The singer Manu Chao once said of the connection between organised crime and politics:
‘The worst enemy of democracy in the 21st century is not military dictatorships, but mafia dictatorships, and military dictatorships will seem really light in comparison. It’s already happening in Russia and in Mexico, but it’s coming up everywhere, and it’s very very very very dangerous. More and more and places I go, and I have the chance to travel a lot, the mafia is in control.’
This theme feels close to home for two reasons. One is that just down the road in Ostia an apparent alliance between a mafia clan and a far-right organisation looks set to be the decisive element in a local election. The area was partly the setting for the film and subsequent Netflix series ‘Suburra‘, a slightly lurid take on the events which culminated in the Partito Democratico-controlled local council being dissolved for mafia infiltration in 2015 as part of a response to a scandal known as Mafia Capitale. Among many other eye-popping examples of corruption in and around Rome, there were revelations of mafia groups making huge amounts of money from the management of immigrant detention centres.
The far-right organisation known as Casapound is a gang of fascist street thugs. Although their name has erudite connotations (it’s a reference to the Mussolini-supporting poet Ezra Pound), their propaganda consists of the standard racist clichés dressed up in the pretentious but intellectually derisory rhetoric of all Italian fascists. They have a particular focus on ‘heroes’. A recent poster stuck up on a bridge near our flat called refugees, by contrast, cowards. As it happens, Casapound have contempt for actual heroes of Italian history, calling Second World War partisans ‘rapists‘. Nonetheless, their visibility and influence has been steadlily growing, partly because in some of the most deprived areas of the city, such as Nuova Ostia, they have been running food banks and other essential social services, taking over from the State in the wake of the huge public spending cuts of the last decade. In run-down areas of Ostia they got 20% of the vote, and the 8% they got overall means they may well hold the balance of power after the second round of voting.
They’ve also been active around the issue of housing. Distribution of ‘case popolari’ (council houses) is a hugely sensitive issue and thus easy pickings for those whose aim is to divide the poor against each other. They have demonstrated against immigrants or Italians of foreign origin moving into apartments allocated to them. Perhaps sensing an affinity, in the elections this month one local mafia group known as Spada gave open support to Casapound; it was when the brother of the rumoured leader was asked by a journalist about these connections that things took a violent turn. Of course, Casapound spokespeople have since tried to distance themselves from organised criminals, but given that they also deny (among other things) l’Olocausto, such statements should be taken with un pizzico di sale.
The violent contempt which both the far-right and the mafia have for a free and independent media brings me to the second reason these events strike a chord with me. In 2015-2016 my wife and I lived in Mexico, where I had daily cause to marvel at the incredible bravery of reporters who, despite constant threats and regular assasinations of their colleagues, reported on atrocities and the links between the culprits and those in power. Although the far-right is not present in the same way in Mexican politics, it’s not really necessary given how extreme the mainstream parties are; nevertheless, it does have a presence in the army and may have influenced the impunity granted to members of the military in the wake of (one can safely presume) their massacre of left-wing students in Iguala.
The mafia relies upon silence, (omertà), which means that anyone investigating it is taking a huge risk. Mexico is not the only dangerous place to be a reporter. Donald Trumps’s new Best Dictator Friend in the Philippines once remarked that ‘Just because you’re a journalist, you’re not exempted from assassination’; this week, in the company of and to the apparent amusement of Trump (who rumours have linked to the mafia for decades), Duterte openly referred to journalists as ‘spies’. There have been an increasing number of reminders over the last few months that the global infrastructure of human rights was a response to the horrors of uniformed fascism: General John Kelly’s recommendation to Trump that he use a sword he’d been presented with on journalists carried many chilling and probably deliberate echoes. Truimp’s attuitude to political power is very reminiscent of that of any number of notorious Mexican political figures. As I wrote in December last year:
‘We don’t have to stretch our powers of speculation to imagine what a world run by and for Trump would look like. Basta ver what has happened over the last few years in the State of Veracruz: massive corruption and abuse of power backed up by the murder of anyone who investigates or speaks out.’
Of course, the fact of the relationship between fascists and the mafia will be no revelation to anyone who is from Italy or who follows its politics. In the decades after the fall of Mussolini’s regime, the far-right Propaganda Due (P2) masonic lodge, which allegedly included Silvio Berlusconi, was involved in targetted assasinations, huge financial scandals and attempts to manipulate the political situation to the advantage of far-right elites. Journalists were very often targetted for intimidation and murder. We recently went to an exhibition in Rome of photographs by the phenomenally courageous Sicilian photographer Letizia Battaglia, who documented several decades of violence in Palermo against anyone who trod on the toes of the mafia or annoyed their political servants. There are echoes of this period in the writer Roberto Saviano’s reaction to events in Ostia. He puts them in the context of the long history of the relationship between fascists and the mafia from the 1920s onwards. Few are better placed to understand what goes on behind the headlines – he has lived in hiding for the last eleven years because of his work exposing the neapolitan Camorra.
In 2011, Saviano shared the Olof Palme Prize with the Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho ‘for their tireless, selfless and often lonely work in support of their ideals and for human rights’. Such bravery made me feel guilty that after a while in Mexico I stopped reading the newspapers every day. Although La Jornada was mostly in black and white, the accounts of mass killings around the country were just as shocking as the lurid front pages of the more sensationalist publications, with their blood and gore and the neverending telenovela of El Chapo. Of course, the bogeymen identified in the press or on TV may not tell you all that much about how power operates behind the scenes.
As it happens, the poet, theatre and film director Pier Paolo Pasolini was murdered in Ostia, in an apparently mafia-style killing in November 1975. Although his last film, ‘Salò, or the 120 days of Sodom‘, with its almost unwatchable scenes of human brutality, was set during the final collapsing orgy of fascist rule, it wasn’t a historical document about the barbarities of the Second World War, but rather an analogy to something deep within the Italian State. It was, in a sense, a film in which Silvio Berlusconi was a central character; tales of his underage bunga bunga orgies recalled the scenes in which venally corrupt businessmen cavorted with uniformed sadists. Last week the newly politically-revitalised Berlusconi announced the cabinet he hopes to appoint after the general elections next year, with a prominent role for the openly anti-immigrant ‘centrodestra’ figure Giorgia Meloni and the position of Minister of the Interior reserved for the up-and-coming fascist demagogue Matteo Salvini. It’s starting to feel like there could well be a Salò Part 2.
*The term ‘centre-right’ is a ubiquitous euphemism in Italian politics, and speaking of ubiquity, anyone wanting to understand why Italian society sees regular outbursts of repugnant anti-immigrant sentiment needs to take into account the fact that Meloni and Salvini are never, ever, not even for a second, off the fucking TV.