A ‘Mafia’ state of mind...

Malta is a country in which organised crime exists... But I am unaware of the existence of any country in the world where criminal organisations do not operate at all. 'Mafia State', however, implies far more than just Mafia resence

(Photo by James Bianchi/Media Today)
(Photo by James Bianchi/Media Today)

First off, I must admit that those ‘Mafia State’ T-shirts, on sale at the recent protests, are pretty cool. (My only criticism is that they would be much cooler if also available in black; but that’s just me). The slogan itself sounds like the name of a Brian De Palma movie, or a novel by Roberto Saviano. It would even make an awesome Gangsta Rap album title: I can just picture Eminem or Doctor Dre going to town with a lyrical theme like that. 

Whether it is an accurate description of 21st century Malta is, however, a very different question. And not an easy one to answer, either.

Let’s start with the actual issue of Mafia presence. That Malta is a country in which organised crime exists – including, but not limited to, the Sicilian Mafia... yes, I guess we can all see that now. But I am unaware of the existence of any country in the world where criminal organisations do not operate at all. 

The words ‘Mafia State’, however, imply far more than just Mafia presence. They indicate either some of form of control of the State by said criminal organisation; or that the State itself is a ‘mafia’ in the looser sense of the word. If the former was the intended meaning... well, for much the same reason, it is hard to refute. Not just for Malta, but for almost any other country. 

Broadly speaking, the Mafia controls politicians – anywhere in the world - through bribery and threats of violence. But mostly, I would imagine, through bribery... given that the Mafia, if ranked as a legitimate global corporation, would probably be every bit as wealthy and influential as Bill Gates.

To consolidate their grip on power, governments resort to a hierarchical system of trusted appointments... in which everyone knows whose ring to kiss at whose wedding, all the way up the chain to the Padrino

In fact, if you are going to somehow enslave a State, it can only be through corruption. Brute criminal force is clearly not going to work. Are we to understand, then, that other countries in the world are somehow immune to the corruptive influence of organised crime? If so... what’s their secret? What magic formula do they use to guarantee that their administrations are 100% Mafia-proof?  

Not a very successful one, I would say at a glance. Take Italy, for instance: the country that invented the ‘Mafia’ to begin with. Just yesterday, an Italian journalist was savagely assaulted while investigating a Mafia-related story, resulting in a nationwide outcry. Already some attempts have been made to compare this with Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder... both were journalists, both victims of violence, etc. There is, however, a rather crucial difference: one had his nose broken, and the other was blown to smithereens by a car-bomb. Not quite the same thing at all.

No, the reason I mention it is that the story this Italian journalist was following involved alleged Mafia involvement in a regional election. Specifically, he was investigating claims that the Mafia had rigged the Ostia election to favour an extreme rightwing party. 

Even if this were a one-off, I’d say it would be unfair to dismiss Italy as a ‘mafia state’ on that basis alone. But of course, it’s not a one-off.

Time and space do not permit more in-depth examples: but seeing as so many people have already cited the assassinations of Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, it is worth remembering that most of the resistance those two judges actually encountered in their anti-mafia investigations came from politicians, not directly from mafiosi.  

So if Malta is a ‘Mafia state’ by that definition... then what the heck is Italy? 

The second interpretation is even more insidious. Here we have to further distinguish between ‘Mafia’ as in ‘Cosa Nostra’; ‘Mafia’ as in ‘any old criminal organisation that uses the same methods’... and then, an additional distinction: any organisation at all, that operates through secret cabals and a ruthless system of ‘outsiders’ and ‘insiders’.

Progress can’t be achieved by printing T-shirts or by knee-jerk demands like ‘Sack the Commissioner’

That last one is a bit tricky: a criminal organisation is, after all, not unlike a government in many respects. There is a target – money for the Mafia, power for the government – that both categories would stop at nothing to acquire. Though one is legitimate and the other isn’t, the means to the end invariably overlaps. To consolidate their grip on power, governments resort to a hierarchical system of trusted appointments... in which everyone knows whose ring to kiss at whose wedding, all the way up the chain to the Padrino.

On that score, who the hell can deny that Malta is a ‘Mafia state’? The entire Godfather trilogy could have been filmed here. And it’s been this way ever since I can remember, too.  So for what it’s worth, I’ll stick to the first definition... even if it applies to any other country equally. Let us, for the sake of argument, agree that Malta can be described as a ‘Mafia State’... because the Mafia is here, in this State.  The question becomes: what are we going to do about it?

