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Basta! How Sicily’s Antimafia movement is taking back the island and successfully standing up to Cosa Nostra

By David Amoruso

Enough is enough. In the land of Cosa Nostra and omerta, a growing number of citizens is successfully standing up to the Mafia, creating a new mindset among Sicilians. “The idea that now it is possible not to pay, that it’s safe to rebel against the Mafia, that the institutions are by your side.”

For over a century, the shadow of Cosa Nostra loomed large over Sicily and its citizens. The Mafia controlled virtually every aspect of life on the Italian island. Those who tried to oppose its power were murdered in cold blood. Their deaths created an atmosphere of fear and despair among the people of Sicily.

Especially amongst honest, hardworking businessmen and shopkeepers, who all expected a visit from the local Mafioso demanding pizzo, which roughly translates as “to wet the beak” and is more commonly known as tribute money. In the end, it’s fancy speak for what it really is: an extortion fee demanded by Cosa Nostra.

It is estimated a staggering 80 percent of businesses in Sicily pay protection money to the Mafia. In fact, pizzo was so common and accepted within Sicilian communities that anyone starting a new business did so with the Mafia tax already in mind. Which was strange, a young group of Sicilian students and workers thought.

Edoardo Zaffuto (40) tells us about the discussion that ensued when the group planned to open a fair trade pub in Palermo. “At one point, one of them said, how can we deal with the Mafia? Whenever you need to start a business you have to take the amount of pizzo money into account, it is like if you have a business plan you have to take into account that you also have to pay the Mafia. This was a big provocation and all of us started to think that it’s crazy to live in a town where most of the people and shops pay protection money without even thinking of the consequences.”

What are the consequences, you might ask? Well, as Zaffuto (right) puts it, “Even if you only pay the first time it is sure they will come back a second time and a third time and it will become like a disease.”

Also, since there are no contracts, do not expect to be treated fairly. There may be a price hike or the Mafia may want a piece of your business. All happened frequently in various mob cases in both Italy and the United States and Canada.

In 2004, Zaffuto and his friends decided to form a movement against the Mafia and its pizzo. They called it Addiopizzo, Goodbye Pizzo. At night, Zaffuto and his friends began placing stickers containing the message “An entire people that pays pizzo is a people without dignity” all over Palermo. When shopkeepers opened up their stores in the morning they were confronted with a message that was unlike anything they’d ever seen in a city dominated by the code of silence and obedience to Cosa Nostra.

“Sicilians don’t like to be called undignified,” Zaffuto tells us. “People started opening their eyes and one year later we opened our consumer campaign.”

Addiopizzo realized a simple message would not be enough to stop businessmen from paying the extortion fees and go to the police. More was needed. Zaffuto: “We decided that first we had to show shopkeepers that this time they would not be alone. So we began to collect a commitment from townspeople, normal people, who said whenever there is a shop that refuses to pay protection money I will support them. I will go there and shop there. So right after collecting like thousands of commitments we decided now it’s time to show the face of the first 100 shops who refuse to pay.”

Each shop that is part of Addiopizzo’s campaign brandishes their logo – an X with the name Addiopizzo on it – in its window. In 2006 the first 100 shops and businesses began displaying the logo, now, ten years later, there are more than 1000 companies that have joined the Addiopizzo movement.

Solidarity is an extremely important weapon against the Mafia. “We’ve been suggesting the idea that the only way to defeating the Mafia is to team up and face the it together,” Zaffuto explains. “Because whenever in the past some people tried to do it alone, they’ve either been killed or isolated. It’s not possible to win this campaign if you are just one person, alone, that is why we suggested that the best strategy is to team up together because of the strength and safety in numbers.”

Addiopizzo learned this tactic by looking at the past heroes of the Antimafia movement, many of whom gave their lives in their battle for justice. One such hero was Libero Grassi, a clothing manufacturer from Palermo who, in 1991, wrote an open letter addressed “Dear Extortionist,” which was publicized in local newspaper Giornale di Sicilia. In it he took a defiant stand against paying pizzo.

