Honorable Men
Italian magistrate Paolo Borsellino talking to Italian magistrate Giovanni Falcone. Italy, 1980s. (Photo by Enzo Brai via Getty Images)

Honorable Men

Falcone, Borsellino, and the legacy of Italy’s long and bitter war on organized crime.

Maura Cremin
Maura Cremin
20 min read

In the rugged hills surrounding the small Sicilian town of Capaci stands a threadbare white rectangular shed. It would go unnoticed if it were not for the simple message painted in dark blue block capitals on one wall; letters so large that they are visible from the nearby highway that links the city of Palermo to the Punta Raisi airport: NO MAFIA. These words send a message that can be seen and understood by anyone who comes to Palermo. They were painted to mark the site of one of the most notorious murders in modern Italian history.

On May 23rd, 1992, four men assembled in this same white shack. They had received news that a convoy was on its way from the airport to Palermo, carrying Giovanni Falcone, the judge leading the investigation into Cosa Nostra. They had prepared for this moment for weeks. Roughly half a ton of explosives had been placed beneath the highway to maximize their destructive power and the timing of the detonation had been rehearsed to ensure precision. Just before 6pm, Giovanni Brusca, Costa Nostra’s most lethal assassin, pressed the detonator. The explosion tore through steel and concrete with such devastating force that it destroyed a stretch of the highway and was registered by the Geographical Observatory in Agrigento, approximately 50 miles away. Judge Falcone was killed in the explosion, along with his wife, Francesca Morvillo, and three members of his escort, Antonio Montinaro, Rocco Dicillo, and Vito Schifani.

The Capaci Massacre sent shockwaves through Italy and around the world. Though public awareness of the threat posed by organized crime had been growing for more than a decade, the murder of Falcone traumatized the nation. Less than two months later, Falcone’s best friend and closest colleague Paolo Borsellino was killed by a car bomb outside his mother’s house on Via D’Amelio, a quiet residential street in Palermo. His police escort of five officers were also slain in the blast. As revulsion swept the country, Italians—and Sicilians, in particular—demanded action. Yet many feared that, with the passage of time, the Italian state and society would slip back into the apathetic complacency that had hitherto undermined efforts to dismantle the mafia.

Thirty years after their tragic deaths, it is time to re-evaluate the legacy of Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. What has the antimafia effort achieved? And how have Sicily and Italy changed as a result of the sacrifices of men like Falcone and Borsellino?


Italy has four main mafia groups: the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, the Neapolitan Camorra, the Calabrian 'Ndrangheta, and the Pugliese Sacra Corona Unita. Cosa Nostra (literally “Our Thing”) emerged from rural land protection schemes to become deeply embedded in Sicily’s social and political structures. Its members, who call themselves “men of honor,” were recruited at a young age and underwent formalized rituals in which they pledged their lives to the organization. Once inducted, they joined a fairly cohesive, hierarchical entity that was overseen by a governing board known as the Commission. This pyramid structure allowed Cosa Nostra to operate with a centralized discipline while remaining responsive to local needs.

The mafia profited from extortion, tobacco smuggling, and skimming public works. In addition, it served as a powerbroker in Sicily, resulting in a status of near-impunity. Mafia groups ostensibly provided some services in exchange for the resources they extracted, particularly employment and protection. But in practice, they undermined economic growth on the island, and the protection they offered was mostly from themselves. Cosa Nostra exerted control through threats, corruption, and sometimes force. Nonetheless, it conducted most of its activities quietly, and for much of the 20th century, public figures plausibly claimed that the mafia didn’t really exist as a coherent organization—or at least that much of what was called mafia activity was merely an unfair stereotype of Sicilian criminality. Within Southern Italian society, meanwhile, organized crime was treated as an inevitability; something that had always been and would always be a nuisance of daily life. Shop owners factored the payment of pizzo (extortion money) into their business expenses, politicians awarded contracts on the basis of mafia preference, and citizens voted according to the dictates of the local boss.

