Sunday Star-Times

Organised crime got off to a bitter start


‘‘When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,’’ the old cliche goes. But in Sicily, a new academic paper contends, lemons also made mafiosi.

The peer-reviewed paper, published in the Journal of Economic History, argues that the Mafia actually has its roots in the 19th-century lemon industry.

Using two sets of historical crime and agricultur­al data, economist Arcangelo Dimico and two co-authors contend that the infamous organised crime group would not exist without a boom in the global citrus trade that spanned several decades.

Omar Garcia-Ponce, a political scientist at the University of California at Davis who has studied agricultur­e and Mexico’s drug cartels and was not involved in the study, said a growing body of literature showed that agricultur­al commodity prices affected patterns of violence.

According to the researcher­s, Sicily’s lemon industry exploded in the 19th century as doctors around the world realised that the fruit cured scurvy, a condition caused by lack of vitamin C. This created a huge global demand for lemons, which grow well in the Sicilian climate but had not been a major export previously.

Some historians have estimated that by the mid-1880s, it was 60 times more profitable to grow a hectare of lemons in Sicily than to grow other crops, like olives, grapes or wheat.

But lemon growers also faced challenges, among them dealing with brokers who sold the fruit abroad, and fending off thieves who raided their groves by night.

As a result, many growers began contractin­g ‘‘protectors’’ to watch their trees and enforce their contracts, Dimico writes. This gave both money and structure to a loosely affiliated band of brigands and businessme­n, helping them consolidat­e into the Mafia as it is known today.

To back that assertion, Dimico and his co-authors modelled the statistica­l correlatio­n between historical data on crop production and mentions of the Mafia in historical crime surveys, both dating to slightly after the emergence of the term ‘‘Mafia’’ in 1865.

While several historians have drawn the parallel between the citrus trade and the Mafia before, few have gone so far as to suggest the first launched the second.

The link between high-value export crops and organised crime continues to vex many places, including Italy. The Mafia’s agricultur­al holdings there topped US$23 billion in 2016, according to the Italian farm lobby group Coldiretti.

Similarly, in Michoacan, Mexico, where the production value of limes nearly doubled between 2003 and 2011 on the back of growing US demand, the Templarios drug cartel had grown rich seizing lime farms from owners and pocketing the profits, Garcia-Ponce said.

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