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In early November,
when Bernardo Provenzano's
apparent successor, Mafia boss Salvatore Lo Piccolo, was captured outside
Palermo, the story was immediately picked up by the major international
news magazines, of which the piece in The Economist ("Catching
the Boss," Nov 10-16 2007, p36) was perhaps the most insightful. But
while acknowledging that racketeering has surpassed narcotics as the chief
Mafia trade, none of these articles mentioned a local detail which was revealed
by Italian newspapers a week later. Lo Piccolo's principal executive activity
seems to have been collecting the pizzo ("protection money")
in western Sicily. This is the monthly payment made to the Mafia by shop
owners to operate without being harassed or murdered by these criminals,
and in Palermo the major organised force against the pizzo is a growing
organisation called Addio Pizzo ("Goodbye Protection Money")
courageously founded a few years ago by some young business people. It turns
out that Lo Piccolo was receiving large sums not only from small stores
but from large ones such as the modern megamarkets outside town in Via Ugo
La Malfa. Not that Lo Piccolo or his son, Alessandro, are alleged to have
extorted this money personally. Convicted "in absentia" of several
crimes, the elder Lo Piccolo had been in hiding for twenty-four years. In
practice, the day-to-day task of extortion was left to dozens of underlings,
most of whom are still at large and have never even met Lo Piccolo.
Lo Piccolo father and son were on Italy's "30 Most Wanted"
list. Like Totò Riina and son, they can look forwarded to extended
prison sentences. In truth, Salvatore Lo Piccolo may not have been the supreme
head of the Sicilian Mafia so much as a kind of "regional administrator"
of its western Sicilian district and perhaps an acting substitute for the
incarcerated Provenzano, so "decapitation" is perhaps an overzealous
description of his arrest. If the protection racket is far from defeated,
it has at least been dealt a serious blow --perhaps the most powerful in
decades. For now, the Lo Piccolos refuse to speak to interrogators; that
is their right under Italian law, and their attorney says they will respond
to questions only in court. That day will come (at the earliest) late in
2008. There is no urgency, as both can expect to remain in prison for many
decades to come.
When apprehended, Mr. Lo Piccolo had in his possession numerous scribbled
notes to "punish" around thirty local business owners who belonged
to Palermo's Addio Pizzo and so refused to pay for his organisation's
"protection." According to the Giornale di Sicilia and
La Repubblica (9 November 2007), this included some major local businesses.
In fact, the phenomenon is quite prevalent; according to some estimates
65% of the shops in the city's prestigious Via Libertà pay the pizzo.
As many as 20% may be involved more in money laundering than in selling
anything, and even phantom schools exist to obtain
public funding. The problem doesn't end there, for political corruption
(assigning public contracts for construction projects and various "outsourced"
services based on pay-offs made to politicians to steer them toward certain
firms) is almost as dirty as the pizzo.
More recently, on 3 December, Daniele Emanuello, the Mafia "boss"
of Gela, was shot dead by police as he fled arrest; he was surrounded and
actually tried to jump out a window. This is, in itself, unusual, as Mafiosi
rarely literally run or attempt suicide in the face of capture --though
many police would welcome a shoot-out which might bring immediate justice
to criminals who rarely end up facing severe sentences. An article in The
Economist ("A Declining Family Business," Dec 8-14 2007, p
38) puts the annual estimated value of the pizzo in Sicily at 8 billion
euros (US $12 billion). Incredibly, even hospitals and the University
of Palermo (itself a highly corrupt institution) have been approached
for pizzo payments.
Mr. Emanuello died with a bunch of notes in his mouth (he was attempting to swallow them)
implicating others. This led, in late December 2007, to the arrest of the owner of a chain of large supermarkets in
western Sicily whose business is believed to be a front for Matteo Messina Denaro, a mafioso in hiding for over
a decade who is thought to reside someplace in Sicily.
To what degree have such practices crippled the Sicilian economy? Considerably,
but they are only part of a general pattern in a society where recommendations (preferments) are necessary to obtain jobs in schools and banks, and where even the universities are incurably corrupt with clientilism
and poorly administered. Numerous public "projects"
are equally corrupt, and it has been plausibly suggested that political
parties still buy votes in Sicily during major
elections. The health-care system is plagued by
equally absurd problems, and the infamous "Rape
of Palermo" was no accident. The real reason the Mafia
still exists as a powerful force in Sicilian life is because it is part
of a general way of thinking. Social activist Danilo
Dolci and judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were only the most publicly vocal proponents
of the idea that for the Mafia to be erased from Sicilian society, or at
least marginalised to the point of insignificance, fundamental attitudes must change first.
Organisations such as Addio Pizzo, to the extent
that they survive frontal assaults by the Mafia and (much worse) public
skepticism in general, are but a single --if essential-- first step toward
social change. Any alternative dooms Sicily to a bleak future as a socially
under-developed backwater of Europe.
About the Author: Maria Luisa Romano has
written for various Italian magazines, including this one.