Engaging law enforcement and the public with the history of organised crime in Italy
Submitting InstitutionUniversity College London
Unit of AssessmentModern Languages and Linguistics
Summary Impact TypeLegal
Research Subject Area(s)
History and Archaeology: Historical Studies
Summary of the impact
Research at UCL spread public understanding of mafias around the world,
contributed to the professional preparation and development of law
enforcement officers and investigating magistrates engaged in front-line
work against the mafias, provided historical evidence supporting
magistrates in Reggio Calabria seeking to create a legal precedent for the
successful prosecution of the `ndrangheta under anti-mafia laws. It
contributed to the memorialisation of victims of mafia violence in Sicily,
aided the work of the anti-protection racket organisation Addiopizzo by
influencing its staff and alerting visitors to Sicily to the importance of
critical consumption in order to avoid involuntarily funding the mafia.
Italy is unique in Western Europe in that it is plagued by sophisticated
criminal organisations that have existed for around 150 years. The three
major mafias — the well-known Cosa Nostra mafia of Sicily; `ndrangheta, a
Calabrian mafia organisation believed to control a large proportion of the
European Union's drug traffic who, in recent decades, have surpassed their
better-known Sicilian counterparts in spread and earnings; and the
camorra, their Neapolitan counterparts — constitute a major threat to
Italy's stability and democracy. Understanding these organisations
inevitably has implications far beyond academia.
John Dickie (full-time researcher in UCL Italian since 1993; Professor of
Italian Studies since 2009) has been researching these mafias in Sicily
and Southern Italy since 2001, focusing particularly on examining their
history and organisation as a means of better understanding how they have
prospered for so long. His more recent (post-2007) work in this area is
underpinned by an innovative comparative approach to the long history of
the three mafias, and draws on documentation unearthed by him on important
phases of their history. It particularly explores a new `unitary' approach
to the `ndrangheta's history, which had long been believed to be a
collection of gangs rather than an organised group. As with all
`large-canvas' narrative history, Dickie's approach involves blending
existing work with new research, often drawing on newly discovered sources
to provide overarching narrative syntheses intended to be accessible to
specialist and non-specialist academic, as well as to professionals and
the general public.
His 2004 monograph, Cosa Nostra [a, section 3], exemplifies this
approach in its synthesis of the best academic work then extant in the new
sub-discipline of Sicilian mafia history with recent insights from the
judiciary, law enforcement and journalists, and localised areas of fresh
research. Dickie drew on these myriad sources to produce an academic
consensus around the history and evolution of the Sicilian mafia and to
bring this specialist understanding to as wide an audience as possible.
Work undertaken between 2007 and 2013 and supported by a Leverhulme
fellowship (2009-11) led to the publication in 2011 and 2013 respectively
of Mafia Brotherhoods [c] and Mafia Republic [d], a
two-volume history of organised crime in Italy, from its origins to the
present day. Inasmuch as they draw on existing research, these texts seek
to reproduce for the other major criminal organisations (the camorra of
Campania and Naples, and the `ndrangheta of Calabria) what Cosa Nostra
does for the Sicilian mafia. However they rely much more heavily than did
Cosa Nostra on first-hand research of archival and other sources.
Dickie's comparative methodology allowed him to set out new theses in
these texts on, among other things: the origins of the `ndrangheta; the
transformation of its relationship to kinship groups; the persistence of
coordination between its local cells; and the likely existence in the
distant past of a coordinating body, known today as the Crime or Great
Crime, and which has only just been discovered by law enforcement. The
work particularly challenged a previous perception of the Calabrian mafia
as a loose collection of local gangs.
A short biography based on newly discovered sources of Ermanno Sangiorgi,
a nineteenth-century police chief involved in mafia operations also
emerged from this research project [b].
References to the research
[a] Cosa Nostra. A History of the Sicilian Mafia, Hodder &
Stoughton, London, 2004. Book available on request.
