Blood Brotherhoods

A History of Italy’s Three Mafias


By John Dickie

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The Sicilian mafia, known as Cosa Nostra, is far from being Italy’s only dangerous criminal fraternity. The country hosts two other major mafias: the camorra from Naples; and, from the poor and isolated region of Calabria, the mysterious ‘ndrangheta, which has now risen to become the most powerful mob group active today.

Since they emerged, the mafias have all corrupted Italy’s institutions, drastically curtailed the life-chances of its citizens, evaded justice, and set up their own self-interested meddling as an alternative to the courts. Yet each of these brotherhoods has its own methods, its own dark rituals, its own style of ferocity. Each is uniquely adapted to corrupt and exploit its own specific environment, as it collaborates with, learns from, and goes to war with the other mafias.

Today, the shadow of organized crime hangs over a country racked by debt, political paralysis, and widespread corruption. The ‘ndrangheta controls much of Europe’s wholesale cocaine trade and, by some estimates, 3 percent of Italy’s total GDP. Blood Brotherhoods traces the origins of this national malaise back to Italy’s roots as a united country in the nineteenth century, and shows how political violence incubated underworld sects among the lemon groves of Palermo, the fetid slums of Naples, and the harsh mountain villages of Calabria.

Blood Brotherhoods is a book of breathtaking ambition, tracing for the first time the interlocking story of all three mafias from their origins to the present day. John Dickie is recognized in Italy as one of the foremost historians of organized crime. In these pages, he blends archival detective work, passionate narrative, and shrewd analysis to bring a unique criminal ecosystem — and the three terrifying criminal brotherhoods that have evolved within it — to life on the page.


Praise for Blood Brotherhoods

     ‘[BLOOD BROTHERHOODS] is no dry, scholarly work. Dickie writes with the same distinctive flair that made his book DELIZIA!, on the history of Italian cuisine, so readable.’

    Daily Telegraph

     ‘It is almost certainly the most ambitious true-crime assignment ever: to lift the veil of myth, mystery and silence—omertà—shrouding Italy’s notorious criminal organisations. The result is a stunning success; a sprawling, powerful historical narrative that is the definitive story of Sicily’s Mafia, the Camorra of Naples and Calabria’s ’Ndrangheta.’

    Adelaide Advertiser

     ‘Both fine social history and hair-raising true crime, this account of the Italian underworld clans tells a grimly fascinating tale.’


     ‘Exciting and well written, it plays out like a 19th-century Sopranos.’


     ‘Magisterial . . . absorbing . . . ’


     ‘[E]nthralling . . . chillingly charts the birth and rise of all three of Italy’s mafias.’

    —Dr John Guy

     ‘Italians often complain that foreigners are obsessed by the Mafia, turning a localised problem of organised crime into a stereotype that damages the image of a whole nation. Yet as John Dickie shows in this chilling and eye-opening book, the real problem is that the stereotype is correct. . . . A fine book.’

    —Bill Emmott, The Times (London)

     ‘Drawn with expertise and mastery of detail . . . [Dickie] combines narrative skills in his description of skullduggery with excellent pen-portraits of striking individuals. His reader-friendly, racy style becomes more sober and reflective when he offers points of analysis, and now no one anywhere writes with such authority on Italy’s criminal gangs.’

    —Times Literary Supplement

     ‘John Dickie’s chronicling of the Italian mafias is both fine in detail and engrossing in narrative sweep.’

    —John Lloyd, Financial Times

Also by John Dickie

Cosa Nostra


Mafia Republic

          The blackest despair that can take hold of any society is the fear that living honestly is futile.



As first described by Tommaso Buscetta in 1984


(Source: ‘Operazione Crimine’, summer 2010.)



               Once upon a time, three Spanish knights landed on the island of Favignana, just off the westernmost tip of Sicily. They were called Osso, Mastrosso and Carcagnosso and they were fugitives. One of their sisters had been raped by an arrogant nobleman, and the three knights had fled Spain after washing the crime in blood.

