The Sicilian mafia is both the flower and the antidote. In the first place it is primitive, resulting in frequent acts of violence inspired by quick tempers, uncontrollable jealousies, vendettas, or the mere habit of recourse to deadly weapons. This accounts for the remarkably high percentage of homicides throughout the annals of Sicilian crime. Apart from homicide, criminal record in Island of Sicily is a good deal better than that of Italy as a whole. Secondly, the female delinquent is generally absent, the woman instigator of crime, common elsewhere, being rare, and the active female criminal practically unknown. Indeed, Sicilian women generally were and are kept as much in the dark as to underworld activities as British women in regard to Freemasonry.
As for the mafia, it has always been a purely masculine affair. On the other hand, Sicilian crime has always numbered among its ranks a great many boys. This feature is common to the whole of southern Italy, and depends very largely upon the precocious development of youth in that part of the world.
Such is the material over which the mafia exercises its control, and its task is facilitated very much by the natural tendency of Sicilian malefaction to act in groups or gangs, in so-called association a delinguere. The individual delinquent, the free-lance of crime, is or was a greater exception than in most countries, and the mafia generally uses its influence against him, or withholds from him its protection, which often amounts to the same thing. Indeed, the close co-operation between criminals of every order and the organization or organizations known as the mafia makes it impossible for anyone to draw a clear distinction between them, although it should never be forgotten that the higher mafia and the outsiders who have recourse to it rarely have anything to do with specifically criminal enterprises.
The mafia is, therefore, a system of discipline and exploitation based essentially on the fear of reprisals. In the absence of an efficient executive justice supplied by police, law courts, judges and juries, it falls back upon the cruder principles of ‘Honour among thieves’. But the enormous power of the mafia has always been far from perfectly organic and harmonious. Internally, it pays the penalty of illegality by being liable to sporadic feuds between rival groups of mafiusi over questions of supremacy, monopoly, profit or prestige.
Such feuds are comparatively rare, since the authority and tact of the capi-mafia are generally sufficient to assuage any major dispute before the tempers of the parties concerned have become uncontrollable. But there have been occasions in the past when hot-headedness or brutality have got the upper hand: one or two murders would start a vendetta, which would go on and on between group and group, often between family and family, until the fury of the contending parties had spent itself, which might be a matter of a few years, of a lifetime, or of two or three generations.
These protracted vendettas were not, of course, confined to the mafiusi. They belong to Italian tradition generally, and are abundantly recorded in the annals of almost every part of Italy.
Vendettas were sometimes carried on in places very remote from where they began. A stabbing in Palermo might be followed by a shooting in New York or Chicago, nor was it infrequent, once the fatal give-and-take had started, that the longest journeys were undertaken for the sole purpose of carrying out the dictates of the lex talionis.