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Why the land of the Mafia has a low murder rate...
When it comes to violent crime, Italy doesn’t exactly have the best reputation. A glance at the stats reveals a different story.
Written by Noah Carl.
When it comes to violent crime, Italy doesn’t exactly have the best reputation.
During the first part of the 20th century, Italian immigrants to the United States were known for their involvement in bootlegging and other forms of organised crime, as well as their flashy suits and colourful nicknames (as in Al “Scarface” Capone). The stereotype of the Italian-American mobster became further entrenched through much-loved productions like the Godfather, Goodfellas and the Sopranos. Indeed, the very word 'mafia’ derives from the Sicilian term ‘mafiusu’, meaning ‘swagger’ or ‘bravado’.
And the Italian mafia still exists today, albeit in a much-diminished form. There are in fact several mafias which operate in different regions of the country: Cosa Nostra in Sicily, Camorra in Campania and 'Ndrangheta in Calabria. Just this year, a notorious ‘Ndrangheta hitman who’d been on the run for 16 years was discovered working as a pizza chef in France.
Given all this, you might expect Italy to be a fairly violent place – not as violent as the United States, perhaps, but one of the more violent countries in Europe. This turns out not to be the case. According to the latest available data from the UNODC, Italy has among the lowest murder rates of all European countries.
It even has a lower murder rate than development frontrunners like Denmark and the Netherlands – both of which have a much higher GDP per capita. And when was the last time you heard about the Danish mafia? Now, neither of these differences is particularly large – we’re talking about 0.5–1 extra murders per 100,000 people. Still, it’s quite remarkable when you consider that Italy has some of Europe’s poorest regions.
So what explains the “Italian paradox”? While I haven’t done an exhaustive study, I suspect that three main factors are involved.
First, age. Italy has the fifth oldest population in the world, after Japan, Germany and two microstates. It’s well known that nearly all violent crime is committed by men between the ages of 15 and 30, so countries in which a greater share of the population is older than 30 will tend to have lower murder rates, all else being equal. By way of example the average Italian is almost 46, whereas the average Dutch person is only 43 and the average Dane is only 42.
Second, immigration or lack thereof. Compared to most other countries in Western Europe, Italy has had relatively little non-Western immigration since the Second World War. The country remains about 92% ethnic Italian, with the remaining 8% made up of Romanians, Albanians, Slovenes, Arabs and Chinese.
This matters because non-Western immigrants to Europe, particularly those from MENA and Sub-Saharan Africa, are substantially overrepresented in violent crime. In Denmark, where we have excellent data, non-Western immigrants are convicted for violent crime at a rate 3–4 times higher than native Danes – with age and sex differences explaining only a small part of the disparity. And it’s the same story in the rest of Northern Europe.
Another way in which migration might contribute to Italy’s low murder rate is if individuals with a propensity for violence were more likely to emigrate to the United States in the early 20th century. The scale of organised crime committed by Italian Americans is consistent with this hypothesis. Yet I’m not aware of any direct evidence. And the fact that Italy had a higher murder rate than some other West-European countries in the late 80s counts as a disconfirmation. (That spike corresponds to the period when Italy’s baby-boom cohorts were in their peak crime years.)
Third, healthy drinking culture. One major correlate of violent crime across European countries is the prevalence of alcohol abuse, which tends to be higher in Eastern Europe – particularly the Baltics (as well as Ukraine and Russia). Indeed, there’s a close correspondence between the homicide rate and the death rate from alcohol abuse disorders.
As you can see on the right-hand map, Italy has a very low rate of death from alcohol abuse disorders – the second-lowest on this particular measure, after Greece. While Italians savour fine wines and may enjoy a bottle of beer while watching the football, they tend to drink in moderation. Binge drinking (a.k.a. getting hammered) is comparatively rare in Italy, and so too are the problems that go along with it.
Incidentally, I’m not claiming that alcohol abuse is the only reason homicide rates are higher in Eastern Europe, but it’s surely one important factor. For example, a 2016 US study found that 40% of homicide victims had elevated blood alcohol content at the time of their killing. Which isn’t particularly surprising if you’re familiar with the acute effects of alcohol consumption.
Contrary to what popular culture might suggest, Italy is one of the least violent countries in Europe. While various factors may contribute to the country’s low homicide rate, there are three that stand out: old population, relatively few non-Western immigrants, and healthy drinking culture. Income doesn’t come into it; neither does social trust.
Noah Carl is an Editor at Aporia Magazine.
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