Badder than The Sopranos and bloodier than The Godfather, the real life Mafia is no place for glamour.
When Libero Grassi left his Sicilian home at 7.30am on August 29, 1991 there must have been a lot on his mind. He was on his way to open his textile factory in Palermo for the first time after the long summer holiday. It was going to be a busy day. Grassi employed 100 people and the orders for the pyjamas and underwear his company manufactured were already piling up.
But as the 67-year-old businessman pulled into the street, the mafia attacked and three bullets were pumped into his head.
For years Grassi, a married father of two, had resisted mafia attempts to extort protection money. Despite the kidnap threats, relentless abuse, thefts from his factory, the failed attempts at arson and even the isolation of fellow businessmen, he had remained defiant. Grassi had spoken on television about his refusal to pay and even written an open letter to newspapers that began, “Dear extortionist” denouncing Cosa Nostra.
But for his defiance he was executed.
It seems shockingly familiar somehow, like a particularly violent episode of The Sopranos, but for Sicily’s business community the story is depressingly banal. Those that don’t pay the mafia, pay another price.
In 2008 Confesercenti an association representing Italy’s service sector, reported that the mafia had a turnover of 130 billion euros and a profit of 70 billion euros. The money, inevitably, came from drugs, arms deals and prostitution but huge chunks came from forced loans and protection money.
“Nobody is certain, but it is estimated that at least 70 per cent of businesses in Sicily pay protection to Cosa Nostra,” says anti-mafia campaigner Edoardo Zaffuto. “This could be 1,500 euros every month for a hotel or 10 euros a month for a street hawker. It’s just like another tax for businesses and consumers. But, of course, it’s not just about money it’s also a source of social control. ”
The problem is that the mathematics of exploitation shouldn’t add up. There are only estimated to be around 5,000 mafia members controlling a Sicilian population of more than five million. Still ‘pizzo’ is alive and well today. Usually it takes the form of cash payments, but traders may also be ‘encouraged’ to employ mafia associates or buy only from approved suppliers.
Zaffuto is one of the founders of Addiopizzo (literally ‘goodbye pizzo’), a Palermo-based organisation set up in 2004 to encourage businesses to resist the mafia. The group’s first act of defiance was to go out one night and plaster the city’s walls with posters and stickers featuring the slogan: “A society that pays pizzo is a society without dignity.”
The first time I spoke to the group three years ago there were only a few dozen traders that had publicly declared they were pizzo-free zones, today the organisation boasts 450 members ranging from restaurants and shops to hotels and bars. Zaffuto also organises anti-mafia tours of Sicily through Addiopizzo Travel and the group provides tourists with a database of ethical outlets that are ‘pizzo-free’.
“It’s difficult for visitors to understand how rooted the idea of pizzo is in Sicilian culture,” says Zaffuto. “It’s just, well, normal. Even when a group of friends were planning to open a bar they included pizzo payments in their budget. But of course it’s not normal. It’s exploitation.”
“The problem is that the mathematics of exploitation shouldn’t add up. There are only estimated to be around 5,000 mafia members controlling a Sicilian population of more than five million.”
The pizzo requests are surprisingly banal. There is no violence or menace. Normally it’s simply someone known to a trader asking for regular ‘jail bird’ payments for the families whose husbands are in prison or legal fees for those facing trial. Sometimes ‘loans’ are ‘negotiated’ and paid in installments. Interest is added when an extra financial push is needed.
But what about the risks of defying the Mafia and ending up like Libero Grassi? “Sadly, that was 1991, times were different then,” says Andrea Cottone a former Addiopizzo founder and now a Sicilian journalist who writes extensively about the mafia. “Libero Grassi was just one man. Today Addiopizzo is a group. Nobody is alone any more. The community supports Addiopizzo, if something would happen to a member there would be a rebellion in the street.”
“In 1991 it used to be difficult to say no to the mafia,” says Zaffuto. “You would receive a funeral wreath, a goat’s head would be left on your doorstep or your car, shop, home would be vandalised. The signs would be clear and the final solution would be clear. Now there are 450 companies saying no. I believe a local social revolution is taking place now, supported by the international community.”
The activist cites the example of a warehouse owner who refused to pay the Mafia and became the victim of arson. The community bonded together to rebuild the warehouse and pay staff that had temporarily no work.
Over at the famous Palermo restaurant of Antica Foccaceria San Francisco the owners Fabio and Vincenzo Conticcello refused to buy stock from mob-favoured sources and rejected an offer to pay monthly pizzo. Instead, the brothers used the threats against them as part of a testimony against their tormentors helping to put away three mafia bosses for a total of 40 years. “If you bow your head to the Mafia it’s the first step to losing your dignity,” said Fabio after the trial. They are brave men. Today their restaurant requires an armed police guard.
