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Nino: Journey into the heart of darkness

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Nino was one of the prominent personalities in a clan of the Catania region of Italy. He carried out numerous killings, hold-ups and extortions. He has collaborated with the law since 1984, and is serving a sentence of 30 years for a double murder committed the first time he was out on parole. Presently out on parole again, he is married with two grown-up children. Between late 1996 and spring 1997, over forty hours, he and Amedeo Cottino met in the prison where he was held. What follows is the fruit of those interviews and will be excerpted here in six parts, for the first time in English. Nino affirms that today he is another person. We seek to understand what he was and how he was different, if at all. Those seeking a deeper sociological understanding of the cultural world he inhabited could read Professor Cottino’s essay “Sicilian cultures of violence: the interconnections between organized crime and local society”, 1999, Crime, Law and Social Change, 32 [2], 103-113.

Professor Cottino: My conversations with Nino are a journey into the heart of darkness. Nino is a murderer. He has killed many people in cold blood. In what he calls a war, there was no place for pity nor, hardly ever, for doubt. Sometimes, there were, he admits, errors: such-and-such a person should not have died. But, in general, Nino often said: if I had not killed him, he would have killed me. Perhaps only in one case has he expressed regret for the violence he inflicted.

The path we follow is steep and narrow: on one side the silence of the dead with their cries for justice, and on the other the voice of Nino, with his desire and his right to be a part of our world. I will try to convey some sense of a relation between these seemingly irremediably separate worlds. I have tried to seek the causes that made Nino a professional criminal and a killer. I have tried to understand his choices. Nino and I, each in his own manner, have sought the roots of evil. Both of us, perhaps all of us, have been educated to think that the world could easily and usefully be divided into two distinct parts: that of the good to be rewarded, that of the evil to be punished. Even if his evil was not mine - as neither was the good - we reasoned in the same manner.

Today, we know that even ‘average’ or ‘normal’ people are able, under certain circumstances, to do evil. Even good people can become evil, and so the line between “us” and “them” blurs. So one might ask: can evil people become good, and, above all, are the evil ones truly evil?

I disagree with those who maintain that evil is beyond our capacity to understand, and with those who treat it as the product of mediocrity, or banality, of the human condition. Evil is neither incomprehensible nor banal: in certain circumstances, it is normal, as an intelligible part of a particular life path and response to a specific context. In his fifteen-year criminal career, Nino was driven into, as he expresses it, a world that is beyond the threshold at which we normally stop. For the “old” Nino, the “other”, the one who should die, did not exist. However, now Nino himself has asked to exist, something he had denied his victims. This shocking request may be felt as an insult by a few - one deserving a categorical refusal. I am of another opinion and acceded to his request.

Part 1 The normality of evil: the man and his life

Nino: A person like me has two personalities: one tough and one tender. Once you go into your house you forget what you left outside… I’d do a job and then talk about it with my friends, my buddies. And then I’d go home and for me it was as if it simply didn’t exist… When you’re in your own home you sort of lose your memory of what you’ve done… At home I could be like a puppy or a child; my wife called the shots, she’d slap me around… and then outside the house I changed, I was tough, I gave the orders…

How was this possible? Well, as I see it, I’ve got a split personality. It becomes a single one when there’s a job to do because, after all, it’s just a job. Even though it’s work that isn’t nice, it’s work I can live with.

I’m emotional… like when I see a film, I cry. Yes, I cry, but that’s my private life; the other is work. There’s no place for emotions at work! I was a tough guy in the organization because I had to show a lot of other guys that I had no weaknesses. But, maybe with my friends, and for sure with my family, it was completely different.

Professor Cottino: We talked about a crime in which four adolescents were allegedly murdered at the command of the chief of Nino’s clan because they had snatched his mother’s handbag. In his opinion, I ask, can the author of this crime have human feeling in his soul?

Nino: I think that even he has had moments of tenderness. I don’t believe there are people who are all hard, all cruel… He had these bag snatchers killed, of course, but for someone who lives inside this kind of life I think there’s no difference between killing a child and killing any other human being…

I tried to carry out the job the best I could, without taking risks, or risking my companions. I didn’t take chances. Well, when I was young, certainly. Then, bit by bit, I tried to make my work better. To make as few mistakes as I could.

To be unprepared is not allowed, because, if I’d been unprepared, by now I’d have been dead. So many people died, so many! Do you know how many people were killed, in the street, because of an ambush, or just because they felt safe? Some people acted in a way that was wrong, not as they should have acted, and they upset me… For example, I didn’t like those guys who went out and took drugs, or went and got drunk, or mistreated their families… Or the ones who behaved like children, even if they had real talent as a criminal, doing silly things, maybe showing off, so that sometimes I scolded them. I also didn’t like the smart asses, those who took advantage of the weak… sometimes I just didn’t like a guy… you know, that kinda dislike at first sight, it happens, then maybe, you can change your mind, after some talk…

I lived as if I was an ordinary clerk. In the morning I got up at eight, or eight thirty, left the house… There were bars open where we met… we stayed about an hour... It depended on what had to be discussed, the decisions that had to be made… there was always something to talk about. It wasn’t that you had to kill someone all the time; there were many other things to consider, like taking care of something for other people, you know, doing favours, all that sort of thing.

So…the morning was spent like that, a bit of one thing and a bit of another. At one o’clock I went home. I ate with my family and stayed until three or four o’clock and then went out. In the evening I came back to the house again…I didn’t like going to night clubs. I was a loner; my family was my entertainment. I'm too tied to my family; the money I earned I never even saw, because I spent it on myself and on them. On summer, for instance… school ended in June, so we used to go right away on vacation, to come back in September. I would spend 30-40 million lire. That was my income; it’s big money you can earn…

I spoiled my children and my wife: entertainment, travel… everybody well dressed, all that sort of thing. Sure I had a lot of fun, but it was always with my family. One week, four days, I could be away, but I’d suffer all the same. I slept at home. I never spent one night away from home…

My wife knew that I stole… but she could never have imagined that I could commit murder..… Sometimes she asked me something about work… I made her understand that it was stolen money… but I never specifically told her: you know, I held up that bank, never…That is, in the beginning when we were first married, she asked me. Then I made her understand that she shouldn’t ask me. First of all, because she was a woman and I didn’t want to involve her in my business. But also, you know, because she might talk to a friend and friends confide in each other. It happens….

When I started collaborating with the Court, when I told my wife: listen, you know I've done all these things, she started to cry: I don’t believe it! I don’t believe it! That you robbed some people, that I can understand, I figured you had, but that you’ve done all these other things, that I don’t believe! I’m with you through thick and thin! You’re my husband. I love you. Even when you did what you did, and now… even if I blame you.

I can’t go on like that, [I reply] because of the children, because of you, making you suffer. My family lived in a clean environment, and my affairs, my shady affairs….I always left outside the home. The children knew nothing; they went to school, played with their friends, hung around with ordinary people. 

Amedeo Cottino, Professor of Sociology, University of Turin. Former Dean of the Faculty of Political Science, a former Président of the Comité Scientific du GERN and Director of the Italian Institute of Culture, Stockholm 2001-3. These interviews were first published as a book in Italian as Vita da Clan, 1998, EGA-Edizioni Gruppo Abele; then in Swedish in 2004 as Familjeliv: en maffialedare berättar, Ordfront Förlag. There was also a French version in 2003.

Part 2 of this series

Part 3 of this series

Part 4 of this series

Part 5 of this series

Part 6


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