You’re late for an appointment in downtown Palermo. The traffic was insane, the one-way streets ran you in circles, but, at last, you’ve found a space in a dark alley just big enough for your car. As you open the door and step out, a young man approaches.
“How long will you be?” he asks, smiling. You’re taken aback. You realize he wants money and you’re intimidated.
“About fifteen minutes,” you tell him. It’s a lie but he might be a car thief. “How much is it?”
“Whatever you want,” he says with a shrug. You cough up a few euros and he thanks you graciously.
After an hour passes, you rush back to find your car safe and sound. As you pull out of the alley, you pass the young man who nods and flashes another smile. You feel taken and curse him under your breath. But as time goes on, you start to look for these illicit parking attendants, and even feel uncomfortable leaving your car without paying somebody to protect it.
In southern Italy, paying the "pizzo" can feel like the natural order of things. The nineteenth-century grain farmers who turned over most of the harvest to overlords were expected to give an additional scoop, the pizzo, or beakful, to the estate guards. Thus, “wetting the beak” became the tribute paid to the middlemen—the mafiosi who guaranteed distant landlords a smooth operation under threat of violence.
The word’s double meaning, that of a bird’s beak, has a more familiar connotation today, and the long tradition of the racketeer wetting his beak by dipping into a shopkeeper’s monthly profits continues to this day. The legendary Mafia boss of the early twentieth century, Vito Cascio Ferro, considered the pizzo an integral part of Sicilian society that must be handled with care:
“You’ve got to skim the cream off the milk without breaking the bottle,” he cautioned. “Don’t ruin people with absurd demands for money. Offer your protection instead. Help them prosper in business and they’ll not only be happy to pay the pizzo but they’ll kiss your hands in gratitude.” Cascio Ferro’s view from the top, however, obscures the nasty consequences that “ruin” can entail.
Sicily’s trade advantage as a Mediterranean crossroads was simultaneously its disadvantage. Colonized through the millennia by innumerable foreign powers, the island’s inhabitants rejected the faraway rulers as illegitimate and impotent. A local class of strongmen filled the power vacuum; they assumed the monopoly on violence, to use a political term, traditionally held by official governments. Though illegal and frequently tyrannical, this parallel system of governance with its own norms, laws, and taxes, offered the only form of protection available to vulnerable Sicilian peasants.
Typically, a middleman—one with the implicit authority of violence—was given a cut of the sales transaction he was asked to mediate. A buyer was guaranteed to receive his money’s worth and the seller was guaranteed to be paid. This happy arrangement became the preferred method for both buyer and seller.
Protection as a service has devolved over time into base extortion. It thrives in Sicily precisely because it sprang from a legitimatized mafioso system. The pizzo is brazenly collected from grocery stores, restaurants, hotels, car dealerships, funeral parlors and even holy festivals.
A retailer opening a new shop is greeted by a friendly esattore, a “tax collector,” sent by the controlling crime family of the territory. A relationship is established based on the hand-to-hand exchange of cash, generally on a monthly or semi-annual basis. In 2009, this hidden "tax” on Italian businesses amounted to £8 billion. As access to credit becomes more difficult in the country’s lagging recession, the Mafia has filled the gap, offering usurious loans worth an additional £14 billion.
Refusing to comply is risky. An uncooperative business is likely to suffer a series of intimidations that increases in severity and terror. Its padlocks may be filled with a super-glue known by its brand name of Attak, or its front door may be set on fire. A sack left at the entrance might contain bullets or the severed head of a goat kid. Arsonists often torch the owner’s car, business or home. Ultimately, death can come to a refusenik.
In the summer of 2007, Rodolfo Guajana watched as flames engulfed his warehouse, located on Salvatore Lo Piccolo’s turf.
Libero Grassi, a textile manufacturer, was one of the first to take a public stand against the pizzo. He paid with his life in 1991, but the murder inspired a wave of activism never before seen in Italy. Groups like Addiopizzo (“Goodbye pizzo”) launched campaigns to help businesses oppose the Mafia; it was also a plaintiff in the prosecution of the powerful Palermo boss, Salvatore Lo Piccolo. New laws put pressure on the merchants, too, making it a crime to pay a racketeer willingly.
The histories of the Mafia and the Antica Focacceria in Palermo have intertwined since the restaurant opened 177 years ago. Lucky Luciano dropped by for the meaty local version of focaccia, as did the doomed prosecutors Falcone and Borsellino. Mafia weddings have been catered by the cooking staff. But only recently has a serious shakedown of the famed institution been attempted.
Located in the downtown neighborhood controlled by heirs of the “pizzo king” Tomasso Spadaro, the Focacceria survived a litany of warnings from glued padlocks to broken windows to car vandalism. Owner Vincenzo Conticello went beyond a simple refusal to pay.
Inspired by his grandmother, the matriarch who kept the family business "pizzo-free" two generations earlier, Conticello singled out his harassers in a Palermo courtroom. After the death threats came, a pair of guards armed with submachine guns were stationed at the door. Now, the extortioners are in prison and the eatery is as popular as ever.
Hardware supplier Rodolfo Guajana also runs an old family enterprise resistant to the Mafia. In the summer of 2007, he watched as flames engulfed his warehouse, located on Salvatore Lo Piccolo’s turf. The efforts of Palermo's anti-Mafia community procured funding from the state; workers put the finishing touches on a new replacement warehouse last year.
To date, 698 Italian businesses have taken the Addiopizzo pledge, refusing to pay and defiantly displaying the group’s anti-racket logo in their windows. At least two stores in Palermo sell Sicilian products like wine and pasta made exclusively under the clean-hands policy. A petite, young employee at one of these, the Emporio Pizzo Free, told me she was unafraid of Mafia reprisals: “They’ve just given up on us. They know they’ll get nothing.”
But the Mafia has not entirely abandoned its age-old revenue stream, even if it finds bigger profits in trafficking drugs and siphoning government contracts. Last spring, the governor of the Bank of Italy, Mario Draghi, accused Mafia groups of holding back his country’s economic recovery as they infiltrate the northern regions. Citing Addiopizzo’s sobering Mafia profit sum for 2009—£122 billion—he added, “Organized crime weakens the fabric of a society. It attacks democracy where it needs to be strengthened.”
On the evening following Draghi’s announcement, a pair of warehouses burned in Palermo’s southern industrial region, for years the domain of the mafiosi Graviano brothers. The shaken owner, Antonio La Fata, said, “It seemed like going back to the nightmare I lived through in 1982, when I reported the pizzo demands to the [assassinated] commissioner Ninni Cassarà. Then, they destroyed my factory with twenty-two pounds of T.N.T.”
A week after the warehouses were razed, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at a parked car owned by Alessandro Calì, a medical engineer. Calì was responsible for expelling Dr. Michele Aiello, the director of a private radiology clinic, from the Order of Engineers. Aiello is currently serving fifteen years for a host of Mafia crimes. While on trial, he, too, claimed to have paid the pizzo on behalf of his hospital.