By Thom L. Jones
Omertà: Good is he who sees and is silent.
Old Mafia saying.
Sicily is an intricate web of favors done in exchange for other favors owing among people of all class, from the humblest to the highest. The trick is to never over-estimate actual power in order to occupy a place to be defended, and only pursue aims that are achievable. Disaster of all kinds can result from a miscalculation, including death, which is why in Western Sicily the number of murders is proportionately far higher than in any other parts of Italy. (1)
At the very heart of this web lies sistema del potere, the system of power, that governs and controls almost all the actions that feeds the engine that drives the economy through an interface made up of society on the one hand and on the other, the Mafia.
For a Mafioso, risk lies in his choice of words, gestures or even in the act of silence. Communication and its mode of expression is a risk that cannot be avoided, especially since messages are fundamental to the existence of the Mafia. (2)
Judge Giovanni Falcone (right) had been born, and grew up, in a Palermo quarter, La Kalsa, that was Mafia territory from way back. Into the 19th Century, perhaps even before that. He knew about the system long before he came to fight it.
At school, he had class-mates who would grow up to be Mafiosi, like Tommaso 'Don Massino' Spadaro, who came to be a major power in the smuggling world of the Mafia in the 1960s and 1970s. Falcone played with them as a child and grew up to hunt them and prosecute them as a judiciary.
“I was born in the same neighborhood as many of them. I know the Sicilian spirit well. From an inflection in the voice, a wink of the eye I can understand much more than from a long statement. The interpretations of signs, of gestures, of messages of silence, is one of the principal activities of the man of honor.”(3)
Is it a coincidence or perhaps a metaphor that Italy was the first western country to establish a university chair in semiotics-the science of signs?
“A true man,” as Virgilio Titone pointed out, is “represented by his silence, by the presence of his power and being part of a group, who like him, operate in the shadows.”(4)
The fear of death propels the Mafia to communicate in codes. At the onset of fear, the codes of silence, ambiguous, cryptic and curt languages take form. (2)
In a society such as the Mafia, silence becomes important on many different planes.
They have their own adjudicator, omerta, the actual vow of silence all inductees have to swear by.
This defines relationships within the framework of their unique alliance, allowing them to navigate a secret world that only they have access to. The citizens they work with maintain their own levels of silence in order to safeguard themselves against death or revenge. Then there are the politicians and government bureaucrats who keep silent in order to protect their economic arrangements within a world more gray than black and white.
Omertà is one of the rules. There are many more that Mafiosi swear by as they enter into their covenant with the secret society that will govern and control their lives forever. The rules are fine, but a utopia. They're a bauble that everyone pretends to admire while running drugs, murdering, stealing and doing as they please. Mafiosi have a whole lot of rules that, in effect, they violate continually. (5)
Sicily is also a land of complex cultures, often requiring the mastery of code reading to navigate labyrinthine channels, using pauses and gestures that often speak a lot louder than words.
Ambiguity and uncertainty breakdown straightforward communication and like the sub-culture of the Mafia, the driving force is the foundation of fear. Everything is a message; everything is full of meaning and is related to another detail in a logical pattern for a man of honor.
The Mafioso practice understatement about their power, to a degree, much more associated with say the English than the Italian mentality. “It is strange,” wrote Giuseppe Alongi in 1887, “that in that hot and colorful country where ordinary speech is so honey-sweet, hyperbolic and picturesque, that of the Mafioso is curt, restrained and decisive.”(6)
The spoken word is not the only form of communication that can be truncated.
Bernardo Provenzano (right) the titular head of the Sicilian Mafia for many years, the unquestioned boss of bosses according to Pietro Grasso, Anti-Mafia procurator, (7) spent most of them in exile, moving, ever moving, across Sicily, sometime into the mainland of Italy, and at least once, into Europe.
In order to control his criminal empire he had to communicate to his aides and followers and for security reasons, created his own special method of corresponding, his own unique code that indicated his need for action, reaction and urgency.
It became known as pizzini. They jokingly called them “Mafia Postcards.”