In the 1970s, the mafia’s quiescence ended as the nature of the group’s economic activities changed. The closure of heroin refineries in Marseilles (the so-called French Connection) allowed Sicily to establish itself as the intermediate stop in the heroin trafficking route to the United States. Cosa Nostra, with its ties to American organized crime, established a drug distribution network so extensive that by 1982 it controlled as much as 80 percent of the heroin sent to the north-east of the United States. The explosion of wealth within Cosa Nostra that followed led to rivalry over profits. A particularly violent faction from the town of Corleone launched a coup, wiping out most of the existing leadership of Cosa Nostra in a bloody 1981–84 campaign known as the Second Mafia War. More shocking given the mafia’s past reluctance to attract negative attention from the state, the Corleonesi began killing government officials who sought to address the growing violence. Between September 1970 and July 1992, more than 50 police officers, journalists, activists, prosecutors, judges, and politicians were murdered in Sicily alone. In this environment of terror, those who persisted in combatting organized crime did so knowing that their future assassination was highly likely.

As the Corleonesi grew in power and violence, a small team of investigating judges in Palermo known as the antimafia pool began working to build a legal case. Falcone and Borsellino were leading members of this team. The antimafia pool employed innovative techniques, conducting complex financial investigations and soliciting international cooperation, and new laws were passed to target organized crime. Over 400 mafiosi were indicted and tried in a single trial known as the Maxi Processo (Maxi Trial), which lasted nearly two years and required the construction of a custom-made underground bunker to hold high-risk detainees. The investigators were rewarded for their efforts when 338 “men of honor” were found guilty, a verdict upheld on appeal. The court’s findings were largely based on an understanding of Cosa Nostra as a coherent organization engaged in coordinated criminal activity which effectively ended the argument that the mafia did not exist.

A hearing of the Maxi Trial, Wikimedia Commons

Despite the success of the Maxi Processo, Falcone and Borsellino were largely isolated within the judiciary. In 1991, Falcone left the judiciary to work for the Ministry of Justice in Rome, where he sought to build up the country’s antimafia legal infrastructure. Yet despite leaving Sicily, Falcone knew he was not safe. In an interview conducted roughly six months before his murder, he reflected, “I opened an account with the mafia. It can only close with my death.”


The work of Falcone and Borsellino, and that of many others murdered in the fight against organized crime, changed the way a generation of Italians understood the power and violence of Cosa Nostra. The immediate product of the antimafia movement was the establishment of new state infrastructure. These reforms fundamentally shifted the legislative, jurisprudential, and institutional machinery available to officials targeting mafia groups. In the early years of the Second Mafia War, the state had relatively few extraordinary legal measures with which to systematically tackle organized crime. Yet as the Corleonesi mafia began to kill increasingly prominent figures, antimafia actors within the legal apparatus were forced to acknowledge the need for new and powerful tools. Falcone and Borsellino showed that such mechanisms could work. Using the levers of the criminal justice system to attack the structure of Sicilian organized crime, the judges demonstrated the legal system’s ability to diminish mafia power.

Perhaps the greatest legislative success was the 1982 passage of law 416-bis, which created the crime of “mafia association,” thereby criminalizing membership of mafia groups. 416-bis also allowed the state to confiscate the assets of mafiosi. This law was not easy to pass. It was first submitted by Pio La Torre, a member of parliament and head of the Communist Party in Sicily. Though La Torre, who had a long history of antimafia activism, passionately advocated for the criminalization of mafia membership, the issue attracted scant support during his lifetime. When La Torre was murdered by the mafia in April 1982, it appeared his law would die in committee along with him. However, in September of the same year, Cosa Nostra killed General Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa, the chief law enforcement officer responsible for combating the mafia in Sicily and a national hero who had defeated terrorist groups in the 1970s. The murder of Dalla Chiesa, along with his wife and driver, produced unprecedented outrage throughout Italy. The general was not the first state official to be killed by Cosa Nostra, but he was its most prominent non-Sicilian victim. For the first time, the mafia was not just a “Sicilian issue,” but a national problem which could touch even the most respected leaders. Public anger in the wake of Dalla Chiesa’s murder required the government to act. They did so by finally passing La Torre’s law.

