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ILB Interview: Federico Varese

Federico Varese is professor of criminology at Oxford, a mafia expert and the author of "Mafia Life". His book chronicles the ins-and-outs of organized crime.

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Federico Varese is professor of criminology at Oxford, a mafia expert (not a mafia boss as he was once hilariously called on TV ) and the author of Mafia Life (2017). His book reveals the reality behind organized crime through wiretapped conversations, police records and interviews. He joined us at the International Literature Festival this year for special section The Politics of Drugs with a lecture on organized crime and the international drug trade. Afterwards, we sat down and chatted about gangster movies and the problematic aspects of current legalization policies.

Does the mafia’s way of doing business have anything to offer legal trades?

Yeah, I think so, especially in illegal drug trafficking. It offers insights that we already know from legal trade markets like branding, issues of how you can force agreement between two parties. There are also insights in how they manage the very complex organization of illegal drug trafficking. Like the way the boss runs the group. He has to find a way to ensure compliance. We can learn from that as well, there are very interesting solutions that these bosses find. Of course, these organizations are not democratic. Definitely not a good thing.

Why is Calabria, Italy the main entry point of cocaine in Europe?

My theory is that it’s because the harbour is very efficient, very well organized and modern. The alternatives would be Naples or Palermo which are more outdated. So paradoxically, modernity and efficiency allow for big drug cargos to arrive and be hidden in Calabria.

How accurate are the representations of the mafia in gangster movies like The Godfather?

In my book, Mafia Life, I discuss The Godfather a lot. Although it’s a very good movie, it’s highly inaccurate. But that’s not the point. The point is that people loved it, even people in the mafia loved it. But yeah, it’s not true to fact. For example, a mafia boss would never give the business to his own son as it was represented in the film, from Marlon Brando to Al Pacino. If you look at all the mafia families in New York, the son would never become the boss — with maybe one minor exception. The main point about the movie is that it didn’t have to be accurate, it just had to be good. The mafia loved gangster movies like The Godfather and in fact, they copied them: life imitating art. 

Let’s say that all drugs are legalized, regulated and taxed. What would happen to organized crime and mafia activity?

If every drug was legalized tomorrow – or at least if cocaine and heroin were – the mafia still wouldn’t go away. They would just switch to a different market. Obviously, they’d lose money but it’s important to know that these organizations existed before drugs and they will exist afterwards. 

Are there other ways of legalization that are not based on the ‘for-profit’ model that exists in states like Colorado? You mentioned a ‘health model’ of legalization, what would that look like?

What I worry, and this is a long-term worry, is that we have not just legalized cannabis or drugs in general but we have a marketisation of the product. We have very large producers and monopolies. With advertising, we just sell it as we do any other commodity. Of course, there are health risks that remain that we need to account for. I’m in favour of legalization but I’m not in favour of this ‘for-profit model’. I’m in favour of a ‘health model’ with small producers, not with grand farming. It’s a debate, and I think we have to keep it open. But I worry that it will become just like alcohol, massive advertising.

You hold that addiction is a health problem, not a criminal one. Is the massive rise of opioid-related death in the states caused by seeing addicts as criminals?

Yes, it’s extraordinary. There have been around 50,000 deaths in the US from legal painkillers based in opium of fentanyl. It’s not heroin or cocaine. It’s legal pain killers that generate dependence on heroin and then on fentanyl and other illegal substances. It’s a really terrible situation. We should consider this as a health problem, not a criminal one. Again, if we simply legalize and market drugs as if they were any other product, we are making a mistake.