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)
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Iannazzo got into my car and directed me through a labyrinth of narrow streets to a two-story row house perched on a hillside. “This is where [Riina’s successor] Bernardo Provenzano was born,” he told me. The municipality seized the house from the Provenzanos in 2005; Iannazzo himself—then deputy mayor—helped evict Provenzano’s two brothers. “They took their things and left in silence—and moved 50 yards down the street,” he recalls. Iannazzo was remaking the house into a “laboratory of legality”—a combination of museum, workshop and retail space for anti-Mafia cooperatives such as Libera Terra. The mayor had even had a hand in the design: stark metal banisters suggest prison bars while plexiglass sheets on the floors symbolize transparency. “We’ll show the whole history of the Mafia in this region,” he said, stopping in front of the burned-out remains of a car that had belonged to journalist Pino Maniaci.

Iannazzo still faces major challenges. Under a controversial new law passed by Italy’s parliament this past December, a confiscated Mafia property must be auctioned off within 90 days if a socially responsible organization has not taken it over. The law was intended to raise revenue for the cash-strapped Italian government; critics fear it will put properties back into the hands of organized crime. That’s “a ridiculously short period,” said Francesco Galante, of Libera Terra, who said it can take up to eight years for groups like his to acquire confiscated Mafia assets. And few citizens or even cooperatives can match the Mafia’s spending power. “Judges all over Italy protested against this bill,” Galante told me. “We got signatures and held events to try and stop this decision, but it didn’t work.” He estimates that some 5,000 seized properties could revert to the Mafia. (Since then, a new national agency was created to manage seized assets; Galante says it may mitigate that danger.)

Franco Nicastro, president of the Society of Sicilian Journalists, considers his organization lucky to have acquired one of the most powerful symbols of the island’s dark past before the deadline: the former home of Salvatore Riina in Palermo, where The Beast had lived under an assumed name, with his family, before his capture. A tasteful split-level villa with a date-palm garden beneath mountains a few miles away, it could be a screenwriter’s retreat in the Hollywood Hills. The house provided an atmosphere of suburban comfort to the man who had plotted the murders of Falcone, Borsellino and scores of others in the early 1990s. “He never met any fellow Mafiosi in this place,” Nicastro told me, throwing open shutters and allowing sunlight to flood the empty living room. “This was strictly a place for him, his wife and children.” This year it will reopen as the society’s headquarters, with workshops and exhibitions honoring the eight reporters who were murdered by the Mafia between the late 1960s and 1993. “Riina could kill journalists, but journalism didn’t die,” Nicastro said, leading the way to a drained swimming pool and a tiled patio where Riina liked to barbecue. Acquiring mob properties like this may become more difficult if Italy’s new law takes hold. But for Sicilians awakening from a long, Mafia-imposed nightmare, there will be no turning back.

Writer Joshua Hammer, who is a frequent Smithsonian contributor, lives in Berlin. Photographer Francesco Lastrucci is based in Italy, New York and Hong Kong.

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