               Somewhere among Favignana’s many caves and grottoes, Osso, Mastrosso and Carcagnosso found sanctuary. But they also found a place where they could channel their sense of injustice into creating a new code of conduct, a new form of brotherhood. Over the next twenty-nine years, they dreamed up and refined the rules of the Honoured Society. Then, at last, they took their mission out into the world.

               Osso dedicated himself to Saint George, and crossed into nearby Sicily where he founded the branch of the Honoured Society that would become known as the mafia.

               Mastrosso chose the Madonna as his sponsor, and sailed to Naples where he founded another branch: the camorra.

               Carcagnosso became a devotee of the Archangel Michael, and crossed the straits between Sicily and the Italian mainland to reach Calabria. There, he founded the ’ndrangheta.

BLOOD BROTHERHOODS IS A HISTORY OF ITALYS THREE MOST FEARED CRIMINAL organisations, or mafias, from their origins to the present day. But no historian can claim to be the first person drawn towards the mystery of how the Sicilian mafia, the Neapolitan camorra and the Calabrian ’ndrangheta began. Mafiosi got there first. Each of Italy’s major underworld fraternities has its own foundation myth. For example, the story of Osso, Mastrosso and Carcagnosso (names that mean something like ‘Bone’, ‘Masterbone’, and ‘Heelbone’) is the ’ndrangheta’s official account of its own birth: it is a tale told to Calabrian recruits when they prepare to join the local clan and embark on a life of murder, extortion and trafficking.

As history, the three Spanish knights have about as much substance as the three bears. Their story is hooey. But it is serious, sacramental hooey all the same. The study of nationalism has given us fair warning: any number of savage iniquities can be committed in the name of fables about the past. Moreover, in the course of the last 150 years, Italy’s criminal brotherhoods have frequently occluded the truth by imposing their own narrative on events: all too often the official version of history turns out to derive from the mafias’ myths, which are a great deal more insidious than the hokum about Osso, Mastrosso and Carcagnosso might initially suggest. No ordinary gang, however powerful, has lasted as long as the mafias, nor has it had the same drive to control how its own past is narrated. The very fact that the mafias value history so highly betrays the outrageous scale of their ambition.

Mafia history is filled with many outrages much worse than this. Acts of appalling ferocity are the most obvious. The mafias’ cruelty is essential to what they are and what they do; there is no such thing as a mafia without murder, nor has there ever been. Yet violence is only the beginning. Through violence, and through the many tactics that it makes possible, the mafias have corrupted Italy’s institutions, drastically curtailed the life-chances of its citizens, evaded justice, and set up their own self-interested meddling as an alternative to the courts. So the real outrage of Italy’s mafias is not the countless lives that have been cruelly curtailed—including, very frequently, the lives of the mafiosi themselves. Nor is it even the livelihoods stunted, the resources wasted, the priceless landscapes defiled. The real outrage is that these murderers constitute a parallel ruling class in southern Italy. They infiltrate the police, the judiciary, local councils, national ministries, and the economy. They also command a measure of public support. And they have done all this pretty much since the Italian state was founded in 1861. As Italy grew, so too did the mafias. Despite what Fascist propaganda has led many people to believe, the criminal fraternities survived under Mussolini’s regime and even infiltrated it. They prospered as never before with the peace and democracy that have characterised the period since 1946. Indeed, when Italy transformed itself into one of the world’s wealthiest capitalist economies in the 1960s, the criminal organisations became stronger, more affluent and more violent than ever. They also multiplied and spread, spawning new mafias and new infestations in parts of the national territory that had hitherto seemed immune. Italy is a young country, a modern creation, and the mafias are one of the symptoms of modernity, Italian style.

