“Nurturing your future enemies?”

Project: Internal pump-priming

Project participant(s)

Department / unit(s)


This project aims at creating a theoretical framework to guide the decision of empowering illegal armed groups in the context of existing conflicts. In national and international politics formal authorities, or legitimate decision makers, take crucial decisions about which side to support/empower in an existing conflict. The empowerment and legitimation may, however, disrupt the functioning of the state, thereby curbing the pace of development in the societies affected. Short-term considerations may disproportionally influence decision-makers, leading to the empowerment of illegal armed groups without a proper analysis of the potentially damaging long run consequences.
We consider in detail a specific case in which short-run considerations led to the empowerment of an illegal armed group, the Sicilian mafia, and study its short-run and long run (unintended) consequences.

Key findings

We document that the spread of the Mafia in Sicily at the end of the 19th century was in part shaped by the rise of socialist Peasant Fasci organizations. In an environment with weak state presence, this socialist threat triggered landholders, estate managers and local politicians to turn to the Mafia to resist and combat peasant demands. We show that the location of the Peasant
Fasci is significantly affected by an exceptionally severe drought in 1893, and using information on rainfall, we establish the causal effect of the Peasant Fasci on the location of the Mafia in 1900. We provide extensive evidence that rainfall before and after this critical period has no effect on the spread of the Mafia or various economic and political outcomes. In the second part of the paper, we use the source of variation in the location of the Mafia in 1900 to estimate its medium-term and long-term effects. We find significant and quantitatively large negative impacts of the Mafia on literacy and various public goods in the 1910s and 20s. We also show a sizable impact of the Mafia on political competition, which could be one of the channels via which it affected local economic outcomes. We document negative effects of the Mafia on longer-term outcomes (in the 1960s, 70s and 80s) as well, but these are in general weaker and often only marginally significant. One exception is its persistent and strong impact on political competition.
Effective start/end date1/03/1631/03/17

Research outputs

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