Crime in Sicily

Crime in Sicily – the Mafia, petty crime and safety for women

This page could probably be summarised in two words: don’t worry.

For a few people, Sicily’s associations with crime taint their preconceptions of the island. Unfortunately, misplaced apprehension can deter travellers from visiting what is actually a wonderful tourist destination.

There are those who are nervous of Sicily’s criminal side, and those who think it’s glamorous or titillating, or even entertaining, perhaps based on watching The Godfather. Those views don’t bear much relation to the realities of modern Sicily. Over the decades, headlines and court cases have borne witness to the presence in Sicily of organised crime, corruption, extortion and assassination. Protected by blood-oaths, murders and bribery, the Mafia – or Cosa Nostra – has for a long time exerted a firm, particularly over Palermo and the western half of the island.

The history of the Mafia is complex. This highly-organised criminal association blossomed with tacit US support during and after the Second World War, and rose to control much of Italy’s politics and organised crime. The last few decades, however, have seen an increased openness, as Italy attempts to come to terms with its legacies of criminality and bloodshed. A lot of cleaning up has been done. Naturally it’s a slow progress with major obstacles on the way. Organised crime has been a part of Sicilian culture for too long to be eradicated quickly and simply, it’s engrained into most aspects of the society and political structures of the country.

Although Corleone – home of real-life crime bosses and immortalised in the The Godfather – is visited by tourists nowadays, the Mafia is still a reality. It’s not yet a subject which many will be comfortable discussing. For a good understanding of some of the roots and ramifications, try reading Peter Robb’s Midnight in Sicily. However, as a tourist, you are extremely unlikely to be aware of being affected by Sicily’s organised crime. You can see its legacy in the half-finished developments and shoddy housing where funds were milked away, or the luxury hotels built with murky budgets, and you may see the headlines covering ongoing trials or police raids, but that should be the closest you’ll get to glimpsing Mafia activity.

Petty crime, such as pickpocketing, is a more realistic threat to the tourist – although I’m not sure that even this risk is any greater than in any Italian or European city. As normal when travelling, you should keep alert. If somewhere feels really dodgy, leave. Palermo can be empty and intimidating at night, and the markets can feel chaotic, so make sure you know where you’re going. Take the normal travel precautions of being careful with your possessions, and not flashing money or expensive items about, and leave nothing of value in parked cars.

Italy is modernising quickly, but Sicily may still feel more old-fashioned than other parts of Europe (or even Italy) and solitary women and young women in groups should be prepared for some attention, particularly if wearing clothes which are skimpy or unseasonal by local standards. This is usually unlikely to progress beyond a ‘Ciao!’, appreciative comments or stares, and while it can be irritating, is unlikely to spoil your stay. Younger Sicilians are part of a new Neflix generation and are moving on from some of the sexist attitudes of the past.