The Sicilian Mafia During the Fascist Era: a Study of Antimafia in an Authoritarian Context

Apologists of Italian fascism use the Mussolini regime’s apparent successes in the years before the Second World War to attempt to portray the fascist era in a more positive light. Often examples such as the draining of the Pontine Marshes or the institution of pensions are pointed out as policy areas where the fascist regime achieved more than it republican successor. However Mussolini’s “destruction” of the Sicilian mafia or Cosa Nostra is the apologist’s example par excellence. The theory posited is that the regime, without the shackles of the rule of law, constitutional rights and due process, was able to effectively destroy Cosa Nostra in just five years between 1924 and 1929. Not only is this almost a totally erroneous theory, but the study of fascism’s attempts to root out the mafia in Sicily also gives us insights into best practice for fighting organised crime in general.


Mussolini’s campaign against the mafia started in 1924, when he appointed the magistrate Cesare Mori as Prefect of Trapani, later in 1925 moving Mori to the prefecture of Palermo. Mori had been the Prefect of Bologna during fascism’s rise to power, and had developed a reputation for having an almost obsessive desire to uphold state power, coming down equally as hard on socialist as on fascist political violence. He was therefore not regarded well by the new regime, but Mussolini saw in him the perfect weapon to reassert central state power in Sicily. “Your excellency” Mussolini wrote to Mori “has carte blanche, the authority of the state absolutely, I repeat, absolutely, must be restored in Sicily. If the laws currently in force hinder you, it will not be a problem, we will pass new laws”. Mori, now a “super-prefect”, with almost unlimited powers across the whole island (ordinary prefects in Italy have authority only over the territory of a single province), created an army of 800 Carabinieri, well armed and equipped with horses, loyal only to him. Mori launches a brutal campaign of repression in the Sicilian countryside, where Cosa Nostra had almost entirely usurped state sovereignty. ‘Freed’ from the need to observe due process, Mori used methods such as torture, hostage-taking and collective guilt. The courts, under his control, send thousands to prison or to internal exile, often with dubious proof. Even he himself admitted that his trials condemn many innocent people. His most brutal action occured in early 1926. Knowing that several members of Cosa Nostra are hiding in the town of Gangi in the province of Palermo, he surrounded the town with his men, besieging it for four days. He then sent his men in, arresting relatives of mafiosi, destroying their property and killing their livestock. Humiliated and fearing for the safety of their relatives (including women and children), several wanted men were forced to give themselves up. The “Iron Prefect”, as Mori became known, summed up his methods succinctly: “If the mafia terrifies, the state must terrify more”.


Mori’s campaign of terror did noticably reduce brigandage and criminality on the island. The regime proudly proclaimed that “No government since the Unification of Italy has ever accomplished what Mussolini has brought about in a few months”. Mori gained national and international fame. However in 1929 he was recalled to Rome and made a Senator. Despite Mussolini’s glowing words of admiration and praise, it was clear he no longer wanted Mori in Sicily.


We cannot be completely sure why Mori was recalled, but it is possible to infer Mussolini’s reasons. These reasons also reveal a fundamental weakness in fascism’s ability to fight the mafia. First of all, it is very likely that Mussolini felt in some way threatened by Mori in terms of popularity. Mori had become extremely popular in Sicily and Italy for his work in “destroying the mafia” and according to some accounts he had let this popularity go to his head. He had ordered his portrait to be hung next to those of Mussolini and the King in every Sicilian school. This was deeply problematic for Mussolini, as the fascist system could only allow Il Duce to be the most popular man in Italy, the only man capable of solving previously unsolvable problems. Secondly, Mori’s brutal methods may have worried even Mussolini, who recalled the Iron Prefect because he wanted some sort of normality to return to the island. Mussolini believed that Mori’s work was done, that Cosa Nostra had more or less been defeated and that state and more importantly, fascist power had been imposed on the island. Furthermore, if the mafia had been defeated, as the regime had claimed, why was Mori still in Sicily, using tactics reminiscent of an occupying army? The historian Giuseppe Tricoli wrote that Mussolini “believed, maybe mistakenly, that Mori’s work was complete, and wanted to avoid further militarisation of the island that could have been seen by the population as a perpetual state of war”. Therefore Mori had to go. Finally, although Mori had only dealt with the “small fish” of the mafia (mostly in the countryside), as historian Arrigo Petacco claims, he had started to worry the fascist hierarchy by going after the urban mafia: the businessmen, politicians, bureaucrats and even churchmen who really gave the orders in Cosa Nostra. His biggest catch was the head of the Fascist Party in Sicily and member of the Grand Council of Fascism, Alfredo Cucco, who was accused of being involved in the mafia and was stripped of his seat in the Chamber of Deputies. The accusation against Cucco worried many fascist leaders and local potentates in Sicily. Mori, who already had enemies within the fascist hierarchy because of his actions as Prefect of Bologna, became a very dangerous person for a certain element of the regime that had in a way vassaled Cosa Nostra and integrated it within the fascist system of power on the island.


