The new face of the mafia in Italy

After decades of murky state-mafia relations, many Italians are now used to living with mafias.

Quartieri Spagnoli is a part of the city of Naples in Italy, a poor area, suffering from high unemployment and strong influence of Camorra [Getty]
Quartieri Spagnoli in Naples is a poor area, suffering from high unemployment and the strong influence of the Camorra [Getty]

Dozen of cars enter the Carabinieri barracks with lights flashing and sirens wailing, with men wearing balaclavas, hands in the air, clapping, hugging one another. They are celebrating the capture of Ernesto Fazzalari, the fugitive boss of the ‘Ndrangheta, one of the most powerful criminal organisations from the southern Italian region of Calabria.

Even if Fazzalari was considered the second most dangerous criminal in Europe, his arrest didn’t find space on the first page of the next day’s Italian newspapers, which preferred to focus on Brexit and the Spanish elections.

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Such a lack of interest was not apparent when at the beginning of April the son of convicted mob boss Salvatore Riina, head of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, was invited to present his biography on Porta a Porta, the nightly TV show usually mixing starlets, politicians, scandals and crimes.

Fight against the mafia

Discussion about his invitation started even before the programme was recorded in newspapers and TV channels, and continued for weeks.

While the show around the son of the boss entertained Italians, it did not represent an opportunity to discuss the current fight against the mafia.

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While Italian criminal organisations are expanding their territory of influence, with the absence of debate on the issue, many Italians have begun looking at the mafia as a source of entertainment, ignoring or getting used to its presence.

Don Corleone, played by Marlon Brando [Getty] 
Don Corleone, played by Marlon Brando [Getty] 

For two decades, some magistrates, public figures and pressure groups have been trying to warn Italians that it is becoming increasingly difficult to turn a blind eye to the threat the mafias pose.

Roberto Saviano’s 2006 bestseller Gomorra, along with the highly successful TV series that it spawned, had been a turning point for many Italians in understanding the new face of Italian criminal organisations, especially of the Camorra.

Getting to know the mafia better

Saviano’s work helped transform how the mafia was seen in the Italian imagination, while at the same time explaining its recent evolution.

A report showed the widespread infiltration of the different Italian mafias in the economy of the northern region of Emilia-Romagna ...


It is no longer the mafia represented in the romanticised Corleone image, but a new generation of criminals able to expand their range of action, not just with weapons but often through political influence and economic investments.

Earlier this year, a report exposed the widespread infiltration of the  Italian mafias into the economy of the northern region of Emilia-Romagna, mainly through the help of local politicians and corrupted officials.

Despite a recent survey showing that the majority of Italians are now more conscious of this infiltration in the north of Italy, many still chose to ignore the threat and most of the time do not even denounce its presence to authorities.

A structural mafia-state relation

But Saviano’s fictional work as scriptwriter for the TV series Gomorra, besides informing the public of the mafia threat,  has helped transform the mafia into entertainment.

READ MORE: The Mafia’s war on Italy’s journalists

It is a fictionalisation that makes it more difficult to expose the decades of silent relations between the state and the mafia, an issue currently being investigated by Palermo magistrate Antonino Di Matteo.

Roberto Saviano, Italian journalist, writer and essayist [Getty] 
Roberto Saviano, Italian journalist, writer and essayist [Getty] 

While this relationship between state and mafia has been corroborated  by numerous investigations and informants’ declarations, at least since the mid-1990s, not many politicians have firmly backed Di Matteo’s investigation.

For those concerned Italians who have lost their trust in Italian politicians, it represents another symptom of the corruption fo the  Italian political system and a validation of the magistrate’s investigation.  

The magistrate has become the symbol for many of the fight against a deeply corrupt state and has received the support of a growing concerned Italian civil society.

Along with Saviano’s writings, his work since the 1990s has encouraged a movement of people who want to counter the infiltration of the mafia’s tentacles into Italian life and culture.


Nowadays Libera, an association established in 1995 to promote a culture of legality and to counter the mafia, has plenty of branches across the country, as well as programmes in schools and activities to raise awareness on the different faces of the Italian criminal organisations. This would have been difficult to conceive only 10 years ago.

An absent state

A common perception of the real impact of the mafias imagines a line dividing northern Italy from the south.

In the south, ordinary Italians face a chronic state absenteeism and have to deal with bribes, deadly blood feuds, and mafiosi-influenced electoral irregularities. 

Northern Italians, meanwhile, still want to consider the mafia as a problem of the south, because for the moment they mostly have to deal with its gentle face, money laundering.

For how long Italians will be able to keep this imaginary division, while ignoring the current situation concerning the whole country, it is difficult to predict. Mafias have different faces and are not waiting for attention to expand their influence.

Massimo Di Ricco is professor at the Universidad del Norte of Barranquilla (Colombia), a news commentator and journalist who contributes to several publications on Middle East, Latin America, media and global politics.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.