One thing common across all underworld groupings is the use of oath to ensure members remain loyal to a group and does not reveal secrets.
The Sicilian Mafia is no different. Having existed for centuries, the group has one of the most powerful oaths, that perhaps has contributed to its survival despite attempts by several governments to eradicate it.
The oath is known as Omerta. It is a code of silence and secrecy that forbids members from betraying their ‘brothers’ to authorities or rival gangs.
The penalty for disobeying the oath is death. That, however, does not end there, family members of the traitor are also punished by death. And if the crime is grave, his entire kinsmen may be wiped out.
In a memoir, Bernardino Verro, a one-time mayor of a city in Italy and a member of the Mafia, who defected and paid the ultimate price, describes the oath.
“I was invited to take part in a secret meeting of the Mafia. I entered a mysterious room where there were many men armed with guns sitting around a table. In the center of the table there was a skull drawn on a piece of paper and a knife.
“To be admitted to the Mafia, I had to undergo an initiation consisting of some trials of loyalty and the pricking of the lower lip with the tip of the knife: the blood from the wound soaked the skull,” he writes.
The oath is also used to guard mafia members against cooperating with the police in any way, although bribing individual officers to get information or a favour is allowed.
“Omertà is an extreme form of loyalty and solidarity in the face of authority. One of its absolute tenets is that it is deeply demeaning and shameful to betray even one’s deadliest enemy to the authorities,” writes an Italian author.
A mafia member will therefore not call the police when he is a victim of a crime. A wronged person is expected to solve the problem conclusively on his own.
Involving the police undermines one’s reputation as a capable protector of others and they view him as weak and vulnerable. Inconspicuousness from members while in the society is among what the oath also guarantees. To ensure this, it discourages members from consuming alcohol or drugs. This is because when drunk, a member is more likely to let out sensitive information.
The oath further forbids members from writing down anything about the mafia’s activities. Such may become evidence used against the gang.
In their strongholds, the group imposes the oath on the population. Residents, though they do not swear, are expected to remain silent of the gang’s ills, lest they are punished by death. A Sicilian proverb goes, “He who is deaf, blind, and silent will live a hundred years in peace.”