This law was pivotal in establishing a legal infrastructure that could be used to prosecute organized crime, and the antimafia pool used it to great effect in the Maxi Processo. Italy has since augmented these tools with further measures that include preventive detention, liberalized wiretapping, and enhanced sentencing measures in mafia cases. Administrative measures, such as the dissolution of town councils found to have been infiltrated by the mafia, were also adopted. Indeed, the Italian legal system has developed such a robust regime of laws specific to mafia crimes that legal scholars often speak of a “double track” (doppio binario) in the country’s legal system: one system of law for mafia cases, another for everything else. The doppio binario system remains a source of debate within Italian legal circles. Some observers, including many with strong antimafia credentials, have criticized this system for undermining defendants’ rights. Others see it as a necessary means of adjusting the criminal justice system to allow the state to target a narrow but particularly insidious form of criminality. Wherever one falls in this debate, there can be little doubt that these reforms have substantially enhanced Italian prosecutors’ toolkit in mafia cases.

Yet laws are only part of Italy’s antimafia infrastructure. From his position in the Ministry of Justice, Giovanni Falcone successfully pressed for the creation of several specialized antimafia policing and prosecutorial agencies. Rather than ad hoc pools that could be easily dissolved as political and bureaucratic winds changed, Falcone wanted permanent law enforcement agencies specializing in the complex techniques necessary to effectively target mafia groups. Although these agencies were controversial at the time, Falcone built sufficient political support in the post-Maxi Processo moment to secure their establishment. Today, Italy’s antimafia law enforcement agencies include the National and District Antimafia Directorates, which prosecute mafia crimes, as well as the Investigative Antimafia Directorate, which investigates them. These are among the most effective law enforcement forces in the nation.

The combination of strong laws and specialized law enforcement is a critical legacy of the antimafia legal movement. For the first time, Italy boasts the national infrastructure to systematically counter organized crime at scale using its legal institutions. Although powerful mafia groups continue to exist in Italy, these robust and often innovative legal tools have greatly increased the state’s ability to threaten them.

The antimafia campaign’s success was not merely national. A significant legacy of Falcone’s leadership has been Italy’s role as a key player in the global fight against organized crime. Recognizing the transnational scope of organizations like Cosa Nostra, Falcone created close connections with law enforcement agencies around the world. Perhaps his greatest success was developing strong ties with the FBI, and members of the antimafia pool worked closely with the Bureau’s investigators to build cases against American and Sicilian mafia organizations. Both nations benefited tremendously from this cooperation. Italy agreed to send key mafia collaborators to testify in American trials, and in return, the better-resourced Bureau shared its technology and protected Italian witnesses. Former FBI director Louis Freeh, who worked closely with Falcone, has stated that Falcone’s work transformed the FBI-Italian police relationship. Importantly, this collaboration was based on mutual respect. After Falcone’s death, the United States Congress passed a resolution condemning his murder as “a profound loss to Italy, the United States, and the world.” The FBI erected a statue of Falcone at its academy in Quantico, recognizing the Sicilian judge as an exemplar of justice and a model for aspiring FBI agents.

Italy’s role as a coordinator of international organized crime investigations has continued to the present day. Perhaps the most high-profile recent example is the Rinascita-Scott investigation, in which Calabrian antimafia prosecutors conducted a massive investigation into the activities of the 'Ndrangheta mafia alongside law enforcement agents from countries including Germany, Switzerland, the US, and Bulgaria. This investigation led to a trial of 335 defendants, the largest since the Maxi Processo. Italy has also begun to export some of the lessons it has learned. The Falcone-Borsellino Program, which is run by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, provides training and support to nations combatting organized crime, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean.

At one time, Italy’s struggle with organized crime was a source of national and international embarrassment. At the height of mafia violence, Sicily, and particularly Palermo, was compared unfavorably with conflict zones from Beirut to Belfast. The energy and innovation of the antimafia leaders not only improved the safety of Southern Italians, it transformed the Italian experience from a mark of shame to one of success, allowing Italians to share the lessons they had learned at the cost of their own precious blood.


