Until recently, Ernesto Bisanti could not have imagined he would face down the Cosa Nostra (Our Thing)—the Sicilian Mafia. In 1986 Bisanti started a furniture factory in Palermo. Soon after, a man he recognized as one of the neighborhood’s Mafiosi visited him. The man demanded the equivalent of about $6,000 a year, Bisanti told me, “ ‘to keep things quiet. It will be cheaper for you than hiring a security guard.’ Then he added, ‘I don’t want to see you every month, so I will come every June and December, and you will give me $3,000 each time.’ ” Bisanti accepted the deal—as had nearly all the shop and business owners in the city.
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The arrangement lasted for two decades. “Sometimes he showed up with a son in tow,” Bisanti recalled, “and he would say, ‘Please tell my son that he has to study, because it’s important.’ It became like a relationship.” A stocky man with gray hair, Bisanti, 64, told me the money wasn’t that burdensome. “In their system, it’s not important how much you pay. It’s important that you pay,” he said. “It’s a form of submission.”
Then, in November 2007, police arrested Salvatore Lo Piccolo, the head of Palermo’s Mafia. A notebook found in Lo Piccolo’s possession contained a list of hundreds of shop and business owners who paid the pizzo—an ancient word of Sicilian origin meaning protection money. Bisanti’s name was on the list. The Palermo police asked him if he would testify against the extortionist. Not long ago, such a public denunciation would have meant a death sentence, but in recent years police raids and betrayals by informers have weakened the Mafia here, and a new citizens group called Addiopizzo (Goodbye Pizzo) has organized resistance to the protection rackets. Bisanti said yes, took the witness stand in a Palermo courtroom in January 2008 and helped send the extortionist to prison for eight years. The Mafia hasn’t bothered Bisanti since. “They know that I will denounce them again, so they are fearful,” he said.
This sun-drenched island at the foot of the Italian peninsula has always been a place of conflicting identities. There is the romantic Sicily, celebrated for its fragrant citrus groves, stark granite mountains and glorious ruins left by a succession of conquerors. The vast acropolis of Selinunte, built around 630 B.C., and the Valley of the Temples at Agrigento—described by the Greek poet Pindar as “the most beautiful city of the mortals”—are considered among the finest vestiges of classical Greece, which ruled Sicily from the eighth to the third centuries B.C. In the ninth century A.D., Arab conquerors built frescoed palaces in Palermo and Catania; few churches are more magnificent than Palermo’s Palantine Chapel, erected from 1130 to 1140 by Sicily’s King Roger II during a period of Norman domination. Natural splendors abound as well: at the eastern end of the island rises Mount Etna, an 11,000-foot-high active volcano, beneath which, according to Greek mythology, lies the serpentine monster Typhon, trapped and entombed for eternity by Zeus.
But Sicily is also known as the birthplace of the Mafia, arguably the most powerful and organized crime syndicate in the world. The term, which may derive from the adjective mafiusu—roughly “swaggering” or “bold”—gained currency in the 1860s, around the time of Giuseppe Garibaldi’s unification of Italy. It refers to the organized crime entrenched in Sicily’s then-isolated, largely rural society. When Allied forces invaded Sicily during World War II, they sought help from Italian-American mobsters with Sicilian ties, such as Vito Genovese, to secure control of the island. The Allies even allowed Mafia figures to become mayors there. Over the next few decades, the Cosa Nostra built relationships with Italian politicians—including Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti (who served seven terms between 1972 and 1992)—and raked in billions through heroin trafficking, extortion, rigged construction contracts and other illegal enterprises. Those who dared speak out were usually silenced with a car bomb or a hail of bullets. Some of the most violent and consequential Mafia figures came from Corleone, the mountain town south of Palermo and the name novelist Mario Puzo conferred on the American Mafia family central to his 1969 novel, The Godfather.
