Interview with John Dickie

Wed, 07/18/2012 - 08:45

Italy Magazine marks the anniversary of the death of anti-mafia magistrate Paolo Borsellino on the 19th of July 1992 in an interview by Carol King with the internationally recognised expert on the history of Italian organised crime, John Dickie.

Why did you become a mafia-history scholar?

I did a Ph.D. – the classic route to academic life. One of the chapters in [my thesis] is about the mafia in the 1870s, so I had an interest. I then got to a certain part in my career where I decided to write a mainstream book and I was astonished repeatedly by the failure of what has happened in Italy to register outside, in terms of the work of Italian historians on the mafia and magistrates including Paolo Borsellino. Around 2001 I sent an article to Prospect, a current-affairs magazine. The editors sent my article for assessment to an anonymous, self-proclaimed mafia expert, who said that the mafia didn’t exist. It was an astonishing level of ignorance. I felt that there was an important and exciting story to tell the people I saw sitting beside me on the London Underground. So I wrote Cosa Nostra, which is a synthesis of other people’s work, but there was a need to get to grip with the sources and bring them to life. Cosa Nostra opened a lot of doors for me. Since then I’ve been drawn more into the antimafia subculture, and the more I do it, the more important I realise it is.

You’ve written two books about the history of the mafia, Cosa Nostra and Mafia Brotherhoods, and are writing a sequel to the latter due to be published in 2013. How do you research them?

Mafia Brotherhoods - John DickiePeople in Britain assume I sneak into the garden of a mafia boss’ villa and other weird things. Italy has produced loads of documents on mafia history and, as more is being discovered in archives, more shocking details are emerging. I use the same tools any historian uses: archives, police reports, newspapers, books, eye-witness statements…Italians have always had a kind of dialogue with organised crime, whether in Campania, Calabria or Sicily: the police struggle to impose order and so talk to the local mafia boss to help them maintain some sense of control. ‘Co-managing crime’, as they call it, is as old as Italy itself and that means traces get left because losers in mafia wars talk to the police so they can get revenge on their enemies. So the idea of omertà is often wildly exaggerated: it has always broken under the right pressure, and that means there is always material for later historians to work with.

You’re a participant in the Trame anti-mafia literature festival, can you explain what that is?

Mafia Brotherhoods - John DickieThe inspiration behind it is [Sicilian journalist] Lirio Abbate. He is a journalist for l’Espresso, and the only journalist embedded with the police team that arrested [the Cosa Nostra ‘boss of bosses’] Bernardo Provenzano [in 2006]. A year later a bomb was found under Abbate’s car and he lives under armed guard. Treme is partly his response. The festival is held in Lamezia Terme, which is significant: it’s in ’Ndrangheta heartland in south Calabria where mafia authority has the characteristics of a regime. At Treme, the sessions always seem to be full and people have taken to it. Speakers come from far and wide – magistrates, journalists, historians and writers – to talk about organised crime. Lots of young people work as volunteers and Lamezia Terme’s mayor, Gianni Speranza, has been supportive. A public protest against the ’ndrangheta of this kind would have been difficult to imagine just a few years ago.

This months marks the anniversary of the assassination of anti-mafia magistrate Paolo Borsellino, there are still question marks regarding his death, can you explain what they are?

There’s one very obvious scandal around Borsellino’s death: the men who spent two decades behind bars for having planted the bomb that killed Borsellino are innocent and have been released. A ‘man of honour’ Gaspare Spatuzza turned state’s evidence and said [he] planted the bomb, which makes one wonder whether those originally convicted were framed or were the police being merely overzealous?

John DickieThe key to answering the question is in a word often seen in Italian newspaper headlines ‘trattativa’, which means ‘negotiations’. After the death of Giovanni Falcone on the 23rd of May 1992, were there negotiations between the mafia and representatives of the state to see what the mafia wanted to stop killing politicians and magistrates? We know channels of communication with the Sicilian mafia were opened by senior members of a special unit of the carabinieri through a former mayor of Palermo convicted of working for the mafia. It seems they were asking Cosa Nostra, “What do you want to stop bombing?” It may just be the carabinieri unit was being stupid and adopting the traditional practice of exchanging information with the mafia, not realising the state was in a war with organised crime. The big question is, did it go further than that? It may also be that these negotiations were authorised and carried out at a higher level. Some politicians were certainly very afraid, not just because Falcone was murdered on the 23rd of May, but because Salvo Lima was killed in March [the same year]. He had been the mafia’s man in politics since the 1950s, who we know was the son of a mafia killer. Lima was killed and that made a lot of politicians very nervous. One scenario is that politicians simply wanted to save their own skins. But there is also a more sinister possibility. There may have been elements within the institutions who were playing for Cosa Nostra, who acted as intermediaries to get what they wanted. It may well be that, although Borsellino was going to be killed by the mafia anyway, his murder was brought forward by the mafia as he knew about the negotiations and tried to stop them. But this is still uncertain, subject to investigation and trial.

Do you think attitudes have changed towards the mafia in Italy since the deaths of Paolo Borsellino and Giovanni Falcone and, if so, how?

Yes, I do. There is the irrevocable fact that Borsellino and Falcone proved the existence of the Sicilian mafia. The only person heard call into question the existence of the mafia since is Sicilian Marcello Dell’Utri [a politician and senior advisor to media magnate and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi], who was convicted on appeal for working for the mafia for 40 years. The traditional view of the mafia was like that of [mafioso] Gerlando Alberti’s [when he was arrested in 1980]: “Mafia! What is that? A kind of cheese?”

Falcone e Borsellino
Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino

In your book Cosa Nostra you say that the mafia won’t exist forever, do you still believe that?

I referred to a famous quote by Giovanni Falcone and I still believe that. The mafia may have a long history of 150 years, and who can say it doesn’t have another 150 years to go? It doesn’t mean its end is imminent. The mafia is still very powerful but it has never had as difficult a life as it has today.

What do you think of mafia tourism in Sicily – mafia weddings, tours and so on?

My sense is that it’s an American thing. There’s a subculture of admiring mafia bosses that’s relatively harmless in America but I don’t detect that in Italy. So it’s rather embarrassing when these tourists go to Italy without understanding the seriousness [of the mafia] in Sicily. It’s the classic tastelessness of a lot of tourism. But I’m all in favour of anti-mafia tourism like Addio Pizzo’s tourist arm, that’s fantastic.

In 2005 the Italian government made you a Commendatore dell’Ordine della Stella della Solidarietà Italiana (Commander of The Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity), for your work. Can you explain what the award is?

I think it’s like an MBE [Most Excellent Order of the British Empire]. There’s a ceremony at the [Italian] Embassy and I’m allowed to wear a badge on my buttonhole and a sash. There’s a royal charter saying you can wear it in Britain. That’s Italy: you write a book explaining that the country’s run by gangsters and get an award.

John DickieJohn Dickie is Professor of Italian Studies at University College London, England. He is the author of five books, including Delizia!: The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food; Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia, which won the Crime Writer’s Association Award for Non-Fiction; and Mafia Brotherhoods: Camorra, Mafia, ’Ndrangheta - The Rise of the Honoured Societies. His website is and he tweets at @JohnDickie1.

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