Criminal organizations exist because they serve a purpose. In the case of many of the mafia-like organizations, the criminal gangs run an informal or ‘black’ economy which enables the formal or ‘white’ economy to work. The normal market, in Russia, India or traditionally in southern Italy, does not operate properly. There is little trust in the legal institutions which are supposed to underpin the market. The police, bureaucracy and politicians are widely believed to be corrupt. There is often inefficiency and over-regulation. Nothing gets done without huge efforts and bribes.
In this situation the mafia, through the bonds of loyalty and fear, through the concepts of omerta (honour, keeping one’s word), and the punishment of deviation, provide the assurances and the security which the state cannot provide.
If one loses a valuable object it is no good going to the police who are inefficient and corrupt. Far better to engage the ‘brotherhood’ of the mafia who will put out the word and very soon the stolen object will be hastily returned and the thief punished. Or again, to do a deal, make a contract with another unrelated person, whether it is just to buy or sell a cow, or to build a new road or airport, it is essential that the other party be under some pressure to honour the deal. So the mafia is used as a general guarantee.
To avoid time-wasting and money-wasting obstacles, licenses, customs obstructions and regulations of various kinds, the mafia will smooth the way. The national and international reach of cosa nostra, ‘our people’, will overcome all difficulties.
The mafia ensure this by a blend of physical and symbolic violence. Occasionally the mafiosi are sent out to use the bullet, the knife or the fire-bomb, but most of the time the threat is enough. The dark glasses which stop the human contact through the eyes, the large, dark, bullet-proof car, the prickly pear leaf left as a calling card, the head of a favourite animal on the pillow, certain menacing tones and gestures, make offers of protection difficult to refuse.
The mafia tends to operate in the grey area between the legal and illegal. The inhabit the land of debased human desires, in gambling, drink, sex, illegal sports and drugs, which the State both tolerates and tries to eliminate at the same time.