A generic Sicilian word meaning literally small paper piece, Provenzano sent these classified messages to help him manage a hugely complex business organization. They became known as Il Codice Provenzano.
The messages acted as accomplices of Mafia activity, revealing the transactions of organized crime. (2)
Provenzano created his messages on an old-fashioned typewriter, a Brother AX 410, then folded them in an intricate pattern about the size of a small matchbox, and sealed the tiny bundle in tape.
They were dispatched through a complicated series of couriers until they reached their given destination. His coded use of language indicated, on the one hand, an ignorance of basic grammar and spelling, but in mixing the Italian and Sicilian vernacular together he created something unique-the transfer of pronunciation into writing.(2)
In the language of the Mafia, what is important is in understanding the meaning by interpreting not only how things are expressed but what is not expressed. Nothing in this process is void of meaning. Interpreting it, however, is fraught with ambiguity, as is the management of information which can cause serious problems especially for those who are undisciplined or too ambitious. The ones who take a step longer than their legs.
When Provenzano was first imprisoned, after his arrest in 2006, the warden of the high-security unit said, “When he came here, the first days there was total silence because of the code. We don't know what it means. It's not a public code. There's no book we can look in.” (8)
Had there been a book, it's dust jacket would have declared a title something like The Meaning of Power. Within the Mafia, the perception of power is power, which is why Mafiosi are obsessed with the problems of reputation and prestige. (9)
The basic structure of the Mafia is based on the cosca and the parito-the clan and its network of connections into politics. From these elements feed the resources which feed the Mafia: the ability to use force and violence to maintain internal discipline and control its target markets, and its ability to influence politicians and neutralize law enforcement and the process of justice. (10)
Overriding everything, every act, every thought, every fantasy is the incipient presence of death to the point where the banality of evil becomes something that somehow, translates as if not acceptable, then some way, inevitable, reduced to mere criminal pathology. (11)
“The important thing,” according to Antonino Calderone, a major pentito or informer, against the honored society, who turned and became a government witness in April 1987, “is precise information. Within the Mafia, there must circulate accurate and exact information. Otherwise no one understands anything anymore, and there is great confusion.” (5)
Also, like in some Chinese dialects, the same sentence can have more than one meaning and may be used for many different occasions, creating its own level of confusion if not interpreted correctly.
The road to the truth can be long and indirect.
Judge Falcone believed the language of the Mafia to be an acquired culture. Messages can appear to be indirect while containing substance that is quite the opposite. A subtle change of voice, some kind of gesture, a facial expression, words added or subtracted
“I was talking to Buscetta about a murder; he was convinced it was a Mafia assassination, I was less sure.
Buscetta said, ‘I want to tell you a little story.’ I understood at once that he wanted to tell me something indirectly.
‘A guy has an infection in an unfortunate place, on his buttocks. He goes to the doctor and says to him, ‘Doctor, I was stepping over some barbed wire, I got scratched, and now the wound is infected.’ The doctor examines him and declares, ‘As far as I can tell, it doesn’t seem to have been caused by barbed wire.’ The other replies, ‘Doctor, I swear the infection occurred as I said, but you cure it as if it was what you think…’
Buscetta’s message: ‘You don’t believe this is a Mafia crime, but I am sure it is. Investigate it just as if it were a Mafia crime.” (3)
Tommaso Buscetta became an informer in July 1984, after most of his family-around thirty-three relatives and two of his sons-were murdered by his Mafia enemies. Falcone’s debriefing of Buscetta set in motion the Palermo Maxi trial of 1986-7, which saw over 400 Mafia suspects tried and many convicted and imprisoned. It gave Falcone a real grasp of the human tangibility within Cosa Nostra. He said Buscetta was like an interpreter who allowed him to finally speak and understand the language of the Mafia.
Buscetta revealed to Giovanni Falcone: “In my world, no one ever asks anything, but if someone wants to, he can make you understand with just a sentence, a movement of the head, a smile…even with silence.”(12)
Another significant informant, Salvatore Contorno, confirmed that if silence refers to the absence of verbal communication, it leaves room for messages in the form of actions, eye contact, and gestures. Silence, as the absence of both verbal and visual signs, can also convey a message revealing that which is left unexpressed. “In a world like ours,” says Contorno, “where the less one speaks the better, half a sentence suffices to indicate perfectly well.”