Today, in the areas of Italy where criminal power is strongest, it constitutes nothing short of a criminal regime. In a secret dispatch from 2008 that found its way onto the Wikileaks site, the United States Consul General in Naples reported on Calabria. One might quibble with one or two of his statistics, but the core of the diagnosis is as true as it is dispiriting:

     The ’ndrangheta organized crime syndicate controls vast portions of [Calabria’s] territory and economy, and accounts for at least three percent of Italy’s GDP (probably much more) through drug trafficking, extortion and usury . . . Much of the region’s industry collapsed over a decade ago, leaving environmental and economic ruin. The region comes in last place in nearly every category of national economic assessments. Most of the politicians we met on a recent visit were fatalistic, of the opinion that there was little that could be done to stop the region’s downward economic spiral or the stranglehold of the ’ndrangheta. A few others disingenuously suggested that organized crime is no longer a problem . . . No one believes the central government has much, if any, control of Calabria, and local politicians are uniformly seen as ineffective and/or corrupt. If Calabria were not part of Italy, it would be a failed state.

Italy is and has always been a deeply troubled society. But it is not a banana republic in South America, or an impoverished warlord demesne in Asia, or some remnant of a shattered empire in Eastern Europe. Unless our maps are all calamitously wrong, the famous boot-shaped peninsula is not located in a region of the world where one might expect to find the state’s authority undermined by a violent and rapacious alternative power. Italy is a full member of the family of Western European nations. Alone among those nations, it has the mafias. Herein lie both the urgency and the fascination of mafia history.

Yet writing mafia history is a young field of scholarship: it is predominantly a child of the unprecedented mafia savagery of the 1980s and early 1990s, when Italian researchers began to channel their sense of outrage into patient and rigorous study. Overwhelmingly, those historians, whose numbers have grown steadily, hail from the same regions of southern Italy that are worst afflicted by Italy’s permanent crime emergency—regions where mafia history is still being made. Some researchers are lucky enough to hold university positions like I do. Others are prosecutors and officers of the law. Some are just ordinary citizens. But all of them are bent on pitting hard evidence and open debate against the lies spread by the mafias and their allies. There can be few other areas where the discipline of understanding the past can make such a direct contribution to building a better future. To defeat the mafias, one has to know what they are; and they are what their history shows us, no more and no less. Thanks to the labours of a number of historians, we can now shine lights into the obscurity of Italian organised crime’s development, revealing a narrative that is both disturbing and disturbingly relevant to the present.

Blood Brotherhoods springs from my belief that the findings of this growing body of research are too important to be kept among specialists. It draws together the known documentation and the best research to create a ‘choral’ work, as the Italians might say: a book in which many voices tell a single tale. My own voice is one of those in the chorus, in that Blood Brotherhoods also incorporates substantial new findings that complement and correct the story that has emerged from the exciting work being done in Italy.

This book is also distinctive in another important respect: it seeks to tell the story of all the mafias of Italy. Historians have only very rarely done sustained comparative research like this. (For sociologists and criminologists, by contrast, comparison is a stock-in-trade.) Perhaps it is understandable that historians have fallen behind—and not just because writing a unified history of organised crime in Italy is a dauntingly huge job. The criminal fraternities of Sicily, Campania and Calabria each evolved to fit the characteristic features of the territory it fed off. So at various points in their history, they have differed more than the catchall tag ‘mafia’ might lead us to assume.

Yet the mafias have never existed in isolation. What they share is just as important as the many things that distinguish them. Throughout their history, all three have communicated and learned from one another. So for all their individual peculiarities, studying Italy’s underworld organisations in isolation is a bit like trying to figure out the dynamics of natural selection just by staring at beetles impaled on pins in a dusty display case. A broader, comparative context shows us that Italy does not have solitary, static criminal organisms; rather, it has a rich underworld ecosystem that continues to generate new life-forms to this day.

The traces of the mafias’ common history are visible in a shared language. Omertà is one example—or umiltà (humility) to give its original form. Across southern Italy and Sicily, omertà-umiltà has denoted a code of silence and submission to criminal authority. ‘Honour’ is another instance: all three organisations invoked a code of honour and have at one time or another called themselves the Honoured Society.

The links among the mafias go far beyond words and are one of the reasons for their success and longevity. So the virtues of comparison, and of reading the histories of the mafia, the camorra and the ’ndrangheta in parallel, are perhaps the only lessons in historical method that the fable of Osso, Mastrosso and Carcagnosso has to teach us.

