In June 1924, Mussolini instructed Cesare Mori to eradicate the Mafia from Sicily.
Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
The Sicilian Mafia was less active during the era of Fascist Italy and it was fought by Benito Mussolini’s government. In June 1924, Mussolini instructed Cesare Mori to eradicate the Mafia from Sicily and on October 25, 1925, appointed Mori prefect of the Sicilian capital, Palermo.
In 1924, Mussolini initiated a campaign to destroy the Sicilian Mafia, which undermined Fascist control of Sicily. A successful campaign would legitimize his rule and strengthen his leadership. Not only would a campaign against the Mafia be a propaganda opportunity for Mussolini and the National Fascist Party, but it would also allow him to suppress his political opponents in Sicily, since many Sicilian politicians had Mafia links.
According to a popular account that arose after the end of World War II, as prime minister of the Kingdom of Italy, Mussolini had visited Sicily in May 1924 and passed through Piana dei Greci, where he was received by the mayor and Mafia boss Francesco Cuccia. At some point Cuccia expressed surprise at Mussolini’s police escort and is said to have whispered in his ear: “You are with me, you are under my protection. What do you need all these cops for?” After Mussolini rejected Cuccia’s offer of protection, Cuccia, feeling he had been slighted, instructed the townsfolk not to attend Mussolini’s speech. Mussolini felt humiliated and outraged. Cuccia’s careless remark became the catalyst for Mussolini’s war on the Mafia.
Mussolini’s Minister of the Interior, Luigi Federzoni, recalled Mori to active service and appointed him prefect of Trapani. Mori arrived in Trapani in June 1924 and stayed until October 20, 1925, when Mussolini appointed him prefect of Palermo. Mussolini granted Mori special powers to eradicate the Mafia by any means possible. In a telegram, Mussolini wrote to Mori:
“Your Excellency has carte blanche, the authority of the State must absolutely, I repeat absolutely, be re-established in Sicily. If the laws still in force hinder you, this will be no problem, as we will draw up new laws.”
Mori formed a small army of policemen, carabinieri and militiamen, which went from town to town, rounding up suspects. To force suspects to surrender, they would take their families hostage, confiscate their property, and publicly slaughter their livestock. Confessions were sometimes extracted through beatings and torture. Some Mafia members who had been on the losing end of Mafia feuds voluntarily cooperated with prosecutors to secure protection and exact revenge. Charges of Mafia association were typically leveled at poor peasants and gabellotti (tenant farmers), but generally not leveled at wealthy landowners. By 1928, over 11,000 suspects were arrested. Many were tried en masse. More than 1,200 were convicted and imprisoned, and many others were internally exiled without trial.
In order to destroy the Mafia, Mori felt it necessary to “forge a direct bond between the population and the state, to annul the system of intermediation under which citizens could not approach the authorities except through middlemen…, receiving as a favour that which is due them as their right.” Mori’s methods were sometimes similar to those of the Mafia: He did not just arrest the bandits, but sought to humiliate them as well. Mori aimed to convince Sicilians that the Fascist government was powerful enough to rival the Mafia and that the Mafia could no longer protect them.
Mori’s inquiries brought evidence of collusion between the Mafia and influential members of the Italian government and the Fascist Party. His position became more precarious. Some 11,000 arrests were attributed to Mori’s rule in Palermo, creating massive amounts of paperwork which may have been partially responsible for his dismissal in 1929.
Mori’s campaign ended in June 1929 when Mussolini recalled him to Rome. Although Mori did not permanently crush the Mafia, his campaign was successful at suppressing it. The Mafia informant Antonino Calderone reminisced: “The music changed. Mafiosi had a hard life. […] After the war the mafia hardly existed anymore. The Sicilian Families had all been broken up.”
Sicily’s murder rate sharply declined. Landowners were able to raise the legal rents on their lands; sometimes as much as ten-thousandfold. The Fascist Party propaganda machine proudly announced that the Mafia had been defeated.
Many Mafia members fled to the United States. Among these were Carlo Gambino and Joseph Bonanno, who became powerful Mafia bosses in New York City. In 1943, nearly half a million Allied troops invaded Sicily. Crime soared in the upheaval and chaos. Many inmates escaped from their prisons, banditry returned and the black market thrived. During the first six months of Allied occupation, party politics in Sicily were banned. Most institutions, with the exception of the police and carabinieri were destroyed, and the American occupiers had to build a new order from scratch. As Fascist mayors were deposed, the Allied Military Government of Occupied Territories (AMGOT) simply appointed replacements. Many turned out to be former Mafia members, such as Calogero Vizzini and Giuseppe Genco Russo. They easily presented themselves as fascist dissidents and their anti-communist positions strengthened their bids for political offices. Mafia bosses reformed their clans, absorbing some of the marauding bandits into their ranks.
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Originally published by Wikipedia, 11.25.2014, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.