However, much has changed within the mafia itself. Twenty years ago Palermo was under curfew as mob bosses fought brutal battles on the streets, no-go ghettos piled high with corpses, heroic campaigning magistrates such as Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellion were killed by car bomb and in Rome, Florence and Milan explosive attacks showed the authorities exactly who was in control.
Today the Mafia is more strategic. Author Alexander Stille in his book Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and Death of the First Italian Republic writes: “People get tired of screaming headlines with pictures of dead bodies. It’s a mistake to think that the mafia is only powerful when it kills lots of people. In the past 10 or 15 years it’s actually killed relatively few and has avoided killing prominent officials to avoid attracting attention.”
“I think this is true, there is not the same level of open criminality now,” says Cottone. “The Mafia is more interested in legitimate activities and is more white collar than ever before.” Zaffuto agrees. “Infiltrating businesses such as construction or gaining international influence is more lucrative than killing high profile people. This is as much about public relations and potential public outcry as business. I remember reading a note from a boss recently that said, ‘If a man is more dangerous dead than alive, leave him alive’.”
So what about Hollywood’s portrayal of the mafia? Cottone snorts with laughter. “This is not glamour! We see the violence and intimidation of the mafia every day. We’ve seen the blood on the streets.” The herds of Godfather fans that come to the Sicilian town of Corleone to photograph the old men, eat pasta or pose for photographs by the town’s sign posts have no understanding of what the mafia is really about, says Zaffuto. “They are not Robin Hood characters who steal from the rich to give to the poor. What honour code? They collect for themselves. And saving women and children? Giuseppe Di Matteo was 15 when he was strangled to death and his body dumped in a vat of acid.”
The real heroes of Sicily are those who fought the Mafia, people like Peppino Impastato who was born into an influential mafia family but rejected Cosa Nostra after the car bomb death of his uncle. Through his radio shows and extensive political debate Impastato satirised the mafia and relentlessly campaigned against violence. He was killed in 1978 in a showcase execution. The 30-year-old was tied to a railway track and explosives denoted beneath his body. “Peppino’s brother Giovanni keeps his memory alive today,” says Zaffuto. “He is happy to meet Addiopizzo tourists and explain exactly what the mafia means to Sicilians.”
“In 1991 it used to be difficult to say no to the mafia. You would receive a funeral wreath, a goat’s head would be left on your doorstep or your home would be vandalised.”
The spirit of Impastato infuses the members of Addiopizzo. Punto Pizzo Free, for example, is a Palermo ‘emporium’ that sells pizzo-free products such as T-shirts with anti-mafia slogans and products grown on land seized from Cosa Nostra. Owners Fabio Messina and his Valeria Di Leo are now even planning the world’s first pizzo-free wedding. Meanwhile, over at the Addiopizzo bed and breakfast of Sole Luna Della Solidarieta – the Sun and Moon of Solidarity – the three rooms are brightly painted in a riot of colour. “If you fear the mafia you live your life in black and white,” is a much-loved slogan of manager Patrizia Opipari.
One of the favourite stopover points on an anti-mafia tour is a picturesque estate just a few kilometres from Corleone. Once the land and buildings belonged to Salvatore Riina – known as the mafia ‘boss of bosses’ or simply The Beast – now it grows produce for the estate’s new restaurant and five-room hotel. When The Beast was captured and sentenced to multiple life sentences, his property was confiscated by the state and given to the group of cooperatives known as Libera Terra Mediterraneo.
“Now everyone can come and enjoy these places,” says Francesco Galante in an email. “They belong to everyone. Our objective is to continue to educate tourists and school children through visits and information. There is a growing interest in a different kind of tourism that celebrates the liberation of Sicilian land.”
So what about the future? “When we started the older generation would rarely talk about the mafia and even if they did, they would say it’s not something you can change,” says Cottone. “Now there is hope.”
“We are not day-dreamers,” Zaffuto says. “Of course it is difficult to change an entire culture, perhaps we will not change it in our lifetimes but it’s a struggle I hope our sons and daughters will complete.”
Anti-mafia association Addiopizzo organises holidays for tourists that only promote hotels, restaurants and shops that have publicly declared that they do not pay protection money to the mafia. Visit www.addiopizzo.org for more details. If you’re thinking of planning a Sicilian trip check out www.addiopizzotravel.it and Libera Terra Mediterraneo at www.ilgiustodiviaggiare.it.
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