Then, in the 1980s, two courageous prosecutors (known in Italy as investigating magistrates), Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, using wiretapping and other means, persuaded several high-ranking mobsters to break the oath of silence, or omerta. Their efforts culminated in the “maxi- trial” of 1986-87, which exposed hidden links between mobsters and government officials, and sent more than 300 Cosa Nostra figures to prison. The Mafia struck back. On May 23, 1992, along the Palermo airport highway, hit men blew up an armored limousine carrying Falcone, 53, and his magistrate-wife Francesca Morvillo, 46, killing them and three police escorts. Borsellino, 52, was killed by another bomb, along with his five bodyguards, as he walked to his mother’s Palermo doorway less than two months later.
But rather than crippling the anti-Mafia movement, the assassinations—as well as subsequent Mafia car bombings in Milan, Florence and Rome that killed a dozen people—galvanized the opposition. In January 1993, Salvatore (“The Beast”) Riina, the Cosa Nostra’s capo di tutti i capi, or boss of all bosses, from Corleone, who had masterminded the assassinations, was captured near his Palermo villa after two decades on the run. He was tried and sentenced to 12 consecutive life terms. Riina was succeeded by Bernardo (“The Tractor”) Provenzano, who shifted to a low-key approach, eliminating most violence while continuing to rake in cash through protection rackets and the procurement of public building contracts. In April 2006, police finally tracked down Provenzano and arrested him in a crude cottage in the hills above Corleone; he had been a fugitive for 43 years. Provenzano went to prison to serve several consecutive life sentences. His likely successor, Matteo Messina Denaro, has also been on the run since 1993.
Even before Provenzano’s arrest, a quiet revolution had begun to take hold in Sicilian society. Hundreds of businesspeople and shopkeepers in Palermo and other Sicilian towns and cities began refusing to pay the pizzo. Mayors, journalists and other public figures who once looked the other way started speaking out against the Mafia’s activities. A law passed by the Italian parliament in 1996 allowed the government to confiscate the possessions of convicted Mafia figures and turn them over, gratis, to socially responsible organizations. In the past few years, agricultural cooperatives and other groups have taken over mobsters’ villas and fields, converting them into community centers, inns and organic farms. “We’ve helped local people change their views about the Mafia,” says Francesco Galante, communications director of Libera Terra, an umbrella organization led by an Italian priest that today controls nearly 2,000 acres of confiscated farmland, mainly around Corleone. The group has created jobs for 100 local workers, some of whom once depended on the Cosa Nostra; replanted long-abandoned fields with grapes, tomatoes, chickpeas and other crops; and sells its own brands of wine, olive oil and pasta throughout Italy. “The locals don’t see the Mafia anymore as the only institution they can trust,” Galante says.
After I landed at Palermo’s Falcone-Borsellino Airport this past March—renamed in 1995 in honor of the murdered magistrates—I rented a car and followed the Mediterranean seacoast toward Palermo, passing Capaci, where Falcone and his wife had met their deaths. (A Mafia hit team disguised as a construction crew had buried half a ton of plastic explosives inside a drain pipe on the airport highway and detonated it as Falcone’s vehicle crossed over.) After turning off the highway, I drove past row after row of shoddily constructed concrete apartment blocks on Palermo’s outskirts, an urban eyesore built by Mafia-controlled companies in the 1960s and ’70s. “This is Ciancimino’s legacy,” my translator, Andrea Cottone, told me as we drove down Via della Libertà, a once-elegant avenue where the tenements have crowded out a few surviving 18th- and 19th-century villas. Billions of dollars in contracts were doled out to the Cosa Nostra by the city’s corrupt assessor for public works, Vito Ciancimino; he died under house arrest in Rome in 2002 after being convicted of aiding the Mafia.
Passing a gantlet of bodyguards inside Palermo’s modern Palace of Justice, I entered the second-floor office of Ignazio De Francisci. The 58-year-old magistrate served as Falcone’s deputy between 1985 and 1989, before Falcone became a top assistant to Italy’s minister of justice in Rome. “Falcone was like Christopher Columbus. He was the one who opened the way for everyone else,” De Francisci told me. “He broke new ground. The effect he had was tremendous.” Falcone had energized the prosecution force and put in place a witness-protection program that encouraged many Mafiosi to become pentiti, or collaborators, with the justice system. Gazing at a photograph of the murdered magistrate on the wall behind his desk, he turned silent. “I often think about him, and wish that he were still at my shoulder,” De Francisci finally said.