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Planet Money: The Lemon Plays A Critical Role In The Mafia's Creation


Now to a story about the Mafia and lemons. When we think of the Sicilian Mafia, movies like "The Godfather" or historical figures like Al Capone might come to mind. But have you ever wondered about the Mafia's origin? Stacey Vanek Smith and Cardiff Garcia have. They're the hosts of our daily economics podcast The Indicator from Planet Money. And they found out that it all comes back to the citrus fruit.


CARDIFF GARCIA: In the 1700s, a British scientist named James Lind discovered that lemons were an effective cure for scurvy. And combined with rising global trade generally, there was a huge boom in demand for Sicilian lemons.

STACEY VANEK SMITH: And by 1850, Sicily was exporting almost twice as many cases of lemons as it had been 15 years earlier. Eventually, almost three-quarters of all lemons imported by the United States came from Italy, and most of those were from Sicily.

GARCIA: But Sicilian landlords had long operated under a kind of feudal system. Alessia Isopi is an economist at The University of Manchester. She says that these landlords were making a killing on these lemons. The people who worked for them noticed.

ALESSIA ISOPI: They were, like, having lots of profits from their activity and just investing for themself, not redistributing at all.

VANEK SMITH: Isopi says the landlords depended on a class of workers known as gabelloti to protect their farms and oversee their workers.

GARCIA: But in 1860, Sicily became part of a unified Italy. And these gabelloti lost their jobs because the government, the police, the courts were now supposed to be the ones protecting the farms from thieves.

VANEK SMITH: A lot of these gabelloti then joined the police themselves. But at the same time, they also joined an early kind of proto-Mafia that already existed back then.

GARCIA: Which meant the very people meant to protect the farms during the day as police officers were often the same ones extorting the landlords at night, demanding money for - and I'm doing air quotes here - protection.

VANEK SMITH: He is doing air quotes.

GARCIA: This is roughly the point around the mid to late 1800s that the Mafia really started to thrive.

ISOPI: From the very beginning, the Mafia is characterized by having people from all sorts of class, we can say.

GARCIA: So did the landlords, essentially, just leave? Where did they go?

ISOPI: They lost power.

GARCIA: Alessia says that the weak Italian state - the corrupt bureaucrats and police, the lack of societal trust in the government - these were all necessary conditions for the Mafia to emerge. But they don't tell the whole story.

VANEK SMITH: In its early decades, the Mafia was only a powerful force in specific regions.

GARCIA: And what Alessia and her colleagues did was to look at the places where surveys of local judges were reporting high levels of Mafia activity. And they found that those were the same places where the lemon farms were, all of which suggests that the global boom in the lemon trade was the necessary spark that made the Mafia flourish.

VANEK SMITH: Here, we have to ask - what is it specifically about lemons that led to the Mafia? For one thing, they were hugely profitable. But also, unlike other crops, they were really easy to steal. You could just pull them off the tree.

GARCIA: And that meant that lemons needed to be protected. And lemon farms needed security guards.

VANEK SMITH: Especially because getting into the lemon business was an expensive investment. You had to dig an irrigation network, build a wall to protect the orchard and have a place to store the lemons.

GARCIA: And that vulnerability, combined with the lack of protective institutions, was also the opening that the Mafia exploited to become a big, societal force.

VANEK SMITH: Stacey Vanek Smith.

GARCIA: Cardiff Garcia, NPR News.


Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.
Cardiff Garcia is a co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money podcast, along with Stacey Vanek Smith. He joined NPR in November 2017.
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