In 2004 I published Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia, in which I brought together the best Italian research on the most notorious of Italy’s criminal fraternities. Blood Brotherhoods is not a sequel to Cosa Nostra: it will stand or fall on its own terms. But readers of Cosa Nostra may recognise my retelling of a few episodes from that earlier book, so they deserve to know before starting why the Sicilian mafia is integral to my concerns here. There are two reasons: first, because even in the last ten years or so, new discoveries have radically changed our view of key moments in the history of organised crime in Sicily; second, because there is also a great deal to learn about the Sicilian mafia by comparing it with the camorra and the ’ndrangheta. One thing that the comparison teaches us is that the sinister fame enjoyed by Sicilian mafiosi is amply deserved.

Sicily gave the world the term ‘mafia’, and the fact that that term has entered daily use not just in Italy but across the world is itself a symptom of Sicilian organised crime’s pervasive influence. In the dialect of Palermo, the island’s capital, ‘mafia’ denoted beauty and self-confidence: ‘cool’ comes about as close as English can to its original meaning. In the 1860s, just after the troubled island of Sicily became part of the newly united state of Italy, ‘mafia’ began to serve as a label for an organisation whose shape briefly became visible through a fog of violence and corruption. The mafia (which would soon disappear into the fog once more) had existed for some time by then, and it had already reached a level of power and wealth that delinquents on the mainland could only aspire to. That power and wealth explains why the Sicilian word ‘mafia’ became an umbrella term for all of Italy’s underworld brotherhoods, including the camorra and ’ndrangheta. Across more than a century and a half—the arc of time covered in these pages—we can chart the fortunes of the peninsula’s other two mafias against the heights that the Sicilians reached from the outset.

These days the Sicilian mafia is usually known as Cosa Nostra (‘our thing’), a moniker that mafiosi in both the United States and Sicily adopted in the 1960s. (The public and the authorities in Italy did not find out about this new name until 1984.) The name ’ndrangheta stuck to the Calabrian mafia in the mid-1950s. (It means ‘manliness’ or ‘courage’.) In both cases, the new names coalesced because post-war public opinion and law enforcement became more searching, and gradually brought into focus a picture that had been blurred by a century of muddle, negligence and downright collusion.

So the first half of Blood Brotherhoods, which concludes with the fall of Fascism and the Allied Liberation of Italy, tells a story of underworld regimes that were as yet, if not nameless, then certainly ignored or mysterious, surrounded either by silence (in the case of the ’ndrangheta) or by endless, inconclusive dispute (in the case of the Sicilian mafia).

The camorra had a different relationship to its name. While structured criminal power has waxed and waned through Neapolitan history, the camorra has almost always been called the camorra. The original Honoured Society of Naples was, like the mafias of Sicily and Calabria, a sworn, occult sect of gangsters. Yet it had strangely few secrets. Everyone in Naples knew all about it. Which is one reason why its history has a dramatically different trajectory to the Honoured Societies of Sicily and Calabria.

By taking a comparative approach, Blood Brotherhoods will offer answers to some insistent questions. The first and most obvious of those questions is, How did Italy’s mafias begin? The worst answers recycle baseless legends that blame Arab invaders in Sicily and Spanish rulers in Naples. Such stories are close to the yarns spun by the Honoured Societies themselves—suspiciously close. Scarcely any better are the answers that evoke abstractions like ‘the culture’, ‘the mentality’, or ‘the southern Italian family’.

There are explanations, for both the origins and the persistence of mafia crime, that sound rather more sophisticated. University textbooks tend to talk about the fragile legitimacy of the state, the citizens’ lack of trust in the government institutions, the prevalence of patronage and clientelism in politics and administration, and so on. As a professor of Italian history, I myself have recited phrases like this in the past. So I know only too well that they rarely leave anyone much wiser. Nonetheless there is one crucial nugget of truth underneath all this jargon: the history of organised crime in Italy is as much about Italy’s weakness as it is about the mafias’ strength. Omertà leads us to the heart of the issue: it is often portrayed as being an iron code of silence, a stark choice between collusion and death. In some cases, it certainly is just as harsh a law as its reputation suggests. Yet the historical sources also show that, under the right kind of pressure, omertà has broken again and again. Far from respecting an ancient silence, mafiosi have been talking to the police since they first went into business. That persistent weakness is one reason why so many of the underworld’s darkest secrets are still there in the archives for us to unearth. And one reason why mafia history is often more about misinformation and intrigue than it is about violence and death.

