioni contro la mafia.”  Banche Dati Giuridiche – IPSOA. 1965. pgs. 1-15. file:///C:/Users/Irene/Downloads/l.%2031_maggio_1965%20n.%20575_289_1_0_c_rnc.pdf

7. Leone, Barbara. “Storia della mafia: dalle origini ai giorni nostri”. Mondadori Media S.p.A. 2011.  https://www.studenti.it/mafia.htm

8. Maugeri, Dario Pietro. “Sociologia della mafia: paradigmi incerti visti da dentro”, diritto.it. 21 june 2018. https://www.diritto.it/sociologia-della-mafia-paradigmi-incerti-visti-dentro/

9. Montante, Susy and Saso, Raffaella. “Agromafie 3° Rapporto sui crimini agroalimentari in Italia”. Eurispes, january 2015. pgs. 11-223, https://www.osservatorioagromafie.it/wp-content/uploads/sites/40/2017/02/3%C2%B0-Rapporto-Agromafie.pdf.

10. Nicaso, Antonio. “La mafia spiegata ai ragazzi”. Arnoldo Mondadori Editore S.p.A. 2010, ogs. 9-163.

11. Ortega, Michael. “Codice penale, art. 416-bis”. Storia della camorra,  Agenzia Toscana Notizie, Regione Toscana, September 2019. pgs. 23-26. file:///C:/Users/Irene/Downloads/Relazione%20finale_12_interattivo.pd

12. Sulli, Mirko. “Filorosso sulla mafia: storia e filosofia dello stato dentro lo stato”. Dai Colli Fiorentini, 15 january  2017. https://www.dcfnews.it/filorosso-sulla-mafia-storia-filosofia-dello-dentro-lo/

13. Veltri, Filomena. “Unità didattica – La mafia in Italia”. 2015-2016. 

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