In Sicily, Defying the Mafia

Fed up with extortion and violent crime, ordinary citizens are rising up against organized crime

On the anniversary of the assassination of an anti-mafia magistrate, Palermo's citizens joined politicians in a fiaccolata, or candlelight vigil, in his honor. (Francesco Lastrucci)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 1)

Eighteen years after Falcone’s assassination, the pressure on the Mafia hasn’t let up: De Francisci had just presided over a months-long investigation that led to the arrests of 26 top Mafiosi in Palermo and several U.S. cities, on charges from drug trafficking to money laundering. The day before, police had captured Giuseppe Liga, 60, an architect and allegedly one of the most powerful figures in Palermo’s Mafia. Liga’s ascent illustrates the Mob’s transformation: power has shifted from coldblooded killers such as Riina and Provenzano to financial types and professionals who lack both the street smarts—and appetite for violence—of their predecessors. De Francisci described the Addiopizzo movement as the most inspiring symbol of the new fearlessness among the population. “It is a revolutionary development,” he said.

At dusk, I ventured out to Viale Strasburgo, a busy commercial thoroughfare where Addiopizzo had organized a recruitment drive. A dozen young men and women had gathered inside a tent festooned with banners proclaiming, in Italian, “We Can Do It!” Addiopizzo began in 2004, when six friends who wanted to open a pub—and who sensed the Mafia’s weakness—put up posters across the city that accused Sicilians of surrendering their dignity to the criminal organization. “People said, ‘What is this?’ For a Sicilian [the accusation] was the ultimate insult,” Enrico Colajanni, one of the first members told me. The movement now lists 461 members; in 2007, an offshoot, Libero Futuro, was formed; its 100 or so members have testified against extortionists in 27 separate trials. “It’s a good start,” Colajanni said, “but thousands are still paying in Palermo; we need a long time to develop a mass movement.”

According to a University of Palermo study published in 2008, around 80 percent of Palermo businesses still pay the pizzo, and the protection racket in Sicily brings the Mafia at least a billion euros annually (more than $1.26 billion at today’s exchange rate). A handful of attacks on pizzo resisters continues to frighten the population: in 2007, Rodolfo Guajana, an Addiopizzo member who owns a multi­million-dollar hardware business, received a bottle half-filled with gasoline and containing a submerged lighter. He paid it no mind; four months later, his warehouse was burned to the ground. For the most part, however, “the Mafia ignores us,” Addiopizzo volunteer Carlo Tomaselli told me. “We are like small fish to them.”

One morning, my translator, Andrea, and I drove with Francesco Galante through the Jato Valley, south of Palermo, to get a look at Libera Terra’s newest project. We parked our car on a country road and hiked along a muddy trail through the hills, a chill wind in our faces. Below, checkerboard fields of wheat and chickpeas extended toward jagged, bald-faced peaks. In the distance I could see the village of San Cipirello, its orange-tile-roofed houses clustered around a soaring cathedral. Soon we came to rows of grape vines tied around wooden posts, tended by four men wearing blue vests bearing Libera Terra logos. “Years ago, this was a vineyard owned by the Brusca crime family, but it had fallen into disrepair,” Galante told me. A cooperative affiliated with Libera Terra acquired the seized land from a consortium of municipalities in 2007, but struggled to find willing workers. “It was a taboo to put foot on this land—the land of the Boss. But the first ones were hired, and slowly they started to come.” Galante expects the fields to produce 42 tons of grapes in its first harvest, enough for 30,000 bottles of red wine for sale under the Centopassi label—a reference to a movie about a slain anti-Mafia activist. I walked through neat rows of vines, still awaiting the first fruit of the season, and spoke to one of the workers, Franco Sottile, 52, who comes from nearby Corleone. He told me that he was now earning 50 percent more than he did when he worked on land owned by Mafia bosses, and for the first time, enjoyed a measure of job security. “At the beginning, I thought there might be problems [working here],” he told me. “But now we understand that there is nothing to fear.”

I had heard that the Mafia was less forgiving in Partinico, a gritty town of 30,000 people 20 miles to the northwest. I drove there and parked in front of the main piazza, where old men wearing black berets and threadbare suits sat in the sun on benches surrounding a 16th-century Gothic church. A battered Fiat pulled up, and a slight, nattily dressed figure stepped out: Pino Maniaci, 57, owner and chief reporter for Telejato, a tiny Partinico-based TV station. Maniaci had declared war on the local Mafia—and paid dearly for doing so.

