Enzo Ciconte, former member of parliament for the Partito Comunista Italiano between 1987 and 1992, renowned mafiaexpert, historian and a consultant to the parliamentary anti-mafia committee, is sitting in his small but panoramic office near the Pantheon. In between numerous phone calls, he is vivaciously explaining why running the first course begun last year on the birth and development of organised crime in Italy at the faculty of law of the Universit di Roma Tre is one of the best things hes ever been involved in. I am convinced that the students who take part in the course will bring an anti-mafia approach and a spirit of legality to their profession, he says. If students choose a course like this it means they have an ideal or moral motivation that is pushing them, something extra.

This year the course will be held again in Rome from March and simultaneously (and for the first time) at the University of Rimini. Ciconte is clearly a well-liked, charismatic figure among his students. He says that last year the two-hour class often ended with a round of applause, something he himself never witnessed whilst at university. The students were clearly passionate about the subject, he said, and attendance did not drop as the course progressed: 600 students enrolled in the three-month course last year he says proudly, and 600 students took the final exam.

But why is this the first course of its kind? There have been plenty of conferences, lecture series and one-off seminars on organised crime in Italy, but this is the first time the subject has been broached as part of a real university course that offers final exams and credits to students. Until now the academic world has considered mafia-related crime to be like any other crime, says Ciconte. Mafiosi were common criminals, ordinary wrongdoers. It was a mistake to think this because if this were true then the police and carabinieri would have solved the problem a long time ago. He continues: The problem of the mafia implicates the political and business worlds, it is a generalised problem and creates another, alternative culture.

Moreover, the problem of organised crime, says Ciconte, is not set to go away any time soon. On the contrary.

Despite the crackdown in the 1990s that led to scores of arrests and convictions, the problem is still rife, particularly in Cicontes native region of Calabria. Investigators have been saying for some time that the Calabrian mafia, the Ndrangheta, is fast becoming the most powerful mafia organisation within and outside Italy, and Ciconte is the first to agree. He says the organisations most powerful weapon is the fact that it is so family-based. The bond between the Ndrangheta and the family is very strong, much stronger than in the Sicilian mafia. The marriages that take place within these families are almost always arranged.

In the past this family-based mechanism was considered to be primitive and a hindrance to the organisations success, he explains. But when the mafiosi started repenting in the mid-1980s (pentiti is the name given to former members of Italian mafia organisations who become informants in return for government protection), clan members and bosses informed on Cosa Nostra (Sicilian mafia), the Camorra (mafia from Campania) and the Sacra Corona Unita (mafia from Puglia) says Ciconte, but not on the Ndrangheta. There are very few Calabrian pentiti, he continues, and above all, none of them are bosses. The reason is simple: because of the highly family-oriented structure of the organisation, every time a Calabrian mafioso repents he necessarily has to talk about close relatives sons, brothers, fathers and this is very difficult to do.

Another factor that has been underestimated in the fight on organised crime is the role of women. Since in many cases the men have been imprisoned or are in hiding, the women provide a much-needed continuity for the organisation. But, as Ciconte says, even more relevant is the fact that it is the women who raise the children and transmit fundamental values. If a woman tells her son, Your father is in prison but he is an upright person. Your father fought for justice but they betrayed him. The ones in the wrong are the police, the magistrates, the pentiti, you are raising your child to follow the mafioso culture. What mothers should be telling their children, according to Ciconte, is that you can live your life without becoming a mafioso.

A solution to the problem of the mafia is not straightforward, and this is something Ciconte is keen for his students to understand. Not everything a mafioso does is illegal or punishable by law, for instance. In some cases magistrates are powerless and political institutions must step in. If a mayor entertains relations with a mafia boss but that mafia boss is not a fugitive and has served his sentences, no crime has taken place and the mayor can associate with him freely. By doing so, however, the mayor is giving the mafioso support, prestige and power, he is sending out a message that the mafioso is an upright person.

The only way to free oneself from the oppressive presence of the mafia, says Ciconte, is to ensure that political parties do not present candidates with mafia associations. Other important instruments in the battle against organised crime are schools, cultural associations, the church and the family, who can all play a part in offering alternatives to young people.

What is also important is that the ideology of the mafia be demystified. The biggest mafia-related myth Ciconte would like to debunk personally is that the mafia was born out of a situation of economic distress and because people were wretchedly poor. This is a fairytale! he almost screams. The mafia came about because there was a certain middle class that was prepared to use violent methods in order to become rich.

As the conversation comes to a close Ciconte says that he often tells his students the following: I do not have the truth, I am not the Bible, dont believe everything I say. This is just a part of the story, you have to go out and ascertain the rest for yourselves. I am telling you these things based on facts as they stand today, but in ten years a lot more will be known. What he would like is to give his students the lawyers and magistrates of tomorrow the tools and methods to check the facts and interpret them for themselves.

For more information on the course send an e-mail to storia_crimine_organizzato@hotmail.com