Living with the Mafia – Tim Stephenson – 21st June 2021

Our own member Tim Stephenson gave us a chilling insight into life – and death – under the Mafia, based on research rather than experience. He has a special interest in Italy, having already given us two interesting talks on the wealthy and immensely powerful Medici dynasty who first came to prominence in the 15th century. There are comparisons, it seems, suggesting that corruption in Italy is nothing new.

Much of Tim’s presentation revolved around the so-called Maxi Trial, a criminal trial against the Scicilian Mafia that took place in Palermo, lasting from 10th February 1986 to 30th January 1992, and was held in a bunker-style courthouse specially constructed inside the walls of the Ucciardone prison.

Prosecutors indicted 475 mafiosi for crimes related to Mafia activities, based primarily on testimonies from former Mafia bosses turned informants. Life sentences were handed out to 19 defendants, and 338 people were sentenced to a total of 2,665 years.

It was considered to be the most significant trial ever held against the Sicilian Mafia, but it was by no means the end of the story and came at a terrible cost to two of the principal judges, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, and their families.

Both men were assassinated by the Corleonesi Mafiosi in 1992, 59 days apart. Falcone and his wife, along with three police escorts, were blown up by a bomb which consisted of 200 kilograms of TNT and 200 kilograms of Semtex which had been packed into drums laid in a conduit – which was then blocked off at either end with concrete – underneath the A29 motorway. Borsellino, who had no escort, was killed by a car bomb while visiting his mother in Palermo.

Palermo International Airport has been renamed Falcone-Borsellino Airport in their memory.

Tim explained that much of the Mafia’s funding came from protection money extorted from almost anybody who was in business, no matter how small. If they failed to meet the demands, they paid the ultimate price. We were shown grisly photographs of the bodies of a taxi driver, a barber and a bartender, all of whom had met with fatal ‘accidents’ at their places of work.

The Mafia also perpetrated some spectacular thefts, including in 2002 that of two paintings from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Both were recovered in Italy 14 years later.

Because Sicily was once an Islamic emirate, it is thought the word mafia might have been of Arabic origin, although this is uncertain. The word mā hias, or mahyas, means cockiness or bragging.