Mussolini’s recall of Mori for the reasons explored above begs the question; why did the fascist state want to destroy, or at least be seen to destroy, the mafia? Unlike the Republic that followed it, the fascist regime was not interested in maintaining rule of law or protecting its citizens’ constitutional rights, both of which the mafia, and organised crime in general, fundamentally threatens. In fact fascism was and is completely opposed to these two principles that make up a large part of the foundation of modern, democratic society. Instead Mussolini’s regime felt that its monopoly of power and of violence, essential for a totalitarian state, was being threatened in Sicily by Cosa Nostra. Furthermore, the regime lived off propagandistic stunts, from the Battle for Grain to the costly, counter-productive pegging of the Lira to the Dollar. The campaign against the mafia was simply another attempt by the regime to show that it could do everything the previous liberal regime couldn’t. Therefore we can see the rule of Cesare Mori as a way of forcing local potentates within Sicily (i.e. Cosa Nostra) to recognise the fascist state’s superior power and a propaganda campaign for the population on the mainland.


In many ways it is not at all surprising that fascism and the mafia were able to come to some sort of tacit agreement whereby Cosa Nostra (or at least its urban, upper class top hierarchy) would be integrated into the fascist system of power on the island. Fascism and Cosa Nostra share many defining features: a hierarchical command structure, centralised, absolute decision making, a disregard for human lives, rights and welfare, an obsession with absolute loyalty, honour and tradition and an adherence to the rule of the strongest. These similarities allow the mafia to be brought into the fascist state, impossible in a (well-functioning) democracy. The Iron Prefect was therefore not a tool of destruction sent to absolutely annihilate the mafia, but rather a tool of subordination; showing to the potentates of the mafia just how powerful the fascist state was and therefore how bad an idea it would have been to try and go against it.


As the magistrate Giovanni Falcone pointed out, the mafia is strong when people’s faith in the state’s institutions is weak. This insight points out the flaws in Mori’s campaign. Even if Mori had not been recalled, it is unlikely he would have ever destroyed the mafia. His methods were that of an occupying army, and his repressive actions were not, as noted by the historian Christopher Duggan, accompanied by any social programmes for the local population or strengthening of state institutions. Furthermore Mori erroneously believed that Cosa Nostra was not a unitary organisation, but rather more a “way of life”. These two facts allowed the mafia to “submerge” (as it was later to do in the 1990s again under attack from the state) and return to prominence after the allied landings in 1943.


Therefore, the fascist attempt to root out the mafia from Sicily was doomed to fail from the start. Not just because the fascist state was unable to come up with any other solution other than brute force, but because its hierarchical structures proved too recipient to integrating the mafia. Moreover, lacking any sort of impulse from civil society (not allowed to exist after the fascist consolidation of power) which proved vital from the 1980s onwards in dealing blows to the mafia, the regime was more than happy to allow Cosa Nostra into the fascist vertical of power, providing they accept the ultimate power of Il Duce.


What would be the principle lessons to draw from this investigation? First of all, it is not at all a bad result if someone who everyone suspects of being part of Cosa Nostra is acquitted by an (independent) court. The adherence to due process and the protection of everyone’s constitutional rights does not weaken the democratic state, but rather strengthens it; building its legitimacy by squarely contrasting it with the bloodthirsty and arbitrary methods of the mafia. Second of all, it is not enough simply to concentrate on low-level common criminality to destroy the mafia. The so-called “bourgeois mafia” that corrupts administration, business (especially finance) and politics needs to be addressed as well. Maybe Mori would have gone after this element of Cosa Nostra if he had not been stopped in his tracks, but that would lead us to the unsavoury field of alternative history. Finally, and most importantly, Mori’s campaign, despite all its flaws, showed that if the state threw the resources available to it in a dedicated “war” against the mafia, it could deal organised crime a serious blow. This lesson was learnt in the second half of the 20th century, when the Italian state steadily improved its antimafia structures, dealing a huge blow to Cosa Nostra with the Maxi Trial of 1986-1992, where 360 members of the mafia were convicted, either being jailed for a great deal of time or being forced into hiding, including top bosses Salvatore Riina and Bernardo Provenzano. This was all done according to law and respecting the defendants civil and constitutional rights. Mori, despite all the resources available to him, despite there being no need for him to follow any sort of law enforcement or judicial process, never achieved anything remotely like this decapitation of Cosa Nostra. So therefore not only were his means brutal and inhumane, but they were also not all effective. If people fear the state more than the mafia, then why should people choose the state over the mafia?