- -  Day # 187  + +

EU > Italy > Palermo

La Famiglia

Palermo, IT (View on map)

Thanks to the night ferry from Naples to Palermo, I arrived in Sicily this morning. I will spend four days on this island before making a short excursion to Malta, country number 16. Sicily in general, and Palermo in particular, are historically known as the birthplace of Mafia. This criminal organisation, originally a `family enterprise` is omnipresent in Sicilian society. Hence today`s question: who in Sicily is affected by the mafia and how do they deal with it?

Santo (31):

..is not too much affected by the mafia
The mafia was invented as a protection to civilians against authoritarian provincial leaders in Italy in the 1800s. While Italy unified, the anti-authoritarian protection became obsolete. Italy became a parliamentary democracy after the Second World War, which effectively ended the need for any protection army for the people. Mafia had by then developed into a well-organised criminal entity, which protects people as much as it threatens them. In the meantime, they have a strong presence in all activities that incorporate human sins: prostitution, gambling, arms smuggling and trade in narcotics. Although mafia has Sicily as its birth ground, similar organisations operate in Russia, China and Albania.

Sicilians do not seem to very fond of talking about the mafia. When they do, two gestures come up remarkably often. The first one consists two index fingers horizontally hooked onto each other, meaning that politics and mafia are not very different from one another. They are commonly accepted to be the same people. The second gesture consists of two fists, crossing each other at the wrist. Meaning: this person has been caught and sent to jail.

Santo (31, photo) tells me that the presence of mafia in Sicily is invisible, but it affects everybody: `But it`s not like in the movies. You can`t tell from physical appearance who is part of mafia and who is not. And their activities are not limited to criminal activities. Mafia and politics are one and the same. The governor of Sicily spent five years in jail before being elected head of the province ? just as an example.`

Santo continues: `In the 1980s, there have been a series of killings between politicians and Mafiosi, leading the national government to pay more attention to the problem. Many Mafiosi have since been captured, including the main chief, Mr Provensano. It took local police no less than 43 years to trace him down, and he was only found when he traveled to France to undergo surgery. I guess he accepted his fate by traveling to France, but it should be impossible to hide from police forces for 43 years on an island the size of Sicily.`

`The situation is now safe, and there are few incidents targeted towards individuals. For entrepreneurs, it`s different. They are forced to pay Pizzo, which is a monthly contribution to the protection of their property. Major companies can expect mafia visits when they start operations in Sicily and local shop owners are used to the practice. The more money you make, the higher the tax you need to pay`, Santo says.

Claudio (33) tells me that middle class people are the least likely to get involved with mafia practices: `Poor people do, because they may depend on mafia to find them jobs. It is quite common for mafia to propose people jobs if they choose to vote for a politician who then pays the mafia for the favour. These are of course all temporary jobs, because in that way they can keep selling votes over and over again. Most of the jobs are lower-level jobs in public administration, so that`s already where integration between mafia and politics start.`

`Also, rich people can expect visits from mafia representatives. Mafia tends to be well-informed and wherever there is money, they will try to have access to it. They know when companies gain contracts for the construction of roads or public property, and will claim their share of the contract value in exchange for protection`, Claudio explains. From his words, I conclude that mafia`s pizzo operations are similar to what insurance company do: collect money without rendering a tangible service. The starting point of an insurance company is that, as long as you keep paying your monthly contribution, they promise to cover you in case of damage. For the mafia, the initial idea is that you pay to prevent damage.

Incidents targeted towards individuals have been rare over the last few years. Some journalists writing about mafia have seen themselves obliged to seek refuge. Entrepreneurs who choose not to pay their monthly contributions can count on revenge. Luciano (34) tells me that his father`s factory, producing plastic bags, was burnt down to the ground in 1986 after he refused to pay his pizzo: `At the time, proper insurance was not a very common business practice, so it just meant all his work went up into flames.`

International support
Ordinary people without commercial activities will not see much of mafia these days. Cristina (29) tells me that small middlemen ask people money for parking their cars in certain places, `as a guarantee that nothing will happen to your car .` She further explains that police sends them away but they can`t really do anything against the practice: `We`re not talking about big money here, it`s small people who depend on this practice to earn their bread. And even they need to pay a share of that money to the mafia to be allowed to execute their jobs`.

Cristina emphasises that mafia operates like a ghost these days. They have no public symbols and can no longer show off their wealth. Most of them are not even rich at all - only the top of the organisation is. Cristina accepts the everyday need to think twice before accepting a favour: `Whenever there`s relations or money involved, you have to ask yourself questions. Mafia has a presence everywhere and it`s hard to avoid it. By buying something in a shop that pays pizzo, and almost all of them do, you already make a contribution to the system.`

Owners of local companies and property have recently united in the organisation Addiu Pizzo, which strongly opposes the pizzo practice. It`s leader, owner of a popular bakery in Palermo, has officially denounced pizzo payments and now relies on 24 hour police protection. When he walks around in town, he is protected by two body guards. So much for the statement that the (anti)mafia environment is not like the movies, because after all, anything happening in Italy could be taken straight from a movie.

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