Translated by Forrest Hylton.
The word’s origins are polemical: it comes from the Arabic mahya–bullying, arrogance; and maffia, in Tuscan dialect, a synonym for ostentation. The etymology fits like a ring on a finger. The mafia as we know it today was born in Sicily to defend feudal señores with shotguns and nothing but gunshots, contracting hit men and buying or killing judges. Let’s continue, since we’re getting warmer.
Thus was the Onorata Societá formed, governed by a code of honor — omertá, synonym for the law of silence — and one of its most profitable businesses was cattle rustling. We’re hot. The mafia lays its eggs in the U.S. during the Great Depression and has its day in the sun: Sicilian immigrants — poor, unemployed, looked upon badly and treated worse — co-operate in order to break the law on the model of the Onorata. This is Cosa Nostra, the era of the Godfather and the famous Lucky Luciano, dedicated to drugs, prostitution, and gambling. We are nearly burning. The police figure it out and Lucky gets 30 years, which changes with the support the Sicilian mafia gives to the U.S. Army in Italy at the end of World War II. We are practically on fire.
In our midst is a political inheritance that leads from the chulavos and pájaros [hired guns and police assassins who killed for the Conservative Party during la Violencia-tr.] in the 1950s, to the bands of contrabandistas and emerald czars of the 60s and 70s, who passed their legacy down to the narcos, called “magicians” — a play on the term mafia — who continue to rule today and who have bought their ticket to the future with the name “emergent groups” [given to paramilitary groups that have proliferated since the official demobilization process concluded in 2006-tr.]. It was unquestionably the aristocracy — white, wealthy — that first felt, resented, and ridiculed the external symptoms of the mafia — its extravagant, irreverent, presumptuous culture — so the mafia built country clubs designed to compete with the ones that declined to accept it, bought the most expensive cars, the finest thoroughbreds, the haciendas with the most notable lineages, the most upright judges, the generals with the most medals, and re-tailored the values of the self-proclaimed good people’ to suit itself. Those good people’ soon discovered it was better to join the mafia than to fight it, and so they did. Some, it is true, blushed at certain ties established through marriage, but in the end they, too, shrugged their shoulders. “Money is money,” and the rest is worthless.
The mafia did not abandon its gold mine. Instead, it broadened and consolidated it, and continued with its business, its powerful influence on institutions, its crimes, and its weapons; those were the days when U.S. Ambassador Lewis Tambs spoke of narco-democracy [1983-tr.]. The decadent aristocracy, already narcotized, already holding all the cards, appreciated the recognition and praised the great diplomat, who, by the way, wound up in Central America associated with those he had denounced. Later, this social coalition came up with another business enterprise: paramilitarism, and with it parapolitics, which is today coming ever closer to the Prince: his cousin, former private secretary, electoral barons, former head of security, and former campaign backers all have, as they now say, slight complications.
The mafia, whether Sicilian or Colombian, has forged itself against the law, has constructed — with blood — its own channels of upward mobility to political and economic power, and above all, has impregnated the rest of the country (84%, to be precise) with its culture: “I don’t take any crap,” “I’m the shrewdest,” “everything’s worthless.” It is the culture of meeting force with force, taking justice into one’s own hands, of rewards for fingerprints or digital memory, of “sell it to me or I’ll buy it from your widow,” “I’ll cut your face off, faggot,” “get out of the way or I’ll get you out of the way.” Its coat of arms: a burning heart. When Senator Piedad Córdoba says that a mafia culture dominates the country, she makes a statement that is courageous as well as just. After taking over the boards and the political directorates, now the mafia is looking to impose its norms, values, and principles — the hard way more than the easy way.
Alfredo Molano is a political columnist for El Espectador, where this essay originally appeared, and the author of many books of oral history, including The Dispossessed: The Desterrados of Colombia (Haymarket, 2005), and Loyal Soldiers in the Cocaine Kingdom: Tales of Drugs, Mules, and Gunmen (Columbia University Press, 2004).
Forrest Hylton is the author of Evil Hour in Colombia (Verso, 2006), and with Sinclair Thomson, of Revolutionary Horizons: Past and Present in Bolivian Politics (Verso, 2007). He writes for New Left Review, NACLA Report on the Americas, and CounterPunch.org