Mafias, Migrants, and a New Kind of Graft

Italy's fumbled effort to dilute bad apples by placing them in barrels of good ones failed spectacularly, but it offers lessons about migrants and organized crime for today.
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Italy's fumbled effort to dilute bad apples by placing them in barrels of good ones failed spectacularly, but it offers lessons about migrants and organized crime for today.


Almost inevitably, the arrival of a large body of new immigrants spawns fear among the established population of these new people’s uniquely organized criminal propensities. Think back to Gangs of New York-era Gotham with its Irish ruffians like the Forty Thieves and Dead Rabbits followed by successive waves of criminal "others" from Eastern Europe, Italy, China, Puerto Rico, etc. up to today’s fascination with the "Russian mob" (or the Salvadoran Mara Salvatrucha 13 in other cities).

This is by no means a U.S.-only phenomenon. Britain is currently concerned about the illegalities that may follow unchecked Romanian and Bulgarian immigration, while France can’t decide if it’s more afraid of European Roma or North African Muslims.

Italy too has a concern about immigrants and crime. As professor James Walston has written at his ItalPolBlog:

In Italy since the influx of foreigners, above all over the last decade or so, there are indeed foreign mafias. The regular Ministry of the Interior reports on organised crime have subheadings on “Chinese”, “Maghreb and North Africa”, “Nigeria”, “Russian”, “Romanian”, “Bulgarian”, “South American”, “Turkish” which often work closely with Italian groups.

But the immigrant gangs that presents the greatest organized crime threat to Italy is homegrown: the mafia, camorra, and ndrangheta. And yes, as explained by economists Paolo Buonanno and Matteo Pazzona in the journal Regional Science and Urban Economics, the mafia, to use an all-encompassing term, is a migrant within Italy. Thanks to a post-World War II economic boom and a spectacularly ill-advised government policy, the mobs born and raised in southern Italy were able to transplant—maybe it was more of a grafting—to the north.

Keeping in mind that the unified Italian state is nowhere near as ancient as the peninsula, there’s a big difference between the two halves, with the south seen by progressive northerners—like the breakaway-ish Lega Norda—as backward and corrupt. Here’s a summation from social anthropologist Stavroula Pipyrou, who has studied the south since 2006:

In epochs of abundant prosperity such as the 1950s, special legislation targeting political and economic development in underdeveloped Italian regions, such as Calabria, were ultimately unsuccessful. Money alone was not enough to stimulate sustainable development due to localised mismanagement, over-inflation of the tertiary sector, and a lack of national and international investment interest. ... In South Italy people are accustomed to living in an economia precaria (precarious economy) imbued with organised crime, corruption, political power games, and miseria.

That “abundant prosperity”—Italy’s miracolo economico—was evidenced mostly in central and northern Italy. So from the 1950s until the late 1970s, hordes of miserable southerners, roughly four million of them, decamped to what they hoped would be better times in the north. Much like Dust Bowl Okies in 1930s America, they weren’t necessarily met with open arms by their ostensible compatriots and tended to cluster in communities with their own kind. “Although they belonged to the same country,” the authors write, “there existed many social, cultural and even linguistic barriers between the southerners and the northerners, which may have prevented integration.”

And this prepared the ground for the mafia, a ground about to be seeded by a flummoxed central government:

In this perspective, these migrants’ communities might have provided a not hostile environment for mafia groups to settle. This is not to say that southern migrants provided favorable grounds for mafia to develop, but that it is more likely that mafia-type groups settled where people were accustomed to the presence of such organizations.

The seeds in this case were ex-mafiosi—or at least hopefully ex-mafiosi—transplanted by the government to the morally upright—or at least more morally upright—north in a policy known as confino. After passing a law in 1956, the government forced individuals believed to be connected to the mob—but whom the courts couldn’t or wouldn’t convict—to move to uncorrupted parts of Italy for a year or three. From 1961 to 1974, some 2,918 "made men" made tracks, mostly north, due to confino.

“This policy relied on the naïve assumption that away from their home base and immersed in the civic, law-abiding culture of the North, they would abandon their old ways,” Buonanno and Pazzona say. “Even if the idea of the legislator was that rotten apples would blossom if stored with healthy fruit, as we show in this paper, that belief turned out to be wrong.” Like an invasive species, with no local predators to worry about, the mafiosi boomed.

In fact, as Buonanno and Pazzona note, recent judicial investigations “unambiguously” reveal how thoroughly those bad apples infected the northern barrel (and beyond). In showing this mathematically, the authors examine the growth in mafia-favored crime—extortion, bombings, robbery—as well as kidnappings and murders, in the north. These aren’t ideal measures, since the mafia is known for taking a dim view of rats, and the mob also tamps down its more violent tendencies in the more sedate north.

While their analysis suggests the confino was the predominant driver of the newly organized lawlessness, the authors find that migration and resettlement complemented each other. “Sole mafia leaders would not have been able to recreate entire mafia-like organizations by their own. On the other side, some migrants from the south would not have been able to solve agency problems (i.e., finding a job) without the help from mafiosi.”

While southern immigration is again a front-burner issue in Italy—“deemed the only viable economic option by a considerable amount of people,” according to Pipyrou—that’s not what makes this historical examination worth noting. Instead, it’s how the experience of both dealing with organized crime and migrant populations are handled elsewhere. Confino, for example, isn't as remote an example as it may seem: The United States deported Salvadoran gang-bangers back to El Salvador—only to see them boomerang as the dreaded MS-13

But the real lesson is about migrants. With immigration now a global phenomenon, the authors suggest another wise move—to prevent the rise of wiseguys—would be to better welcome the newcomers into the local scene. Thusly their bad old customs might seem out of place, their willingness to snitch on their own criminals to the authorities might grow, and their need to form proto-gang protective societies would diminish.

Grafts, after all, are meant to combine the best qualities of the rootstock and the new branch to produce better fruit, not bitter fruit.