Sicilians were shocked. At the same time, many were watching and waiting for Cosa Nostra to make its move. How would they react? The answer came eight months later when assassins shot Grassi to death outside his home. What should have been a first step towards an uprising against the Mafia became a warning to those even thinking about any such actions.

A familiar pattern could be seen throughout the Antimafia movement. Brave individuals who took a stand against their oppressors eventually became isolated and were subsequently murdered.

Mafia historian Umberto Santino has seen it happen over and over. He and his wife Anna Puglisi (both pictured above) run the Centro Siciliano di documentazione “Giuseppe Impastato,” a center dedicated to studying the Mafia. They named it after the activist who was tortured and killed by the Mafia after producing radio shows attacking the town godfather, Gaetano Badalamenti, a defendant in the Pizza Connection trial. It is the first of its kind and enables the public to “develop awareness of the Mafia and other similar organizations on both a national and international level; to develop initiatives aimed at fighting such organizations; to debate and to promote a culture of legality, development and a high level of democratic participation.”

There have been plenty of uprisings, both big and small. “In my History of the Antimafia movement, translated into English, I devote many pages to the peasant struggles from the end of the nineteenth century, a great mass movement clashed with landowners and the Mafia,” 77-year-old Santino says. “Many people were killed by the Mafia, including the leaders of the leftist parties and trade unions. Some names: Lorenzo Panepinto, Bernardino Verro, Nicola Alongi, Giovanni Orcel, Placido Rizzotto, Salvatore Carnevale. And you have to remember the massacres at the time of the Fasci Siciliani (1891-94), the massacre of Portella della Ginestra of May 1, 1947, ten days after the victory of the left, the head of the peasant struggles, the regional elections of April 20, 1947. And let us remember the sacrifice of magistrates Terranova, Chinnici, Falcone and Borsellino, entrepreneurs like Libero Grassi, priests like Father Puglisi.”

READ: To Kill A Dream: The Sicilian Mafia and the Murder of a Priest

It goes on and on. Hearing him list all the historic massacres, dates, and names of the dead, one can’t help but become worried about the present. Santino, however, is hopeful. “In recent years there has been a revival, with demonstrations after great Mafia crimes and massacres and with the creation of foundations, associations, committees which play an everyday role in taking action against the Mafia. It is the result of a social conscience that has been growing in recent years but also the aggravation of the economic crisis that makes it increasingly difficult to meet the demands of extortionists and pushes to free themselves from subservience to the domain Mafia.”

That the Antimafia movement is indeed gaining ground is backed up by several ‘uprisings’ in the Mafia’s heartland. An incredible number of 36 businessmen in Bagheria, near Palermo, stood up against the Mafia, identifying local bosses, and admitting to police they’d been paying the local Cosa Nostra clan pizzo. As a result, 22 Mafiosi were charged with running a massive extortion scheme that affected all businesses in the area, from construction companies to furniture and clothing stores, wholesale fruit and fish sellers, bars, videogame arcades, and betting shops.

“Some of them had been subject to harassment for years,” Carabinieri Colonel Salvatore Altavilla told news agency ANSA. “The breakthrough has opened the way to strike a new blow at Cosa Nostra, a sign that the times have changed and that businessmen and shopkeepers finally are rebelling.”

It was an historic event, Zaffuto tells us. “The most important aspect of this police operation is that for the first time there was a strong contribution from the shopkeepers and businessmen,” he says enthusiastically. “It is something that very rarely happens in Sicily. And it had never happened in Bagheria. It’s a small town of 50,000 people and for decades it has been among the areas most strongly controlled by the Mafia. It is amazing that 36 businessmen and shopkeepers decided to get rid of the Mafia altogether. That is something that we have been suggesting for years and years,” he says with pride.

