September 21, 2010


In Sicily, Defying the Mafia: Fed up with extortion and violent crime, ordinary citizens are rising up against organized crime (Joshua Hammer, October 2010, Smithsonian magazine)

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.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at September 21, 2010 5:22 AM
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