[b] `Ritratto di questore con mafia', in S. Lupo, Il tenebroso
sodalizio. Il primo rapporto di polizia sulla mafia siciliana, XL
Edizioni, Rome, 2011. Available on request.
[c] Mafia Brotherhoods: Mafia, camorra, `ndrangheta; the rise of the
Honoured Societies, Sceptre, London, 2011. Submitted to REF2 under
its original hardback title: Blood Brotherhoods.
[d] Mafia Republic, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2013.
Submitted to REF2.
Research quality: [b], [c] and [d] emerged from a two year
(2009-2011 Leverhulme Research Fellowship held by Dickie: total value
£43,266. On its completion, the Leverhulme committee rated the project `A
— outstandingly successful' (the highest possible).
Details of the impact
Dickie's research on the history of criminal organisations in Italy has
had direct impacts on the training and practice of law enforcement and
judicial professionals, and of civil society organisations in Italy. The
work has also directly engaged wide public audiences both beyond and
within Italy, both through its publication in accessible texts bought and
read by a global non-specialist readership, and through its contribution
to international media discourse about Italian mafia and the social and
political implications of their operations.
Since the mafias are distinguished from ordinary gangs by their
historical continuity, understanding this history and how the
organisations have changed — or not — is a prerequisite for successful
anti-mafia work. The most powerful mafia in Italy today, the `ndrangheta,
remains under-researched: for example, before Dickie's work, there was no
adequate explanation of its origins. Moreover, since 1992, both Italy's
police forces and its prosecutors have been organised in specialised
anti-mafia teams, coordinated nationally. This new level of specialisation
means that, unlike the past, it is now a regular occurrence for both
police and magistrates to work on combatting different mafias in different
phases of their careers, and to work on several mafias contemporaneously.
Dickie's comparative research on mafia history provides a single
historical narrative of all the mafias together that is adequate to this
new, broader perspective.
The use of Dickie's research as a resource for practitioners has
ensured the considerable impacts of the research on professional
understanding and practice among anti-mafia officials in Italy.
However, the nature of Italian law enforcement, particularly in anti-mafia
work, is such that much of this influence occurs through informal channels
such as meetings, emails and telephone calls. The most dedicated
magistrates and law enforcement officers take it upon themselves to read
around the subject. Accordingly, law enforcement officials and judicial
practitioners routinely refer either to Dickie himself and/or to the
written outputs of his research in seeking to better understand these
organisations' operation and evolution. As such, the research has made
significant contributions to the professional preparation and development
of law enforcement officers engaged in front-line work against the mafias.
The unique comparative approach used by Dickie to contextualise and
understand Italy's three principal mafia organisations sets his work apart
from comparable books, ensuring its widespread use at all levels of the
Italian law enforcement and judiciary services [1, 2].
This use of research has supported the successful investigation and
prosecutions of mafia members through its use to establish
correlations between contemporary investigations and the history of mafia
activities. Describing its general utility in this context, a magistrate
involved in anti-mafia investigations, and with experience investigating
both Sicilian and Calabrian organised crime, explains that: `[Dickie's]
research has confirmed empirical data that has emerged from investigations
I have carried out in Calabria' . A Captain in the Carabinieri's ROS
section (which specialises in organised crime and terrorism) with
experience of front-line operations against both Cosa Nostra and the
`ndrangheta similarly attests to his use of Dickie's work `to confirm
dates or people involved in particular crimes' .
A specific example of this occurred in 2010 by magistrates in Reggio
Calabria to build a case by prosecuting the `ndrangheta as a whole under
Italian mafia laws as part of `Operation Crimine', a national police
operation that led to the arrest of some 300 suspected members. The
assumption that the Calabrian mafia constituted only a loose collection of
local gangs had previously meant that each `ndrangheta trial had to start
from scratch by proving the existence of the particular local gang in
question. This was a serious impediment to effective law enforcement.
Operation Crimine sought to remedy this by providing the first evidence of
the existence of a coordinating body known as the Crimine (the Crime).
Dickie used both Mafia Brotherhoods and supplementary
documentation communicated personally to the Assistant Chief Prosecutor of
Reggio Calabria to demonstrate that the Crimine (or something very like
it) may already have existed in the 1930s and is perhaps even as old as
the `ndrangheta itself. This information was used, in the prosecutor's
words, `to analyse the results of [police and judicial] investigations and
to construct hypotheses based on that evidence which, particularly in
relation to the complex project known as Crimine, have so far met with
substantial confirmation in the rulings issued by a number of Italian
judges in trials that have taken place in both Milan and Reggio Calabria'
. The trials resulting from Operation Crimine are still ongoing. Once
the judicial process is complete, it is hoped that they will establish a
precedent for recognising the `ndrangheta as a single, unified criminal
association, allowing for collective prosecution under Italy's 1982
anti-mafia law no. 416bis - a huge step forward that will parallel that
achieved by the famous maxi-trial against Cosa Nostra in 1992.
Dickie's expert research insights are widely and frequently used to inform
understanding and practice within anti-mafia civil society organisations.
These include the Sicilian organisation Addiopizzo, which takes a
revolutionary approach to fighting the mafia by bringing together
businesses that refuse to pay protection money to Cosa Nostra with
consumers who want to make sure that the money they spend does not end in
the mafia's coffers. The organisation's officers and volunteers use
Dickie's work to better understand the history and operation of the mafias
and thereby to enhance the services that they provide to both local
communities and tourists. Addiopizzo Travel, for example, requires
all of its trainees to read Cosa Nostra as preparation for
delivery of organised tours of Palermo's `sites of memory' in relation to
the mafia and the city's fight against it . Dickie's books have also
promoted Addiopizzo's work and objectives among a wider public audience:
many non-Sicilian tourists have been introduced to Addiopizzo by reading Cosa
Nostra in its various translations, and have become involved in its
efforts as a result, including, for instance, by donating money and
choosing hotels that do not pay protection. Addiopizzo uses Cosa
Nostra to introduce young Sicilians to the history of the Mafia
including, for example, a three-year project (2008 to 2010) sponsored by
the Ministry of Education, in which Addiopizzo worked with secondary
school students to research the history of the mafia in an effort to
reduce its influence on day-to-day Sicilian society .
The reach of the books' impacts on public engagement with and
understanding of mafias is considerably enhanced by the fact that Cosa
Nostra, Mafia Brotherhoods and Mafia Republic are
written for non-specialist audiences, presenting both original and
established research to a global audience in an accessible while still
academically rigorous manner. As a Financial Times article (June
2011) described the narrative of Mafia Brotherhoods, it `bowls
along, powered by the sort of muscular prose one associates with great
detective fiction' .
The books' reach across international public readerships is suggested by
the number of translations and sales. This is particularly so for Cosa
Nostra, which has appeared in 21 languages plus Braille since
publication in 2004; by Spring 2011 it had sold 750,000 copies worldwide.
The book's yearly English language sales (excluding the US market) from
2008 to 2011 exceeded 60,000, with sales peaking in 2008 (16,371) and 2011
(16,465) . The book's continued relevance to broad non-academic
audiences is further demonstrated by renewed contracts for continued
publication in countries including Holland, Spain, Norway, and Germany;
and sales and translations have flourished in new markets such as Finland,
China, Poland. Mafia Brotherhoods has likewise been widely
translated into Dutch (2011), Italian (2012), Czech (2012), and Chinese
(2013) and sold over 39,000 copies since 2011. Mafia Republic,
published in the UK in May 2013, is already contracted for publication in
the same territories. While contracts to produce single volumes combining
the two books had been signed in Germany and the US . Cosa Nostra's
reach, moreover, extended well beyond casual readers: in June 2008, a
filmed raid on a Russian mob boss's palatial villa in Rome found the book
on his bedside table!