The silence and absence of traditional communication typical of the secret society are evidenced through its use of symbols and gestures rather than the custom of spoken and written word, In the need to maintain strict secrecy about its nature to guarantee communication process, each gesture, look and signal is loaded with references: it is precisely the need to limit the use of words that makes meaning especially dense in messages from inside the criminal association.(13)
Being a Mafioso is a matter of style, according to author Diego Gambetta. In the way he talks, stingy with words, affecting understatement, emitting oblique messages, elusive threats, allusive signs, sententious metaphors.(12)
In their precarious environment, where a simple glance can herald slaughter on demand, a Mafioso, who lives a life of constant danger, needs to understand the meaning of even the most apparently irrelevant clues and to interpret them through a constant effort at decodification. (9)
The Mafia also has its own visual code of communication, especially when sending a message, a warning to others. A corpse found with a rock stuffed into the mouth means betrayal; genitals slashed off indicate the victim was a sexual offender, however, when stuffed into the mouth, this confirms an adulterous relationship with the wife of a Mafioso. A prickly-pear pad in the pocket shows he was stealing Mafia money.
It rarely commits words to paper. There is no “official history” of the Mafia, no narrative or chronicle, no manuscript handed down through generations of converts, passing on its fable or lore.
However, from time to time, the unbroken rule is broken.
Pippo Calderone, the boss of the Catania branch, drew up rules and regulations to form a regional commission, in 1975, according to his brother Antonino.
In 1997, police raiding the basement of a property owned by John Gotti Junior, son of the boss of the infamous New York Gambino Mafia crime family, discovered a written list of men nominated to be “made” into the family.
Police in Sicily, arrested Salvatore Lo Piccolo in November 2007. It was believed he had taken over as number one boss following the arrest of Provenzano. In his briefcase, they found lists of 160 merchants-bars, cafés, restaurants, supermarkets, retail shops- who had been paying pizzo to his family. And a ten commandment decree on a code of conduct for men of honor from swearing eternal allegiance to the creed to not appropriating money from other families. A cheat list for induction ceremonies, no doubt.
Alexander Stille perceived Mafiosi were used to living in a world where silence is golden and preferred to communicate as much by gestures, looks, and body language as by words. In order to be opaque to the outside world, however, the Mafia needs to remain internally transparent. (14)
If silence is golden in this strange world, truthfulness is almost as precious. Within the organization, there has always been an obligation to be veracious.
According to Gambetta, “Whenever one man of honor recognizes another, he must be truthful, and his word has the value of a contract.”(12)
Buscetta was even more forthright:
“In Cosa Nostra there is an obligation to tell the truth, but there is also great reserve. And this reserve, the things that are not said, rule like an irrevocable curse over all men of honor. It makes all relationships profoundly false, absurd.” (15)
Honor also involves the obligation to tell the truth to other men of honor and, therefore, the notoriously elliptical way in which Mafiosi talk. Giovanni Brusca (right) relates that, when he visited American Mafiosi in New Jersey, he was appalled by how talkative his hosts were by comparison. A dinner was held to welcome him, yet on entering the restaurant Brusca was astonished to see that the Mafiosi had all brought their mistresses and that they chatted openly about which Families various mobsters belonged to. “In Sicily, none of us would dream of talking that way in public. Or even in private. Everyone knows what needs to be known.”
It's what’s appealing about the Mafia, they take the unpredictability out of crime. It's a given who's going to kill you and why. Getting robbed on a weekly basis is a certainty. In Sicily, it's called pizzo, the age old Mafia extortion. (8)
Brusca claims he was so embarrassed that he made his excuses and left. “It’s a different mentality,” he concluded about his American experience. “They live out in the light of day. They only commit murders in exceptional circumstances. They never carry out massacres like we have in Sicily.”(15)
Sometimes, the burden of silence and the pressure of maintaining a life determined by rules, gestures and signs, that are not only inflexible but also sometimes impossible to control, becomes too much.