The antimafia movement in the legal and governmental sphere is responsible for many of Italy’s institutional and infrastructural developments. These reforms have made it impossible to deny the existence of powerful mafia groups. They have given the state the ability to pose a credible threat to organized crime. They have facilitated international coordination on a grave transnational problem. However, they are not the most significant legacy of those who gave their lives fighting Cosa Nostra. Even more fundamental has been the shift in cultural attitudes towards the mafia’s role in society. If Cosa Nostra was once accepted with resignation as an inevitable fact of life, something to be borne but not openly discussed, that is no longer the case. Italians, and especially Sicilians, have retaken the initiative to halt mafia influence in the most foundational settings—in schools and cinemas, playgrounds and piazzas. The deaths of Falcone, Borsellino, and other members of the pantheon of antimafia martyrs created a cultural focal point that made resistance to the mafia not just a rare act of heroism, but something like a civic obligation.

The antimafia cultural movement takes several forms. Perhaps the most fundamental is the development of public memory and education. Until recent decades, it would have been difficult to find any public acknowledgment of the mafia’s existence, let alone open discussion of its activities. Today, virtually every major Sicilian city, as well as many small towns, publicly commemorates victims of the mafia, from Agrigento’s Garden of the Righteous to Palermo’s towering murals of Falcone and Borsellino. In 1986, a Sicilian regional law was passed allowing municipalities to name streets after mafia victims immediately after their deaths, rather than wait the 10 years that are normally required. Since then, it has become commonplace for Sicilian cities to name streets, public institutions, and piazzas after those murdered by the mafia, thereby utilizing public space to build a consensus that these individuals are worthy of honor.

View of Palermo, Sicily. Photo by Jack Krier on Unsplash

Yet the creation of memory cannot simply be a passive activity limited to the display of names. One of the most significant initiatives of antimafia actors has been the development of educational programming that emphasizes the importance of legality. Leaders within the antimafia community regularly speak at schools and host educational events for children. Teachers give students assignments related to the antimafia campaign and stress the importance of lawfulness. Such programming occurs not only in the south of Italy, but in the north as well. While the south has traditionally been seen (and to a large degree is still seen) as the home of organized crime, mafia activity has steadily migrated, and now threatens Milan as much as Palermo. As a result, educational programming must be a national effort if it is to be effective.

Indeed, the public education effort is not only for Italians. Given the global popularity of mafia films and stories, it is easy for those unfamiliar with the history of this phenomenon to have a skewed sense of the pervasiveness of criminality among Southern Italians or an overly romantic notion of what the mafia is. Such perceptions at once downplay the seriousness of organized crime and unfairly stigmatize those who have lived with this problem. Although they may not recognize the names on street signs upon their arrival, visitors to Sicily can easily educate themselves on the history of the mafia, hear from its victims, and learn about resistance to organized crime. Antimafia organizations such as Addiopizzo Travel offer walking tours of Palermo that tell the city’s history of organized crime from an antimafia perspective. Museums such as the No Mafia Museum in Palermo or the Casa Peppino e Felicia Impastato in Cinisi also offer vivid accounts of Sicily’s history of mafia violence.

Particularly striking is the Centro Internazionale di Documentazione sulla mafia e del Movimento Antimafia (CIDMA) museum in Corleone. Once the seat of Cosa Nostra’s most violent faction, Corleone is now home to the documents of the Maxi Processo, and CIDMA tour guides offer compelling testimony of the ways in which the mafia victimized their hometown through violence and intimidation. Those who come to Corleone with romantic ideas of the “old and noble” mafia that “doesn’t kill women and children” will learn of adolescent victims such as 12-year-old shepherd Giuseppe Letizia, who was killed by the town doctor (who also happened to be the local mafia boss) for witnessing a murder, or 14-year-old Giuseppe Di Matteo, a mafioso’s son who was killed and dissolved in acid in retaliation for his father’s collaboration with the state. They will also hear the stories of contemporary Corleonesi youth who struggle with prejudice and stereotypes because of their town’s reputation. Few will leave with the same understanding of the mafia that they had when they arrived.

