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“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” the old cliche goes. But in Sicily, a new paper contends, lemons also made mafiosi.

The peer-reviewed paper, published last month in the Journal of Economic History, argues that the infamous organized crime ring actually has roots in the 19th-century lemon industry. Using two sets of historical crime and agricultural data, economist Arcangelo Dimico and two co-authors contend that the Mafia would not exist without a boom in the global citrus trade that spanned several decades.

It’s a valuable insight into an otherwise murky underworld, the authors claim. And it’s a new glimpse at the surprising links between agricultural shocks and organized crime, a dynamic that still plays out around the world today.

“I definitely think that there is an interesting parallel,” said Omar Garcia-Ponce, a political scientist at the University of California at Davis who has studied agriculture and Mexico’s drug cartels and was not involved in the study. A growing body of literature shows that agricultural commodity prices affect patterns of violence, he added.

Before there was organized crime in Sicily, however, there were lemons — lots of them.

According to the researchers, the island’s lemon industry exploded in the 19th century as doctors around the world realized the fruit cured scurvy, a condition caused by lack of vitamin C. That created a huge global demand for lemons, which grow well in the Sicilian climate, but had not been a major export previously.

Lemon-growing became hugely lucrative. Some historians have estimated that, by the mid-1880s, it was 60 times more profitable to grow a hectare of lemons (roughly 2.5 square acres) in Sicily than to grow other crops, like olives, grapes or wheat.


A U.S. government trade report, filed from Sicily in 1889, recorded high prices for lemons. (via Google Books)

But lemon growers also faced challenges, among them, dealing with brokers who sold the fruit abroad and fending off thieves who raided groves by night. As a result, many growers began contracting “protectors” to watch their trees and enforce their contracts, Dimico writes. This gave both money and structure to a loosely affiliated band of brigands and businessmen, helping them consolidate into the Mafia as it's known today.

To back that assertion, Dimico and his co-authors model the statistical correlation between historical data on crop production and mentions of the Mafia in historical crime surveys, both dating to slightly after the emergence of the term “Mafia” in 1865.

“The most robust determinant of mafia activity is the production of citrus fruits,” the authors write.

There is some debate about the degree of the lemon effect. While several historians have drawn the parallel between the citrus trade and the Mafia before, few have gone so far as to suggest the first launched the second.

“The peculiarities of the citrus market may indeed have provided a strong demand for Mafia services, and boosted its activities,” said Diego Gambetta, a sociologist and Mafia historian at the University of Oxford, by email. But the timing doesn’t line up neatly, he added: The largest boom in Sicilian citrus took place years after the Mafia emerged.

Historians have also traced the origins of the Sicilian Mafia to a string of revolts against the Italian state in the 1860s and '70s. Almost every early Mafia boss served in a police or national guard unit at that time, said John Dickie, a professor at University College London who has written extensively on the history of the Mafia in Sicily.

That said, Dickie acknowledged, most of those bosses were also involved in the lemon industry. In either case, the paper's greater contribution may be to economics, rather than Mafia history.

Dimico, its head author, argues that his work provides further evidence for the link between high-value export crops and organized crime — a link that continues to vex many places, including Italy. The Mafia's agricultural holdings there topped $23 billion in 2016, according to the Italian farm lobby, Coldiretti.

Similarly, in Michoacán, Mexico, where the production value of limes nearly doubled between 2003 and 2011 on the back of growing U.S. demand, the Templarios cartel has grown rich seizing lime farms from owners and pocketing the profits, Garcia-Ponce said.

Elsewhere in Central and South America, limited infrastructure and demand for cocaine has pushed many farmers into coca production, a situation that cartels have exploited, Dimico said. Economists, political scientists and sociologists are interested in understanding these dynamics to help governments push back against them.

“The point to take away is that super-normal profits, together with weak institutions, may cause a [gap] that can be exploited by illegal activities,” Dimico said by email. “This is something that is quite frequent and quite well documented.”

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