John Dickie talk, questions and film, promoting "Mafia Republic"

A Cambridge Journal - Monday 13 May 2013

by Stephen Hewitt

Today UCL academic John Dickie was in Cambridge plugging his latest book "Mafia Republic" at the invitation of the Cambridge University Italian Society. It was introduced as the book's first presentation "world-wide". After a short introductory talk by Dickie, the Italian Society screened his documentary "The Mafia's Secret Bunkers" and then Dickie answered audience questions, of which there were many.

The documentary features secret tunnels and underground rooms in which criminals of the Ndrangheta can live indefinitely while the police are looking for them. This was filmed courtesy of the Italian police. It also includes a wiretap of an apparently grief-stricken telephone call made on 15 August 2006 after 6 men were murdered in Duisburg in Germany and a covert film with audio made by investigators at Polsi on 2 September 2009 which shows a group of men outdoors standing in a circle, - "some of the top bosses of the Ndrangheta standing in a circle as the Ndrangheta tradition dictates" - and speaking "in a quasi-religious code". This was, narrates Dickie, "the highest body of the Ndrangheta in full session". This was a good documentary marred only by being in the typical narcissistic style of recent years which meant that Dickie kept sticking his face into the camera with usual fake, tiresome hyperbole about the scene around him including inanities such as "holy moley". This version was broadcast on BBC2 on 1 May and there is an Italian version which he said was broadcast on 16 April.

Introducing the book, Dickie identified the major criminal organisations in Italy as the Cosa Nostra, the Camorra and the Ndrangheta. He described the Ndrangheta as "the most neglected but now the most powerful of Italy's mafias" and as "Europe's major cocaine dealing organisation". In the documentary, he describes the port of Gioia Tauro in Calabria, "now the biggest container port in the Mediterranean", as the "main source of Ndrangheta wealth and power". He narrates, "It is estimated that no more than 20% of the cocaine coming through the port is intercepted by the authorities but even that is an impressive haul".

His earlier book "Mafia Brotherhoods" told the story from their origins up to the fall of Fascism, he said. This new book "Mafia Republic" continues the story from the foundation of the Republic until the present day.

Dickie said that in the post war period Italy "quite systematically and in some cases deliberately and culpably" forgot painful lessons it had already learned about organised crime. "I trace some of the cases of individual people, particularly members of the judiciary, who deliberately forgot what they had learned about organised crime - essentially for political reasons, for reasons associated with the political settlement, the cold war settlement in Italy."

In this post-war period, contrary to the traditional view, these three organisations did not change , he said. "They remain what they were - in the case of particularly Ndrangheta and Cosa Nostra - they remain what they were, what they are and have always been: they are freemasonries of criminals, freemasonries of murderers and they continue to work in the same way with essentially the same methodology."

Later Dickie mentioned freemasonry again in reply to an audience question of whether the mafia might after a few generations include professionals like lawyers. He answered that in the 1870s the mafia already included professionals. There was an investigation into the Sicilian mafia in the 1870s which concluded this. They already in the 1870s had magistrates. "Mafia is a freemasonry of crime, as I tried to explain it earlier." He said that his grandfather was a freemason in Edinburgh and he laid cobblestones for a living. At the same time freemasonic organisations might include Dukes. His point was: "Masonic organisations traverse social class boundaries and mafia organisations do exactly the same thing."

He elaborated further on the freemasonic connection after his presentations when someone asked him about the P2 masonic lodge. His reply mentioned that that freemasonry is very strong in Calabria and "that's who the Ndrangheta likes to do business with". He added that the structure of the mafias comes from the contact with freemasonic organisations during the unification of Italy. He said that many of the conspirators campaigning to unite Italy were organised in freemasonic style organisations. And they also needed "revolutionary muscle", so they recruited the "toughest criminals". From this the criminals learned to organise themselves in masonic style organisations. He concluded by saying that freemasonry is THE place where there has always been a link between criminal organisations and the ruling elite.

Post war the mafias concentrated on particular industries: concrete, construction, tobacco smuggling (which "played a crucial transitional role"), kidnapping and narcotics.

Dickie identified the 1980s and early 1990s as a phase in mafia history "in which large parts of southern Italy were heading towards the status of becoming a narco state - effectively a narco state tacked onto the bottom of Europe."

The corresponding violence "culminated in the murders of Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in 1992". Since that year, which also marks the dissolution of the First Republic, the post-war political settlement, we have been in a "new uncertain era of Italian mafia history", which is difficult to write about "because there are so many things that we are still finding out".

As an example of this, Dickie said, "Borsellino's murder remains substantially unsolved. The man convicted of actually planting the car bomb that killed him and five members of his escort has recently been released from prison, it having been proved that he did not commit the crime and he was framed and helped to frame others."

A new trial is now beginning. "Well the least of the questions is how that happened, how that was allowed to happen and more importantly whether that cover-up and the murder of Borsellino himself was the symptom of, a by product of a kind of deal struck between Cosa Nostra and members of representatives of the state, senior carabinieri and politicians."

Later I asked Dickie if he had written about or was interested in the CIA relationship to the mafia. He gave a lukewarm answer in which he said that during the cold war all sorts of "murky stuff" went on and that he had written about the CIA but was more interested in the relationship between the mafia and the Italian state. He said you could go "bonkers" looking at this, mentioned "dietrologia" and "conspiracy theories" and said that certainly there were conspiracies (using the past tense) but this occupied a "disproportionate" amount of the public discussion. When the subject of P2 was brought up I asked him whether he was familiar with the work of Daniele Ganser and he said no.

During audience questions one man said he was "overwhelmed" by the courage shown by Dickie. Dickie replied by saying that it was easy to be brave when you are surrounded by "an escort of machine-gun wielding carabinieri while filming". He said that the people who are really brave in this are people like the journalist Peppe Baldessarro, the magistrates, people who live under armed guard, and the "amazing Gaetano Saffioti, entrepreneur that we interviewed."

Introducing the documentary, Dickie said that one of the nice things was to be able to publicise the work of the magistrates and the carabinieri "with whom I've had a long dialogue about the Ndrangheta as part of my research".