Why Mafias Kill. Exploring homicides in Southern Italy

Well, this should be a blog on Italian and European defence and security, and organized crime has been increasingly on the radar, both of institutions and scholars dealing with security issues. Most attention has been to so-called transnational organized crime and the possible responses to its rise, both in Europe and the US. Another strand of studies, possibly epitomized by the excellent Federico Varese’s Mafias on the Move, have dealt on organizational features and operational modes of different mafia groups that have their base on a specific territory (and might, or might not, extend their range of action). If the problem one wishes to understand is why and how organized criminal groups (and the “mafia” sub-species) use violence, Mexico comes immediately to the mind, with thousands of deaths in the past few years in what are actual “wars”. Or, if looking back to the recent past, one might consider Italy, where mafia violence often emerged in chronicles because of intense inter-group fighting and occasional dramatic attacks to judges and other State representatives (or, more rarely, “terrorist” attacks against civilian targets). Quite surprisingly, there is not much research on the topic (a notable exception is here).

A recent paper by Andrea Petrella, Salvatore Sberna and Venus in Arms’ Francesco Moro looks at mafia homicides perpetrated in Southern Italy – where mafias (namely Cosa Nostra, Stidda in Sicily, Camorra in Campania, ‘ndrangheta in Calabria and Sacra Corona Unita in Apulia) are traditionally deep-rooted –  in the period 1983 – 2008 (you can find an early version of the paper for download here).

The article contains some multivariate statistics that you can read if you like, but three statements deserve particular attention.

1. Notwithstanding widespread pictures (yes, movies to begin with) of violence constituting an essential and defining characters of mafias, the actual use of violence is constrained in space and time. Figure 1 below shows how the intensity of violence (defined by the number of homicides over the population in a given province) widely varies over space, suggesting that there might be contextual and/or organizational factors that can account for that variation. Figure 2 similarly shows variation in time in the region of Campania (where Camorra’s presence has been made famous by Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah)

Figure 1. Where mafias kill



Figure 2. When mafias kill


2. Mafia violence often is the outcome of rivalries among groups competing for establishing themselves as dominant in a given area. At least in the Italian South, by “area” we have to intend a territory (elsewhere, interestingly, criminal groups can compete for functional control of specific business sectors, both “legal” and illegal). Homicides, then, mostly target other Mafiosi.

3. One of the key factors that lead to increasing tension, and then competition and violent conflict, among different mafia groups, is the lack of available channels to achieve its objectives. As “the Mafia exists side by side with the State”, political parties play a role in shaping access to the political system, which is essential for mafia groups, as such access can guarantee business opportunities in public works or licenses, as well as “favourable” law enforcement. Thus, “In a competitive criminal market, when Mafia groups find limited ways to access the political arena, they have strong incentives
to revert to violence in order to compete with rival criminal groups. Violence will then be higher in areas where the vote is concentrated in one or two political parties and the level of political fragmentation is low”. The fragmentation of the political arena, in other words, can lead to reduced levels of violence as access to government is available for more groups.

Further research on the theme is on the way. Stay tuned for news.


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