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Calabrian mafia takes verbal beating

Calabrian mafia takes verbal beating

The Italian mafia is under heavy fire. Symbolic actions by angry citizens are undermining the dominance of the crime organization.

11 minutes
30 November 2020

Words can hurt, and even the mafia knows how that feels. While conducting field research in Calabria, Professor of Linguistics Paul Sambre saw how the anti-mafia movement is pushing the local ‘ndrangheta into a defensive position. Not with guns, but with symbolic actions that are intended to give ordinary Italians courage. For example, the names of streets and squares across Italy are being renamed after mafia victims. This is a good example of what is called social semiotics in technical jargon.

“No, the mafia is much more than a gang of pistol-waving criminals.” Professor Paul Sambre of the Faculty of Arts Campus Antwerp immediately sets us right. According to the professor of linguistics, the mafia is a global organization that has only one purpose: earning money. A lot of money. And they will at nothing and no-one. Mafiosos have a business model that has negative consequences on the economy, the environment and even your health. Paul Sambre refers to industrial waste disposal, for example. “In principle, Italy has strict regulations with which you must comply. Well, the mafia completely flouts these rules. It can afford to buy industrial waste at very low rates via inconspicuous shell companies, and they then dump it illegally in Africa, the Mediterranean Sea or even Italy itself. Many Italian regions have dramatic cancer rates, in residential areas built by mafia building companied. These destructive socio-economic consequences are often not covered in the media, films or documentaries, in which mafiosos are often portrayed as trigger-happy bandits who are always one step ahead of the police. This cult of violence irritates me; it is the silent infiltration that deserves attention.”

The cliché that ordinary Italians are willing victims of mafia violence is likewise incorrect, Paul Sambre says. Across Italy, there is an extended anti-mafia movement that is resisting organized crime. The most important organization is called Libera, an association that brings citizens and victims of the mafia together. These include schools and universities, threatened journalists, entrepreneurs, trade unionists, but especially many ordinary people. “A lot of people take small initiatives discreetly. The fact that this occurs collectively is very important because the mafia can target individuals very easily. Libera not only sends a signal to the mafia, but also to the community. The attempt gradually to reclaim the territory that the mafia has taken from them. Bear in mind that the presence of the mafia has nothing to gain from open violence, but often depends on quiet intimidation and social consensus. If you open a business in mafia territory, you have to pay protection money. Otherwise you will soon suffer from vandalism or burglary. The mafia is a system that slowly seeps into people’s minds as though it were perfectly normal.”

Essential oils

Though small but visible initiatives, the anti-mafia movement attempts to reclaim territory. And you can take that quite literally. For example, the movement in Calabria now own orange orchards that used to belong to the mafia but were confiscated by the government. African refugees who were forced to work in degrading circumstances by the mafia now work side by side with local activists and volunteers, and are given proper contracts. We do not fully realize the extent to which our orange juice is grown on the back of social exploitation. Social economics transforms the world of mafia domination. Orange peel that used to get dumped in quarries illegally is now being upcycled into textile fibres that can be used to make trendy clothes. Some of the children of mafiosos who had been placed in care institutions by the Calabrian juvenile court are involved in this process. Paul Sambre follows the initiatives of the anti-mafia movement with Argus’ eyes. “Young kids at technical college are now extracting essential oils from orange peel. That is very telling. Waste, which used to end up in an illegal system, can now be used to make money. The anti-mafia movement thrives on the communication about these concrete initiatives and products. It is through such bottom-up initiatives that the region is writing a new and positive chapter. It is difficult to overestimate the social power this has. The anti-mafia movement encourages young people to stay in their own region, it influences them and develops a social dynamic. People no longer need to emigrate to escape from the miserable circumstances. Restare per cambiare, cambiare per restare, as they say in Italian.”

This nonviolent resistance to the mafia does not go entirely unchallenged, of course. Mafiosos sabotage the water supply, burn down orange orchards, sends bullets in the mail. These are strong semiotic messages. But the anti-mafia movement is not easily cowed. They seek to convince people that they have a choice: cooperate with the mafia or refuse. Even if you live in desperate circumstances. “Nobody spontaneously joins the mafia, but sometimes you do simply to survive or you are attracted by the fast money, for example if you then get to play a key role in the logistics or banking sector. The anti-mafia movement points young people, students, women and labourers to the fact that there is always a choice, on every level, however difficult the situation seems and even in a world where there are not always alternatives.”


If you analyse the initiatives of the anti-mafia movement through a linguistic lens, you perceive so-called anti-hegemonic discourse. Paul Sambre explains. “Until the arrival of the anti-mafia movement, the mafia’s discourse was dominant, there was a lack of knowledge about the socio-economic impact of the problem and social resistance was taboo. The mafia’s goal is simply to control a territory. They practice their hegemony through ignorance, omertà and continuous explicit or implicit intimidation. In other words, the mafia operates as a semiotic system in the same social context where resistance emerges. The arrival of the anti-mafia movements makes this counter-discourse tangible. Audible and less audible voices are raised that contradict the social consensus. This is the subject of my research: how does language contribute to social transformation in Italy? I also attempt to take multimodal discourse into account, namely the combination of language and social praxis in private and public space. Multimodal discourse analysis provides a framework for the complex linguistic and visual representations of resistance. Discreet communication can thus be very telling in public space. Across Italy, the names of streets and squares are being renamed after the victims of the mafia, and preferable in places where it still has a presence. This is a good example of social semiotics, with which you reclaim the space communicatively.”

Linguistics and mafia do not rhyme, but for Professor Sambre, the puzzle pieces simply fell into place. As a lecturer of textual or discourse studies, he researches the social context in which people communicate. This perspective is slightly different from that of traditional linguistics, which treats text more as an abstract concept, with a focus on text-internal structures of syntax and vocabulary. His passion for language in social contexts was ignited in Bologna in 1992, when Professor Sambre was perfecting his Italian at the interdisciplinary DAMS Institute, which was founded by the world-renowned author Umberto Eco, who is perhaps best-known for The Name of the Rose. “The institute researches semiotic theory and its applications. As a classically trained linguist, I was surprised to learn that language is only one of the semiotic lenses through which you can look at social interactions or a cultural phenomenon. Texts reach further than written or spoken language. Semiotic movement is also produced in fashion, music or marketing, with and without language. One might say that semiotics is the overarching science of communication. Since the 1960s, linguistic thought had dominated the field of semiotics, especially at departments that did not have a strong emphasis on interdisciplinarity. This compartmentalization had negative consequences: human communication was all too often reduced to the linguistic. This is not correct. For example, you cannot reduce a political debate only to a matter of language because it also involves visual elements, such as the use of body language in public space. The experience in Bologna literally opened my eyes.”


During Paul’s stay in Italy, thirty years ago, the mafia was going through an extremely violent period. The Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian mafia, organized the extremely public murders of two prominent opponents of the mafia, the prosecuting magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. This was the moment that Paul Sambre decided to study the mafia. He learns that the mafia is much more than a closed world of violent people. “As the most important anti-mafia magistrate, Falcone developed a new perspective on the mafia. To him, the mafia was not merely a criminal phenomenon of trigger-happy gangsters. Falcone argued that the tentacles of the mafia were spread widely, across every level of society, from politics to deep in the economic fabric. The ultimate goal of the mafiosos? To control a territory, through violence, but also symbolically.”

The murders in Sicily had a perverse effect. Because the police focused on the island, other crime families in Italy had free rein. That was also true in Calabria, where the local ‘ndrangheta was in control. The ‘ndrangheta initially made a fortune by kidnapping the children of rich Northern Italian industrialists and demanding hefty ransoms for them. They used that money to invest in marihuana plantations, which they still do today. The ‘ndrangheta also successfully became involved in the cocaine trade. They are in direct contact with the South American drug cartels. Paul Sambre describes the ‘ndrangheta as a global player. “In the first instance, it is a global logistical network that transports cocaine from A to B. Make no mistake, the profits are enormous. All illegal money that has to be hidden somehow. And so the ‘ndrangheta pumps its revenue into the Italian economy as well as hiding it offshore, far from the view of the Italian authorities: in the hospitality and catering industry, real estate, the building sector, but also in service companies like cleaning, gardening and – the irony – security firms.”

Stray bullet

His ethnographic field research brought Professor Sambre to unexpected places. For example, he found himself at a memorial service for a policeman who had been murdered years before. It was an emotional event. “I found myself in a small village where the mother of the carabiniere lives. The murder had always been covered up. Nevertheless, many people showed up, including other parents who had lost children due to stray bullets. I spoke to an officer of the carabinieri, a substitute prosecutor, a member of parliament, entrepreneurs who had been threatened… And afterwards, I spoke to other parents who had lost their children during reprisals. These things had been taboo for years and nobody dared to talk about it. These people now have a place and a language. In no time, it appears on social media, in the local press, on university websites. I saw how people find comfort with one another. Will this network eliminate the mafia definitively? Probably not. But the resilience of people is very striking. They refuse to be fatalistic. They do whatever they can. They want to encourage everyone to do what they can in whatever way they can. And that social model is now being copied in Latin America, Eastern Europe, and even right here. I think that is very impressive.”

Moroccan mafia

Paul Sambre can’t wait to go back to Italy, but that is not possible at the moment. Corona, don’t you know. But coincidentally, drug violence is becoming prevalent only a five-minutes bike ride from his front door in Antwerp. Antwerp-based gangs are throwing grenades, shots get fired, and the police are responding with heavy-handed checks. Professor Sambre, who is preparing an article about Moroccan mafia in Antwerp and Rotterdam (in Italian, incidentally), see parallels with Italy. “To be clear: the ‘ndrangheta is not responsible for the crime in the streets of Antwerp; it pulls the strings, connects criminal groups, infiltrates and invests, and lets the low-ranking street criminals clean up the mess. But you see the same principles. Here too, you see that there are young guys who opt for easy money and earn 2000 euro to watch out for the police. In Belgium, the drug problem has become a story of repression that can only be solved through police intervention. That narrow perspective does not take the complexity of the global cocaine trade into account, which involves numerous actors: IT companies, police officers, customs officials, dock workers… Not only the users, but all the financial and logistical go-betweens in transnational transactions remain invisible. You may also have seen footage of a big band marching through the streets of Deurne where incidents often take place. At such I think that is a good initiative, but it struck me immediately that not every family came to look. Taking part would send a strong signal to the local neighbourhood. To be completely clear: as a linguist, I am not fascinated by the criminal activity, that is a matter for lawyers and criminologists. I am interested in the public debate, the cultural and political struggle, and especially the concrete social action that is taken by local communities. All these communication processes are the perfect subject of research of applied linguistics and language specialization.”