A former businessman, Maniaci took over the failing enterprise from the Italian Communist Party in 1999. “I made a bet with myself that I could rescue the station,” he told me, lighting a cigarette as we walked from the piazza through narrow lanes toward his studio. At the time, the city was in the midst of a war between rival Mafia families. Unlike in Palermo, the violence here has never let up: eight people have been killed in feuds in just the past two years. The town’s key position between the provinces of Trapani and Palermo has made it a continual battleground. For two years, Maniaci aired exposés about a mob-owned distillery in Partinico that was violating Sicily’s antipollution statutes and pouring toxic fumes into the atmosphere. At one point he chained himself to the distillery’s security fence in an effort to get police to shut it down. (It closed in 2005 but reopened last year after a legal battle.) He identified a house used by Bernard Provenzano and local Mafia chieftains to plan killings and other crimes: authorities confiscated it and knocked it down. In 2006 he got the scoop of a lifetime, joining police as they raided a tin shack near Corleone and captured Provenzano. The Mafia has burned Maniaci’s car twice and repeatedly threatened to kill him; in 2008 a pair of hoodlums beat him outside his office. Maniaci went on the air the next day with a bruised face and denounced his attackers. After the beating, he declined an offer of round-the-clock police protection, saying it would make it impossible for him to meet his “secret sources.”

Maniaci led me up a narrow flight of stairs to his second-floor studio, its walls covered by caricatures and framed newspaper clips heralding his journalistic feats. He flopped down in a chair at a computer and fired up another cigarette. (He smokes three packs a day.) Then he began working the phones in advance of his 90-minute, live daily news broadcast. He was attempting to ferret out the identities of those responsible for torching the cars of two prominent local businessmen the night before. Leaping out of his chair, Maniaci thrust a news script into my hands and asked me to read it on the air—despite my rudimentary Italian. “You can do it!” he encouraged. Maniaci often asks visiting foreign reporters to join him on camera in the belief the appearances will showcase his international clout and thereby protect him from further Mafia attacks.

Telejato, which reaches 180,000 viewers in 25 communities, is a family operation: Maniaci’s wife, Patrizia, 44, works as the station’s editor; his son, Giovanni, is the cameraman and his daughter, Letizia, is a reporter. “My biggest mistake was to bring in the whole family,” he told me. “Now they are as obsessed as I am.” The station functions on a bare-bones budget, earning about €4,000 ($5,000) a month from advertising, which covers gasoline and TV equipment but leaves almost nothing for salaries. “We are a little fire that we hope will become a big fire,” Maniaci said, adding that he sometimes feels he is fighting a losing battle. In recent months, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s government had introduced legislation that could weaken Sicily’s anti-Mafia campaign: one measure would impose stricter rules on wiretapping; another gave tax amnesty to anyone who repatriated cash deposited in secret overseas bank accounts, requiring them to pay only a 5 percent penalty. “We have Berlusconi. That’s our problem,” Maniaci told me. “We can’t destroy the Mafia because of its connection with politics.”

Not every politician is in league with the Mafia. The day after speaking with Maniaci, I drove south from Palermo to meet Corleone Mayor Antonino Iannazzo, who, since his election in 2007, has been working to repair the town’s reputation. The two-lane highway dipped and rose across the starkly beautiful Jato Valley, passing olive groves, clumps of cactus and pale green pastures that swept up toward dramatic granite ridges. At last I arrived in central Corleone: medieval buildings with balustraded iron balconies lined cobblestone alleys that snaked up a steep hillside; two giant sandstone pillars towered over a town of 11,000. In the nave of a crumbling Renaissance church near the center, I found Iannazzo—an ebullient, red-bearded 35-year-old, chomping on a cigar—showing off some restoration work to local journalists and business people.

In three years as Corleone’s mayor, Iannazzo has taken a hands-on approach toward the Mafia. When Salvatore Riina’s youngest son, Giuseppe Salvatore Riina, resettled in Corleone after getting out of prison on a technicality five and a half years into a nine-year sentence for money laundering, Iannazzo went on TV to declare him persona non grata. “I said, ‘We don’t want him here, not because we’re afraid of him, but because it’s not a good sign for the young people,’” he told me. “After years of trying to give them legal alternatives to the Mafia, one man like this can destroy all of our work.” As it turned out, Riina went back to prison after his appeal was denied. By then, says Iannazzo, Riina “understood that staying in Corleone wouldn’t be a good life for him—every time he went out of the house, he was surrounded by the paparazzi; he had no privacy.” Iannazzo’s main focus now is to provide jobs for the town’s youth—the 16 percent unemployment rate is higher here than in much of the rest of Italy—to “wean them off their attraction to the Mafia life.”

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus