Book Review — Mafia Life by Federico Varese

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In the early hours of today, I finished reading Federico Varese’s book — Mafia Life Love, Death and Money at the Heart of Organised Crime. Federico is a Professor of Criminology at Oxford University.

In Mafia Life, we are shown what it means to be a Mafiosi — a member of the Mafia. Touching key mafia groups originating in Russia, Italy, Hong Kong and Japan the reader gets insights into the ordinary life with its complex challenges faced by these criminals as they run their organizations.

For some people, a Mafioso is a big man living in a faraway place enjoying the good life, yet as the example of a recent event in Greater Manchester shows they indeed can nest in our midst, and often do lodge amongst us.

#DoYouKnow There is a Mafia in Italy with a revenue stream of around US$72 billion (more than twice Nigeria’s annual budget)?

While there is a general tendency to see the mafia as demonic sociopaths with no care in the world, the reason for the entrenchment of some of the longest-serving Mafia in the world is because of failed or inadequate justice system. Rather than be subjected to extortions by police officers and other gangsters, citizens may seek protection from the Mafia. The Mafia often help with the collection of informal loans and the settling of a variety of social disputes as well. Mafia states have developed in the past, funding infrastructures and state institutions: schools, roads, and power plants exist thanks to the black economy.

Right now, there is a Mafia state in existence. They are trying to build a viable state, even though they do not allow free elections. They have created an elaborate administration, comprising fifteen ministries and seven local administrations. Although there is no Western-style rule of law, even family members and relatives of its leaders are arrested if they blatantly break the law. They have a professional fighting force, run by a general staff. Want to know this state? Read the book.

Yet Mafia rule has devastating collective consequences on economic development. In a world controlled largely by the Mafia, legitimate businesses do not want to “attract attention,” and opportunities are forgone in order to avoid complications and genuine danger. Mafia interference acts as a deterrent against expansion, every attempt at which involves time-consuming negotiations and a cut in profit margins. Those who expand their business know that it is thanks to Mafia support rather than the quality of their services or goods.

Federico shows how politics sometimes doesn’t care about these devastating consequences. In a curious account, a Georgian opposition tipped off the Mafia to an anti-mafia government raid, so they could enlist the Mafia to rig votes. The opposition won the election in 2012. Similar cases of connivance abound all around the world, including Hong Kong. They are used to target labor movements and trade unions. Even the US government partnered with the Mafia in World War II.

And this is an important reason the Mafia love democracy. There is a strong connection between democracy and the emergence of mafias. Totalitarian regimes, such as Stalinist Russia or Nazi Germany, do not allow the emergence of alternative sources of authority. In such regimes, the authorities don’t need the Mafia — they can harass the people and protestors directly.

But even in democracies where Mafias operate the best, things are not as rosy as outsiders think. Criminal competitors have emerged from migrant groups, making their lives difficult — good examples are the Eiye and Black Axe fraternities from Nigeria who have made their homes in traditional mafia strongholds in Italy. Even though they are developing sophisticated means of hiding illicit money, sustained police scrutiny has increased the likelihood of being cheated by bankers and financial professionals. How can they trust that someone who is specialized in complex commercial transactions will tell them the truth?

A fine point made in the book is about movies about the Mafia. Most movies made about the Mafia end up enhancing their reputation, as they are depicted as people with a respectable moral code, or as bloodthirsty evildoers. Yet seeing how devastating their activities can be, certain producers/directors have taken it upon themselves to cast them as unpleasant dwarfs and perverts. Others have used parody and farce to describe their world. These works demystifying the Mafia help to undermine it.

A quick fact: Mario Puzo’s The Godfather contains some inaccuracies because he never met a single Mafioso when writing the classic.

Poser: Why do women not feature prominently in Mafias around the world? You are treated to really interesting discussions about women, sex and love in the book.

In the end, Mafia Life shows us that Mafiosi are merely humans; people no smarter than the rest of us, who make mistakes and occasionally get swindled, almost always ending up dead or behind bars. It is easy to imagine them living a very different life if they had a different starting point or turn of events.

Professor Federico has managed to write a compelling book which will appeal to anyone interested in what goes on in the underworld, and even more importantly those who are interested in how to prevent the emergence of a Mafia or accelerate its end.

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