Stories are central to the power of the cultural antimafia movement, and filmmaking has been especially important to these efforts. The emergence of something like an antimafia genre within film and television has created a powerful aesthetic surrounding stories of organized crime. Unlike many American films which feature the mafioso as a sort of romantic antihero, Italian antimafia films tend to focus on those who have combatted the mob. While mafiosi may serve as complex, multidimensional, and compelling characters, they are typically cast squarely as antagonists in these portrayals.

Masterful biopics have introduced Italian and international audiences to historical figures who resisted the mafia. Marco Tullio Giordana’s One Hundred Steps tells the story of Giuseppe “Peppino” Impastato, the son of a mafioso who rejected his father’s life to become an outspoken antimafia activist until he was kidnapped and murdered with explosives. Marco Bellocchio’s The Traitor portrays the life of Tommaso Buscetta, the high-profile mafia leader who defected from Cosa Nostra after the rise of the Corleonesi to become the most important witness in the Maxi Processo, ultimately ensuring the trial’s success. In addition to biopics, TV series have depicted the state’s pursuit of the mafia to dramatic effect. Crime series such as The Hunter, Boss of Bosses, and The Boss Hunt tell the tales of mafia investigations through the perspective of law enforcement, heroizing police and prosecutors and their efforts to dismantle organized crime. It is, of course, possible to criticize such depictions by asking whether they gloss over police abuses. Nonetheless, by celebrating efforts to defeat the mafia, these shows contribute to a culture that condemns the predations of organized crime.

Comedy has also played a major role in antimafia film. Pierfrancesco Diliberto’s magnum opus The Mafia Kills Only in Summer depicts the Second Mafia War through the lens of an oblivious young Palermitan pursuing his love interest and inadvertently stumbling across history. More recently, Framed! A Sicilian Murder Mystery, a 2021 series by the Sicilian comedy duo Salvatore Ficarra and Valentino Picone, tells the story of a pair of hapless repairmen who are framed by an essentially defunct mafia ring. The incompetence of the repairmen is matched by that of the mafia, which is depicted as a pathetic shell of the criminal leviathan that once tormented Sicily. Ficarra and Picone’s use of satire is particularly poignant in deflating the mythology of the mafia, replacing its mystique with a sense of humorous contempt.


If education, commemoration, and film have changed the ways in which the mafia is discussed, it is fair to ask what the cultural antimafia movement has achieved in terms of weakening organized crime on the ground. In the days after the assassinations of Falcone and Borsellino, young people carried signs bearing optimistic slogans like “You Did Not Kill Them: Their Ideas Walk on Our Legs.” However, it was not immediately apparent that the population would manage to organize effectively against the criminals. Ordinary citizens who had tried to take action against the mafia in the past had usually failed. When textile manufacturer Libero Grassi publicly named and denounced the mafioso who had tried to extort him in the Sicilian daily newspaper Giornale di Sicilia, he was shunned by neighbors who feared the consequences of his stand. Grassi was ultimately murdered outside his shop, a victim of social isolation as well as the gunman’s bullet.

Later generations learned from these experiences, however. Rather than take courageous but individualistic stances against the mafia, they began to experiment with forms of collective action that would allow them to maximize their effectiveness. One of the best examples is the Palermo-based anti-extortion organization Comitato Addiopizzo, an organization with which I worked during my time in Sicily. On June 29th, 2004, a group of four Palermitan entrepreneurs interested in opening a bar decided to rebel against the payment of extortion money (pizzo) to the mafia. The young men anonymously posted stickers designed to look like public obituaries across Palermo that read, “An entire population that pays pizzo is a population without dignity.” Tapping into deeply held Sicilian values of pride and personal honor, the stickers received considerable attention. The men subsequently collected 3,500 signatures from Palermitans for a petition stating that the signatories would support businesses that publicly refused to pay pizzo. They used these signatures, as well as the promise of free legal aid to anyone who denounced extortion, to convince business owners to sign a public statement affirming they would not pay pizzo.