And it’s been here for quite a while, too. To give a few examples from the days when, perhaps, many of us did not notice: in 2008, Birkirkara car dealer Raymond Agius was shot dead in a bar by two motorcyclists wearing helmets with their visors down. The assassins sped off on their motorbike, and were never identified. The police at the time said that the murder was likely a ‘foreign contract killing’.   (Translation: ‘Don’t expect us to solve this one, it’s beyond our capabilities’).

In 2009, Nicola Romano – who owns a gypsum workshop in St Paul’s Bay – found the body of his son incinerated in his own furnace, with some 20 nails embedded in his skull with a nail-gun. Mafia murders don’t actually get very much grislier than this one. And again, it has never been solved.

Between January 2016 and February 2017, there were no fewer than five car-bombs (three of them fatal), all suspected to be the work of organised crime – though whether they were locally or internationally commissioned remains anyone’s guess, because...

... oh well, you can see where all this is heading. Not a single investigation into any of these crimes ever resulted in an arrest, prosecution and conviction. 

This, I believe, is the proper explanation for the ‘Mafia State’ feeling that can undeniably be felt right now. It is a sensation of helplessness before a vastly superior force. We have been compelled, in the most brutal way imaginable, to confront an uncomfortable reality that we knew existed, but had previously ignored... and would otherwise have continued ignoring for years.  Organised crime is on the rise, and our country’s law enforcement capability is hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned. 

I don’t emphasise that point to be unkind to the local police, by the way. No offence to that institution, but the Malta Police Force (in size, scope, equipment, general training, etc) is comparable only to a municipal constabulary in any medium-sized European town or village. When big murders happen in little villages, it is generally the federal – not local – branch of the police force that takes over... as anyone who’s ever watched Inspector Morse can easily confirm.

In Malta (for obvious reasons) no such distinction can be made. This is in part why we regularly turn to foreign police forces to investigate certain crimes. Today, the Prime Minister chose to enlist the aid of the FBI and a Dutch unit of explosives specialists. Some years ago, former PM Eddie Fenech Adami had brought in Scotland Yard to re-open the Karin Grech and Raymond Caruana investigations (to no avail; but still, the attempt was made). Both cases amount to a simple admission: our crime-fighting capabilities are nowhere near the required standard to take on the sort of crime we are now experiencing. And I don’t think we need to be ashamed of admitting to that: being the size of an unassuming little European town, our institutions are understandably proportioned accordingly. 

The problem is that the level of crime engulfing our country – not just now, but for the last two decades at least - is measured using a very different yardstick. Be it drug trafficking, fuel smuggling, human trafficking, or any of the other ‘usual suspects’ involving Malta... on that level, we are not ‘small’ at all. When it comes to criminality, Malta has to be viewed as ‘big league’. It’s no longer about a little low-level protection racketeering here and there... run by local thugs with colourful nicknames like ‘Ix-Xadin’ or ‘Il-Pespes’. Times have changed slightly since those days (which, oddly enough, seem so innocent now). We are now dealing with multi-billion global criminal operations that require serious logistics and a well-organised network. 

And weighing in at the far corner, we have a local Police Force that is still more used to intervening in fights at Paceville, or dealing with drunks at the local festa... and yes, occasionally landing an impressive drug haul, too. They’re not exactly the ‘rescue-cats-from-trees’ department, either. But there can be no denying that the opposing forces are mismatched here.      

Unlike other aspects of Malta: our economy, education, awareness in health and safety, etc – our entire law enforcement infrastructure has simply not evolved enough with the times.   

But this sort of progress can’t be achieved by printing T-shirts (no matter how cool), or by knee-jerk demands like ‘Sack the Commissioner’. I’ll admit that the current incumbent is hardly the most reassuring one to have right now – but let’s face it, his predecessors fared no better when it came to large-scale crimes. No, the problem is clearly systemic: and the discussion itself would probably have to begin at the very bottom of the structure... by re-examining the Corps’ wages, for instance.

We are, after all, demanding that the ordinary Maltese policeman puts his own neck on the line, trying to nab the most notoriously dangerous criminals known to mankind. These are men with wives and children. How reasonable is that demand, when compared with how much the ordinary Maltese policeman actually gets paid?

A second question concerns the operational set-up. Given that organised crime is clearly a reality...  isn’t it time we set up a specialised unit to actually deal with it?  Or – alternatively – should we even give up the pretence of having that sort of police force to begin with, and (as has already been suggested elsewhere) routinely involve foreign police forces in ALL local investigations?

I have some serious misgivings about the latter idea myself: but I’d rather save that for when the discussion on institutional reform actually starts. 

Speaking of which... isn’t it time we got started?

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