“What happened in Bagheria is the demonstration that now it’s possible to refuse to pay, even if you have been paying for 20 years like so many of them were,” Zaffuto exclaims. “Now it’s possible to turn the page and wipe the slate clean.”

Though there were 36 businessmen in total that cooperated, that didn’t mean they all decided to go to the police together. Some had the courage to just spontaneously go to the police. Others came forward after Sergio Flamia, a member of the local Mafia clan, became a pentito and informed police which shopkeepers were being extorted by him and his colleagues.

“All these shopkeepers had the courage to do something that in the past was considered crazy,” Zaffuto adds. “The last few years, after Addiopizzo was founded there have been more examples of shopkeepers that all together refused to pay and went to the police. People are getting used to seeing there was no retaliation against them. As I said, the Mafia is pretty scared to face people gathered all together. They are very brave in attacking a single person.”

This realization has awakened an inner strength within the Sicilian people. Their mindset is changing slowly but surely, Zaffuto explains. “The mindset of not just the shopkeepers, but the shoppers, citizens, consumers, Sicilians in general, they now have the idea that it is possible not to pay, that it’s safe to rebel against the Mafia, that the institutions are by your side.”

There now is a strong feeling of solidarity among the community of shops that refuse to pay, Zaffuto says. Where in the old days it was considered normal to pay pizzo, while those who tried to change it were considered crazy, things are now turning around. Zaffuto: “After ten years we have been showing that times are changing and if you needed a huge amount of braveness to stand up against the Mafia before, now you need a little less. It’s not that it’s easy, it is not easy now, but it’s easier compared to the past.”

It helps that the Italian government participates in many Antimafia projects, creating a whole new tourism industry around former Mafia strongholds that have been confiscated by police and have been given a new purpose as museums, hotels, bed & breakfasts or restaurants.

Crime historian Carl Russo wrote the book The Sicilian Mafia: A true Crime Travel Guide in which he takes readers along all the spots in Sicily impacted by the Mafia. He experienced the emerging Antimafia tourism firsthand, witnessing the change the Antimafia movement has brought with it in Sicily. “When I set out to write the Mafia travel guide years ago, there were no tours of this kind in Italy. I contacted a few Sicilian tour operators asking to be taken on some kind of itinerary that included the sites of murders and homes of victims, magistrates, and Mafia bosses. I'm sure they thought I was crazy and I never heard back.”

Within a couple of years, however, things had changed. “Now, there are Antimafia tours both official and unofficial,” he tells us. “Addiopizzo's is the respectable way to go, but it's fairly limited. A much criticized outfit from Germany buses tourists into Corleone. And then there's the ridiculous son of Mafia boss Bernardo Provenzano, who entertains American tourists in Palermo with tales of being on the run with his family as a little boy. He offers no criticism of the Mafia or the murders his father committed. I might classify that as pro-Mafia tourism.”

While researching his book Russo stayed at an ‘agriturismo,’ an old farmhouse, he explains. “It’s the best way to travel in Sicily,” he says fondly. “You get the best food. Beautiful rooms. It’s usually in a stunning location. This one was confiscated from Bernardo Brusca, the old godfather of San Giuseppe Jato. A young couple runs it. The manager is an exquisite chef and his wife serves the food and talks to the guests. I asked her if she had suffered any type of Mafia intimidation. She said, ‘Well, actually yes, when we opened up they cut down the vineyards outside. Somebody killed the vineyards and we just decided to hold strong and continue going.’”

One of Russo’s best experiences was spending the afternoon interviewing Amico Dolci, son of the great Antimafia writer Danilo Dolci. “Amico took me to the dam built to irrigate the Jato Valley, thus breaking the local Mafia's water monopoly,” Russo says. “He showed me the school his father built and offices of the Dolci foundation in Partinico. None of this made it into my book, but it was the closest thing I've had to an Antimafia tour. I gave him a big jar of honey from Libera, produced by bees on land confiscated from his father's enemies, the Brusca family.”