Addiopizzo also began calling on consumers to engage in “critical consumption,” and adopted the slogan “I pay who does not pay.” Businesses that committed not to pay pizzo received a distinctive sticker featuring the orange Addiopizzo symbol to display in their window. Customers who see this sticker could then shop at the business confident that their money would not be going to the mafia. When businesses are threatened, they now receive legal advice and support, which often triggers police investigations into the extortionists. There is some evidence that criminals are frustrated by Addiopizzo’s influence. Mafiosi have been heard on telephone intercepts speaking about the difficulty of collecting extortion money since the organization’s emergence. In one wiretap, a mafioso was caught referring to Addiopizzo as a camurria, or nuisance, a label the organization has adopted as a badge of honor, even emblazoning the quote on t-shirts.

Addiopizzo is not the only organization devoted to protecting mafia-free entrepreneurialism. Libera Terra was founded in 1995 by a priest named Don Luigi Ciotti to lobby for the socially beneficial redistribution of confiscated mafia assets. When legislation to that effect was passed in 1996, Libera began to help with the administration of the asset distribution. The organization manages land in conjunction with small farmers to secure sustainable, mafia-free agriculture in Southern Italy and to promote these farmers’ products. Libera is also able to serve as a civil party in antimafia proceedings, and therefore engages directly with the legal system. Another example is the Associazione Ricreativa Culturale Italiana (Arci), Italy’s largest non-profit outside of the Catholic Church. Historically linked to the nation’s far-left political parties, Arci is not strictly an antimafia organization, but it has developed antimafia programming, running summer camps designed to promote legality for Italian youth that include programs bringing teenagers to work on confiscated land managed by Libera.

Other organizations work to prevent mafia groups from influencing potential young recruits. The Centro di Accoglienza Padre Nostro was founded by Palermitan priest Giuseppe “Pino” Puglisi in 1991 to provide after-school programming to young people in the mafia-heavy neighborhood of Brancaccio. Padre Puglisi was murdered by Cosa Nostra in 1993, but his organization continues to provide activities for local youth. Addiopizzo provides similar programming in the Kalsa neighborhood of Palermo, and children affiliated with the two organizations participate in cross-town soccer games.

Such initiatives, which bring together groups with divergent histories and ideologies, have built an infrastructure and grassroots network that have created space for civil society to combat the mafia directly. They have addressed mafia influence in the economic, societal, and legal spheres. This trend has contributed to a popular discourse around antimafia activism while providing material benefits to those most at risk of victimization. They have also had tangible impacts. Libera, for instance, successfully markets products in grocery stores throughout Italy and even internationally, thereby increasing the economic reach of many Southern Italian agriculturalists. At least one study has demonstrated that Addiopizzo’s presence is correlated with higher levels of failed extortion payments, compared to areas where Addiopizzo has made fewer inroads. In this way, the work of antimafia actors in civil society has eroded the mafia’s claims to provide exclusive services such as employment or protection and has provided those seeking to reject the “men of honor” with solidarity and support.

I do not wish to overstate these groups’ effectiveness. The presence of civic antimafia groups is not evenly distributed, and in certain areas of Italy where organized crime remains particularly powerful, it is not yet possible to openly engage in this sort of antimafia activism. Nevertheless, the existence of visible and effective civil society organizations has altered the social environment in which mafia groups can operate. Though they often work cooperatively with government bodies and supplement the work of the legal antimafia, civil society antimafia groups make clear that addressing organized crime is not and cannot be exclusively a matter for the state. Society must absorb and live the solutions from the bottom up as well. These organizations make a bold statement by their presence and activity: they announce that a significant segment of the broader community rejects the mafia and indeed holds it as inimical to their human dignity. In a soil that nurtures such an antimafia culture, it will likely become harder for mafia influence to take root.


