The Mafia Only Threatens During Election CyclesA STUDY SHOWS THAT THE VIOLENCE OF CRIMINAL ORGANIZATIONS AFFECTS LOCAL POLITICIANS AND IN PARTICULAR NEW MAYORS IN THE FIRST MONTH AFTER TAKING OFFICE
by Gianmarco Daniele, Bocconi Department of Social and Political Sciences
Translated by Alex Foti
Italy is not the only country in the world troubled by organized crime. However, movies like The Godfather and TV series like Gomorrah have made Italian criminal organizations popular worldwide. Although directors tend to glamorize the phenomenon, their films help us understand how Mafia-type organizations resort to violence to influence and weaken public institutions.
Data collected by the NGO Avviso Pubblico [Public Notice] report 1,191 violent attacks on Italian politicians in the 2013-2015 period. These are just aggressions and threats reported to police authorities, so their actual number is likely to be much higher. How does political violence affect Italian politics? In a recent study published in the Journal of Public Economics, co-authored with Gemma Dipoppa of the University of Pennsylvania, I have sought to understand the problem by studying the data collected by Avviso Pubblico.
Why do criminals attack politicians? The objectives of criminal organizations differ from one group to another. Organized crime is defined as a centralized, often international, criminal enterprise that seeks to infiltrate politics and extract public resources in order to secure private benefits.
In Italy, according to our study, the Mafia often threatens politicians to win government contracts for waste management, procurement, and other public services. Individual politicians who threaten the interests of Mafia are often put in danger. Physical assaults, arson, and death threats are the Mafia's favorite tactics. These crimes constitute 70% of the 1,191 attacks documented by Avviso Pubblico.
In 2016, Giuseppe Antoci, director of a national park in Sicily, suffered a murder attempt after having strengthened the anti-mafia checks on local businesses that work in the park. Other politicians are corrupt and contribute to the problem of Italian organized crime by sharing illegal profits with the mafia. "We must all be sated," a bribed bureaucrat from the Campania region was overheard saying over the phone by magistrates who had tapped his line. Between 1991 and 2018, the Italian police dissolved 266 municipal councils for their links with criminal organizations.
It is interesting to note that none of the documented political violence concerns national politicians, presumably because attacking well-known politicians would bring excessive media exposure. So the attacks target local politicians. Mayors were targeted 310 times out of the documented 1,191 attacks occurred from 2013 to 2015.
Italians know this, because they read these stories in local newspapers. For example, the mayor of Marcianise, a city near Naples, left office in early 2018 after a wave of threats. And the mayor of Rizziconi, in the Reggio Calabria province, was blacklisted by members of the community (including some of his relatives) after denouncing the mob’s tactics to pressure him.
Mafia attacks on politicians are usually linked to the electoral cycle. In regions where criminal organizations are entrenched (such as Sicily, Calabria and Campania), political violence is much more likely to occur immediately after local elections, our study found. Attacks on politicians are 25% more likely in the four weeks immediately following the election of a new mayor. The strategy has a specific intent: to send a clear message to the newly elected representative and communicate the risk associated with taking policy decisions inimical to mafia groups.
Political violence also diminishes political selection: in a previous research study, I showed that when politics looks like a dangerous job, the most competent and educated individuals will be discouraged from applying. And while organized crime get richer, Italian politics gets impoverished, as our research shows.