Russo continues, “In downtown Palermo there are a couple of shops which only sell products made from confiscated lands. We’re talking wine, honey, jam, produce. And I asked one lady working in one of the shops right down in the old center of Palermo, ‘What happens? Don’t you get threats?’ And she said, ‘Well you know we’ve been resisting the Mafia for so long that…they just leave us alone. They know it’s not going to do any good.”

As Zaffuto points out, one still needs a lot of bravery to say no to Cosa Nostra. When dealing with such a brutal force one can’t help but be brave. During his career Zaffuto has heard many heart wrenching stories about citizens who fell prey to the Mafia.

One that comes to mind is of a man who had a construction company. When the Mafiosi knocked on his door to demand pizzo, he said ‘no’ and went straight to the police to report the crime. But that turned out to be just the first step of many in a long and dangerous journey. Throughout the investigation he was fearful for his life, his business, his family. He had to testify in court at various trials. It was an immensely difficult period for him.

“Sometimes we don’t focus enough on how stressful it can be for a single businessman or shopkeeper to decide to do it and continue to do it,” Zaffuto tells us. “This man was so terrified by the Mafia after he agreed to testify that he didn’t want to leave his house anymore.”

His sons decided their father’s business was not going to fail and kept it going. They also witnessed the victory against the Mafia in court. “Their father couldn’t,” Zaffuto says, “he died of a stroke before the end of this nightmare.”

So what can be done to stop the Mafia? Plenty, Zaffuto and Santino tell Gangsters Inc. Addiopizzo organizes projects for shopkeepers and schools to create awareness. They also work very closely with law enforcement and prosecutors. “It’s creating a network that gives you hope and a sense of safety,” Zaffuto says. “At the same time we share know-how about how to deal with the Mafia. In this particular case our legal office, lawyers, which have played an ever growing part in our organization, have been developing tactics on how to protect and safely manage the victims of the Mafia.”

The Centro Impastato primarily focuses on analysis, research, and documentation of historical events related to organized crime,” Santino explains. “We operated in schools since the early 1980s, with seminars and meetings with teachers and students. We support social struggles, such as the struggles of the homeless and victims of trafficking. We had a decisive role in the story of Giuseppe Impastato, getting convictions of the Mafia bosses responsible for the murder and the report of the Parliamentary Antimafia Commission on the role of representatives of the judiciary and law enforcement agencies in screening investigations: Instead of pursuing mobsters, some of them thought that Impastato was a terrorist or had committed suicide.”

At one point the Mafia will be defeated, Zaffuto says. “The problem is we cannot say when. Let’s say the Antimafia movement is a very long story. Each generation has been doing something against the Mafia and each generation had the feeling it was possible to do it, to finally destroy it. We are just making our contribution and probably the next generation will do something else and they will solve the problem. I’d be too optimistic if it was the final strike against the Mafia. For sure we are doing our best to bring its end closer.”

Santino agrees with this positive yet cautious outlook. “There are chances that the fight against the Mafia in Sicily continues with good results,” he says. But he emphasizes that other parties need to get involved. “The current Antimafia movement fails to involve sections of the people that live in the absence of legal income and depend largely on illegal activities, more or less connected with Mafia groups. And then there's the big problem of the relations of the Mafia with politicians and governmental institutions.”

According to Santino the Antimafia movement needs to be able to act as a unit and on the basis of a concrete program that raises the legal economy with a rational use of resources. It needs to do so because the economic crisis plays into the illegal economy, he explains.

“It’s a long process,” Zaffuto admits. “There needs to be a cultural change, that is the most difficult part because even if the police finally arrest all the bosses that are now in charge, there are not too many nowadays, but if you don’t solve the culture, the mindset of the people, eventually another mob or other bosses will take the place of the previous ones.”

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