To all this encouraging news, however, I must add an important caveat, for to paint an overly rosy picture of Italy’s fight against organized crime would be to deny the continued scope, scale, and power of illicit associations. In spite of the progress made in recent decades, mafia groups are still quite powerful and investigations into their activities remain a perennial feature of the Italian criminal justice system. Town councils are still regularly dissolved for mafia infiltration, and while ongoing arrests in Southern Italy demonstrate that law enforcement is capable of threatening mafia groups, they also show the resilience of the groups themselves.

Moreover, while Sicily’s Cosa Nostra is generally considered to be weaker than it was at the time of Falcone and Borsellino, other mafias, and particularly the Calabrian 'Ndrangheta, have emerged much stronger. The 'Ndrangheta is diffuse, with members on at least five continents, and it is incredibly wealthy, generating an average of $61 billion per year. It can also be extremely brutal, and it is notoriously difficult to penetrate because it relies on blood ties for recruitment. Since only relatives of 'ndranghetisti can join the 'Ndrangheta, members are extremely loyal and the organization is famously resistant to turncoats. It has also avoided the mistakes of its predecessors. Unlike Cosa Nostra under the Corleonesi, the 'Ndrangheta generally eschews high-profile murders that would bring public pressure to bear on the state.

Nor are these groups solely an Italian phenomenon. Mafia strength has grown throughout the EU, with countries such as Germany and the Netherlands increasingly subject to infiltration. Even countries as far away as Canada and Australia have discovered mafia clans conducting illegal activities within their borders. Moreover, these organizations maintain ties with other powerful criminal groups. The 'Ndrangheta, for instance, is believed to be the main distributer of South American cocaine in Europe, due to its wealth and impenetrability. It would therefore be a mistake to assume that mafia power has been in any sense relegated to the past.

The continued strength and territorial influence of mafia groups has sobering implications for any analysis of the antimafia legacy. Despite clear evidence that organized crime remains a pervasive force, the Italian government has shown little interest in tackling the problem in a systemic manner, despite having many legal tools to do so. Nicola Gratteri, one of Italy’s foremost antimafia prosecutors and leader of Operation Rinascita-Scott, the largest prosecution effort against the 'Ndrangheta, recently criticized the current government for essentially doing nothing to combat organized crime. Gratteri’s critique has deep historical echoes, as national politics has traditionally been the greatest impediment to antimafia efforts. So, while Italy has more and stronger antimafia institutions than it did in the time of Falcone and Borsellino, political inaction has prevented them from being used to their full potential.

Yet despite the shortcomings at the political level, important change has occurred in Southern Italy. The continued vitality of the antimafia movement, and particularly the success of grassroots engagement, is striking. The development of institutional, cultural, and civic organizations dedicated to undermining organized crime has created a society that is safer and more liberated for the law-abiding, and one that is in many respects more tenuous for the “men of honor.” The antimafia movement has also given voice to the many Southern Italians who wish to reclaim an identity free of the stigma of criminality. Rather than being the land of organized crime, Sicily can now credibly claim to be the land that fought back against Cosa Nostra. It is not merely the home of the mafia, it is also the home of antimafia heroes.

At a ceremony I attended in Capaci to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the 1992 massacre, the most poignant line was spoken by Sicilian comedians Federico and Fabrizio Sansone at the memorial tree planted outside Giovanni Falcone’s former apartment. “Per noi siciliani, Sicilia non è Cosa Nostra, ma casa nostra.” “For Sicilians, Sicily is not Cosa Nostra, it is our home.” This is the legacy of Falcone and his friend and colleague Paolo Borsellino: a Sicily that, whatever its problems, is more open and secure for those who live there. A Sicily that venerates honorable men and rejects “men of honor.” A Sicily that increasingly fulfills the promises of home. A Sicily of NO MAFIA.

PoliticsEuropeItalyCrimeLong Read

Maura Cremin

Maura Cremin holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Chicago. She researches organized crime, criminal violence, and criminal law and was a 2021–2 Fulbright Scholar in Palermo, Sicily.