The best way to divulge those secrets and reconstruct those intrigues is to begin by simply telling stories—documented stories that feature real crimes, real men and women, real choices made in specific times and places. The best historians of organised crime in Italy reconstruct those stories from fragmentary archival sources and from the accounts of people (notably criminals) who often have very good reasons to distort what they say. It is not banal to compare this kind of historical research to detective work. Detectives labour to create a coherent prosecution case by matching the material evidence to what witnesses and suspects tell them. In both tasks—the historian’s and the detective’s—the truth emerges as much from the gaps and inconsistencies in the available testimonies as it does from the facts those testimonies contain.

But the question that drives research into Italy’s long and fraught relationship to these sinister fraternities is not just who committed which crimes. The question is also who knew what. Over the last century and a half, police, magistrates, politicians, opinion formers and even the general public have had access to a surprising amount of information about the mafia problem, thanks in part to the fragility of omertà. Italians have also, repeatedly, been shocked and angered by mafia violence and by the way some of its police, judiciary and politicians have colluded with crime bosses. As a result, the mafia drama has frequently been played out very visibly: as high-profile political confrontation, as media event. Yet Italy has also proved positively ingenious in finding reasons to look the other way. So the story of Italy’s mafias is not just a whodunit? It is also a who knew it? and, most importantly, a why on earth didn’t they do something about it?

       INTRODUCTION: Blood brothers

IN THE EARLY HOURS OF 15 AUGUST 2007, IN THE GERMAN STEEL TOWN OF DUISBURG, six young men of Italian origin climbed into a car and a van, a few yards away from the Da Bruno restaurant where they had been celebrating a birthday. One of them was just eighteen (it was his party), and another was only sixteen. Like the rest of the group, these two boys died very quickly, where they sat. Two killers fired fifty-four shots, even taking the time to reload their 9mm pistols and administer a coup de grâce to each of the six in turn.

This was the worst ever mafia bloodbath outside Italy and the United States—northern Europe’s equivalent to the St Valentine’s Day massacre in Chicago in 1929. As the background to the murders emerged—a long-running blood feud in a little-known region of southern Italy—journalists across the globe began struggling with what the New York Times called an ‘unpronounceable name’: ’ndrangheta.

For the record, the name is pronounced as follows: an-drang-get-ah. The ’ndrangheta hails from Calabria (the ‘toe’ of the Italian boot), and it is oldest and strongest in the province of Reggio Calabria where the peninsula almost touches Sicily. Calabria is Italy’s poorest region, but its mafia has now become the country’s richest and most powerful. In the 1990s, ’ndranghetisti (as Calabrian Men of Honour are called) earned themselves a leading position within the European cocaine market by dealing directly with South American producer cartels. The Calabrians have the strongest regime of omertà


  • “Dickie's absorbing history of the Italian mob makes The Godfather look like a fairy tale… These ‘men of honor' and ‘lads with attitude' created their own myths. Until Dickie's revelatory book, most believed them.”—Kirkus starred review

    "Dickie's extremely well-researched book has an extensive list of (mostly Italian) sources and covers the history and geography of Italy and provides historical analysis. He writes clearly and cleverly.”—Library Journal

On Sale
Apr 22, 2014
Page Count
800 pages

John Dickie

About the Author

John Dickie is Professor of Italian Studies at University College, London. His book, Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia, is an international bestseller, with over 20 translations, and won the CWA Dagger Award for non-fiction. Since then he has published Delizia! The Epic History of the Italians and their Food (2007) — now a six-part TV series for History Channel Italia and other networks worldwide. In 2005 the President of the Italian Republic appointed him a Commendatore dell’Ordine della Stella della Solidarietà Italiana. He lives in London.

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