Nino Gioè was one of the men who arranged and participated in the slaughter at Capaci, when Judge Falcone, his wife, and their bodyguards, were blown up by a massive bomb as their motorcade travelled down the freeway into Palermo from the international airport.
In July, 1993, while in prison, Gioè committed suicide. A rare occurrence among men of honor. Although not unique.
Francesco Pastoia killed himself in January, 2005, while in Reggio Emilia prison, after being told by officials that they had recorded him bad mouthing Provenzano and disclosing details of the pizzini. In December 2008, Gaetano Lo Presti, boss of the San Lorenzo district of Palermo, hung himself with his belt while incarcerated in Palermo's Pagliarelli Prison. In November, 2013, Vincenzo Mignacca, from Messina, on the run for five years, shot and killed himself when cornered by the police near Siracusa.
Gioè's suicide note is a sad indictment on what it is like to live and die by a code of honor founded on a moral compass that could never know for certain its appropriate true north:
“This evening I will find the peace and serenity that I lost some seventeen years ago [at initiation into Cosa Nostra]. When I lost them, I became a monster. I was a monster until I took a pen in hand to write these lines. Before I go, I ask for forgiveness from my mother and from God because their love has no limits. The whole of the rest of the world will never be able to forgive me.”
People don't talk about the Mafia in Sicily. But they talk a lot about friends. Friends and men of honor are code words used by Mafioso. Deliberately vague. Euphemisms that demand insider knowledge and application. Cosa Nostra equals Our Thing which equals The Mafia. È La Stessa Cosa- 'he's the same thing we are.' when one Mafioso introduces another to a third.
A look, a gesture is always pregnant in the world of the Mafia. In 1987, Toto Riina the capo of Corleone, and perhaps then, the boss of all Sicily's Mafia, met with, and kissed Giulio Andreotti, one of Italy's major political figures, on the cheek.
Read: 'A Kiss is Just a Kiss'
In the context where shaking hands was a formal alternative, this kiss, as witnessed by Baldassare Di Maggio, an aide to Riina, was seen as a sign of respect for Uncle Giulio. A sign as clear as a spoken word that he was part of their world. This case came to haunt the political history of Sicily as its judiciary tried for years and failed, to convict Andreotti of a series of crimes involving murder, and his link into the Mafia.
In 2013, while in Opera high-security prison, Milan, with Puglia crime boss, Alberto LoRusso, Salvatore Riina was secretly recorded in the exercise yard admitting to the meeting, and the kiss with Andreotti.
Mafia killings have also to be decoded. Stefano Bontade and Salvatore Inzerillo, mob bosses murdered in 1981 at the start of the Second Mafia War, marked a milestone in the Mafia's transformation from a pluralistic amalgam of many, equally powerful clans, into a dictatorship under Salvatore Riina and his infamous Corleonesi cartel. The murders were the result of more than just spite or revenge. They were the harbinger of a major earthquake that would rock not only the Mafia, but Sicily and ultimately, Italy, itself. It was some years before all this would become apparent.
Eleven years later, the assassination of Judges Falcone and Borsellino seemed to demonstrate the Mafia's total invincibility.
Buscetta saw it differently.
The hidden signs, to him, were obvious. He perceived it as the Mafia fighting for its survival, and its involvement in this double massacre was a subtle interpretation of the true state of the Mafia's condition. Thousands of Army troops poured into Sicily to assist police in the hunt for the killers. A moral revolt exploded in Palermo in a series of angry protests, creating a state of almost constant ferment. Within eight months, Riina was caught, and gradually those who had planned and carried out the killings of the judges were arrested and tried. After July 19th, 1992, there were there were only two Excellent Cadavers, a term used to distinguish the assassination by the Mafia of prominent government officials and high profile figures. There had been at least fifty since 1970.
If the Mafia as a social phenomenon, had attracted the attention of the media-news reports, articles in newspapers, television coverage- until the early 1960s, it was never a subject of interest to the book-reading public of Italy. That was to change because of the impact of one author.
