At a press conference last month about the murder of an Italian drug dealer named Vincenzo Femia, police in Rome revealed that they had also found something else during the investigation: the mysterious document excerpted here, recovered from a member of the ’Ndrangheta, the powerful international crime syndicate based in Calabria.
Ideas asked Diego Gambetta, a specialist in criminal communication at the European University Institute in Florence, what he made of it.
Decrypted by two policemen turned amateur code-breakers, the document turned out to be the oath of allegiance to the ’Ndrangheta used in initiation ceremonies. It would most likely have been used in the initiation of Gianni Cretarola, the mobster whose property in Rome police were searching when they found it. Translated into English, it reads, in part:
“A nice Holy Saturday morning, when the sun rises and does not rise, I was strolling on the seashore when I saw a boat with three old sailors aboard….How do you recognize a young man of honor? Because he carries a golden star on his forehead, the cross of a knight on his chest and a golden palm leaf in his hand. And why do you have those beautiful things which cannot be seen? Because I carry them in my own flesh and bones.”
The novice then pricks his finger and drops the blood on a sacred “santino” [a paper image of a saint], which is set alight while the novice swears “to respect the social rules, to disown his mother, father, brothers, and sisters.”
This example is, as far as I know, the first time that the ritual of a Southern Italian organized crime group has been laid out in an encrypted text.
The text consists of a ritual dialogue between an initiate and the officiating members. The officiating members must first “sanctify” the place where the ceremony takes place by reciting a ritual formula: “If this was before a place of transit, from now on it is a sacred, saintly and unassailable place.” At the end the place is “de-sanctified” and returned to its mundane functions. According to the rules, five “made” members of the group are required to be present. Cretarola himself, from what he later told police, was initiated in a prison workshop with only two members present, the other three symbolized by knotted handkerchiefs.
This ritual is one of several similar, often much more elaborate versions of the ’Ndrangheta ceremony to have come to light. Since 1888, eight documents have been found, all handwritten and often in poor Italian or dialect. Most were found in Calabria, but one surfaced in Australia and another in Canada.
The wording here is believed to be an adaptation of the initiation ritual of the Camorra, the Neapolitan organized crime syndicate. The three old “sailors” are the mythical founders of the Camorra, the Spanish knights Osso, Mastrosso, and Carcagnosso. The wording does not seem to carry a particular symbolic meaning; it appears to be a homemade cocktail mixing the affectations of chivalrous literature with the ceremonies of political secret societies, which were in abundance in Italy in the 19th century. A pinch of religious reference is thrown in for good measure, with the saint whose image is set alight.
The burning image of a saint also features in the initiation of the Sicilian mafia, Cosa Nostra, which has a much shorter ritual devoid of mythical stories and symbolic characters. What we know of it comes only from the oral accounts of a mafioso who turned state witness, and from an initiation that was secretly recorded by the FBI in Medford. The ritual in Sicily or in North America is essentially the same.
Such ceremonies aren’t unique to Italian crime families: Chinese Triads, the Yakuza in Japan, and other gangs all use initiation ceremonies. Evidence from around the world indicates that members tend to be concerned with memorizing the wording accurately, and following the exact same steps and wording in any new initiation—hence the temptation to write down a ceremony in documents whose very existence could help incriminate the owner. (The encryption must have been an attempt to prevent that.)
The ritual arguably bestows continuity and certainty in a world ridden with distrust: Precisely because it is intrinsically meaningless, it cannot be misinterpreted or denied by the participants. The nonsensical language and sanctifying charade might also inject some superstitious fear for the novice, compared to, say, a simple shaking of hands: “If what took me from A to B is so mysterious, how can I be disloyal to or part from the group without inflaming the wrath of mysterious forces?”
It apparently did not work on Gianni Cretarola, however. The Roman police solved the murder of Vincenzo Femia only because he snitched, leading to the arrest of three fellow ’Ndrangheta members.
Diego Gambetta is the author of “Codes of the Underworld. How Criminals Communicate” (2009, Princeton UP).