However, the most significant channel for the broader impacts of the
research on public engagement with the issues covered in Dickie's books is
their coverage by media outlets around the world. Mafia Brotherhoods
was subject to extensive media coverage surrounding its publication in
2011, ensuring the communication of its key insights to a huge audience,
including interviews on BBC Radio 5 Live's Up All Night (6m
listeners per week) and Newstalk 106-108 FM (12% audience share in
Dublin); and a major July 2011 book tour in Australia — where the
`ndrangheta has long had a presence — including appearances on Late Night
Live with Philip Adams (over 300k listeners) . As recently as 2012, Cosa
Nostra was the book club selection by the influential American
pundit David Frum on the hugely popular Daily Beast website which receives
18 million visitors per month. 
Dickie's provision of expert advice to media professionals through
informal consultations and organised events has also informed and
enhanced media professionals' knowledge about — and thereby the accuracy
of global media discourse on — mafias, which are often reported in
sensationalist terms. Dickie's books frequently inform coverage of mafia
stories by providing relevant historical and societal information. This is
gleaned not only from use of the published work, but also through Dickie's
presentations to media professionals of expert insights gained through his
research. On 2 September 2009, for example, he drew on research later
published in Mafia Brotherhoods and Mafia Republic to
deliver an invited presentation on mafias and the media to some 150 news
professionals at the annual conference of the European Broadcasting
Union's radio news group in Turin. Media interest in his work recently
extended to the production of two related television documentaries based
on it: the first of these, Mafia Bunker, was transmitted on
History Channel Italia in April 2013; the second, The Mafia's Secret
Bunkers, aired on BBC2 on 1 May 2013. The latter, according to its
Executive Producer, used Dickie's research not only as a credible source
of support for the original commission, but to move `beyond an engaging
current affairs piece into the most detailed and informative piece on the
`Ndrangheta Mafia in Calabria that there has been on international
television' . It was watched by 1.23 million (5.27% audience share) and
was recommended by the Telegraph, Daily Mail, the Times,
Observer and the Sun. The Italian version pulled in 114,000
viewers, doubling History Channel Italia's average audience, and also
received positive advance notices in the Italian press .
Sources to corroborate the impact
 Statement (Italian) on use of Dickie's research for confirming
empirical findings provided by prosecutor assigned to the anti-mafia
investigative team at Reggio Calabria Prosecutors' office.
 Statement (Italian) on Dickie's work as a reference provided by
Captain in the ROS section of the Carabinieri, with experience of
front-line operations against the Cosa Nostra and `ndrangheta.
 Statement (Italian) on use of research to build precedent against
`ndrangheta provided by Assistant Chief Prosecutor of the specialist
anti-mafia investigative team at Reggio Calabria Prosecutors' office, who
led Operation Crimine investigation.
 Statement (Italian) provided by the director of Addiopizzo Travel to
corroborate educational benefits delivered through Addiopizzo's engagement
 Financial Times review of Mafia Brotherhoods: http://on.ft.com/1cfdhts.
 Report from Felicity Bryan Associates is available on request.
 Australian media coverage: Late Night Live, ABC radio (6/7/11) http://bit.ly/1elILjf;
2010 listener figures http://bit.ly/18cPY6i;
The Australian (5/10/11) http://bit.ly/17Oh0QR.
Radio audience figures from http://bit.ly/1elLuJn
(Newstalk) and http://bbc.in/1jrHUOn
(BBC Five Live).
 The Daily Beast book club: http://thebea.st/1f0XVdA.
 Statement provided by Managing Director Lion Television, Executive
Producer `Inside the Mafia's Secret Bunkers' about the use made of the
research in producing this documentary.
 Dossiers of UK/Italian newspaper clippings available on request.
Audience figures on BBC2: http://bit.ly/17UTv2V.