Peter Robb, the Australian writer, in his book, “Midnight in Sicily,” refers to the work of Leonard Sciascia, Italy's foremost novelist of the Mafia (of his time) and probably its first gialli writer, as “the master of the unsaid, the missing fact, the eliminated detail, the unstated revelation.” (16)
His book, The Day of the Owl, is recognized as a mesmerizing description of the Mafia at work. The first Italian fiction to deal with the Mafia experience in detail, although Tomasi di Lampedusa in his epic novel The Leopard, published in 1958, three years before Sciascia's book, examines the Mafia problem existing in Sicily in the 1860s.
In the book, first published in 1961, Sciascia wrote about "an organization whose very existence virtually no one else at the time was willing to acknowledge."
In The Day of the Owl, courageous policeman Captain Bellodi, attempts – and ultimately fails – to expose not only the Mafia's murderous activity but also its high-level connections in politics and bourgeois Sicilian society. Questioning locals, he is told by his sergeant to give it up: "It's like squeezing tripe; nothing comes out."
The Mafioso behind the killing which dominates and forms the axis of the story, tells Bellodi:
“Truth is at the bottom of a well: look into it and you see the sun or the moon; but if you throw yourself in, there's no more sun or moon: just truth.”
A classic signal: a tell, a nudge or a wink to lead the unsuspecting into a cul-de-sac of obfuscation.
The Mafia is not only a secret to the outside world, but also within itself: it discourages full knowledge of the facts and creates obstacles to the circulation of information. It is the realm of incomplete speech. (17)
After the Catholic Church, the Mafia is historically the longest-lasting institution in Italy.(18)
The affinity between the Catholic Church and the Mafia is so labyrinthine, burdened with stereo-types, and fallacy, that it is impossible to figure out what is the truth and what is the myth. The only thing that is certain is that they both side with power.
Myth is the hidden point of every story, the buried part, the region that is still unexplored because there are as yet no words to enable us to get there. Myth is nourished by silence as well as word (19)
There is no such thing as chance in Sicily. Not an afterthought gesture, not an unconsidered word. Those sentences half of which evaporate, fly away, seep away. What can't be said in words is said in gestures. (20)
Almost sixty years after Sciascia's book was published, into a thoroughly damaged culture dominated by the evil of the Mafia, the sound of silence still rings loud, like the bell of a shepherd, bringing in his flock, echoing through the confusion that is Sicily.
You can read more of Thom L. Jones stories at his Mob Corner at Gangsters Inc.
If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy reading:
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- The Man Who Stole the French Connection
- Joe Barboza: Boston Barbarian
Copyright © Gangsters Inc.
The following sources were used as reference for this article:
(1) From Cesare to the Mafia: Luigi Giorgi Barzini.
(2) The Mafia's System of Silence in Communication: Adriana Nicole Cerami.
(3) Men of Honour: Giovanni Falcone.
(4) Storia Mafia e costume in Sicilia: Virgilo Titone.
(5) Men of Dishonor: Antonino Calderone and Pino Arlacchi.
(6) Polizia e delinquenza in Italia: Giuseppe Alongi.
(7) Interview with Grasso by Saverio Lodato 2001.
(8) Capturing the Last Don: Devin Freidman. GQ Magazine. March, 2007.
(9) Excellent Cadavers: Alexandre Stille.
(10) Mafia and Mafiosi: Henner Hess.
(11) Mafia and anti-Mafia. Concepts and individuals: Renate Siebert,
(12) The Sicilian Mafia. The Business of Private Protection: Diego Gambetta.
(13) Women of the Mafia: Giovanni Fiandaca.
(14) The Mafia's Biggest Mistake: Alexander Stille. New Yorker Magazine. March 01, 1993.
(15) Cosa Nostra: John Dickie.
(16) Midnight in Sicily: Peter Robb.
(17) Addio Cosa Nostra: Pino Arlacchi .
(18) Diego Gambetta interview @ www.fivebooks.com
(19) Italo Calvino (1923-1985).
(20) The Honoured Society: Petra Reski