Is a Mafia-free holiday an offer you can’t refuse

So after months of hard work your new restaurant is open for business. The tables are heaving, the kitchen is bustling and the reservations diary is bulging. Then one day, perhaps, a week into your new business, a waiter says there is someone to see you at the bar. In the bar is a familiar looking man and the conversation is as inevitable as Sicily’s baking August sun. He says a little ‘donation’ would be appreciated to keep things ‘in order’. You knew this day would come and you knew what you would answer. “No.” This time, however, things are different. There are no second conversations, no warning bullets in the post, nothing, just the flames that illuminate the Palermo night sky as your restaurant burns to the ground. Next morning you rake the ashes and try to be optimistic. At least they didn’t blow your brains out.

By Andy Round, story continues below

It all sounds shockingly melodramatic, an outtake from The Sopranos, but for Sicily’s traders the scenario is depressingly familiar. Those that don’t pay the mafia pay a different price. The Italian association of industry Confindustria estimates that the Sicilian Costa Nostra annually collects US$140 billion. That’s seven per cent of Italian GDP making the mafia the country’s biggest earning ‘firm.

“Everyone pays,” anti-mafia campaigner Andrea Cottone tells August. “If the trader is paying, the consumer is paying, it’s another tax. If you have a Sicilian coffee that costs 70c then 10c of that is being used to finance violence, trafficking or drugs. In Sicily we believe at least 80 per cent of companies pay the monthly protection money known as ‘pizzo’. A small shop may pay US$500, a hotel perhaps US$2,000.”

Cottone is a member of Addiopizzo (literally ‘Goodbye pizzo’) an association set up four years ago to encourage traders to fight extortion. There are now more than 300 Sicilian companies that publicly support the movement ranging from pizzerias and hotels to shops and ice-cream parlours. Addiopizzo also offers ‘pizzo-free’ holidays publicising its network of members to tourists, organises public anti-mafia demonstrations and provides educational visits to schools.

But there must be serious risks defying the mafia? “Of course. A factory owner called Libero Grassi refused to pay the mafia despite threats,” says Cottone. “He even wrote a letter to the paper damning the thugs which was published on the front page. He was shot five times. But this was in 1991. Libero was just one man. Today we are a group. Our concept is that nobody is alone. The community supports us. if someone touches us they impact on everyone. If something would happen there would be rebellion in the city.”

It is this determination that has helped shape a new air of optimism in Sicily. Cottone gives the example of a building materials supplier whose warehouse was burned down by the mafia last year. “We pressurised the state and they built him a new one. Our message is, ‘If you attack us, we come back bigger and better’.”

Another sign of change, says Cottone, has come from the Confindustria. The association has vowed to expel any of its members that pay ‘pizzo’. Individual companies are also standing up to the mafia. A building contractor in Catania, exhausted by having his lorries firebombed, recently appeared in court to name his extortionists. In February the owner of a Agrigento refuse plant refused to pay a US$120,000 a month pizzo and his evidence helped police catch 11 mafia members.

Last year a testimony by the owners of the restaurant Antica Foccaceria San Francisco condemned three mafia bosses to 40 years in jail. The restaurant’s owners, brothers Fabrio and Vincenzo Conticello, refused an offer to buy stock from mafia-approved sources and denied the mob a US$75,000 monthly pizzo. After the court case Fabrio said: “If you bow your head to the mafia it’s the first step to losing your dignity.”

For companies that defy the mafia a new set of considerations come into play. At Antica Foccaceria there is a 24-hour police guard, some companies employ private bodyguards, for others there is only the collective group support of Addiopizzo.

But these people are defiant. Emporio is a gift shop in Palermo that sells pizzo-free products including T-shirts with anti-mafia slogans and products from land seized from the Cosa Nostra. Their stock of coppolas (or caps) come in bright colours and are designed to be worn at a jaunty angle to diffuse traditional ‘brown-capped’ mafia associations.

“We haven’t had any trouble yet, but we are not just two people in this room we are 40 traders,” says owner Fabrio Messina. Nearby is a small hotel, Sole Luna Della Solidarieta, run by Addiopizzo member Patrizia Opipari. She wears a Messina T-shirts that states, “Without the mafia I see colour.”

For this new generation of Sicilians the mathematics of violence does not add up. “There are only about 8,000 mafiosi but there are more than five million Sicilians,” says Cottone. “But they penetrate every aspect of life. It’s not important how much you pay. It’s just important that you pay. Power is exercised. The mafia’s symbol is the octopus because their tentacles are everywhere and there are so many ways to pay. You want a job, a place or some influence you go speak to a ‘friend of a friend’. It’s no wonder that young people want to leave Sicily and nobody wants to invest in our island.”

This theme examined by author Nino Amadore. He writes in his book La Zona Grigia (The Grey Area), “In any Sicilian town not only officials but also professionals collude with mafia bosses – architects, doctors, accountants, lawyers.”

But Addiopizzo members represent a fresh way of thinking that is light years from their fathers and grandfathers. This is a globally-inspired, web-connected generation that endured an early ’90s childhood blighted by the criminal ‘state within a state’, the killings, the curfews in Palermo and the no-go ghettos throughout the city.

1992 was a turning point. Gangsters gunned down the anti-mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino prompting an immediate crackdown by a society sickened by violence. A year later Toto Riina, known as the Godfather or ‘boss of bosses’ was finally brought to justice.

Understandably Cottone mocks the Hollywood glamour of the mob. “The Sopranos, The Godfather. This is not glamour! We see the violence and intimidation of the mafia every day. We’ve seen the blood on the streets.”

But while there is a new generation of publicly defiant anti-mafia supporters the mob has also evolved. “There is not the same level of open criminality now,” says Cottone. “The mafia is more interested in legitimate activities and is more white collar than ever before.”

Many mafiosi are perceived as respectable people with well-trained professions while, interestingly, the offer of lifetime mob membership is becoming increasingly unappealing to a younger generation who have no appetite for violence or the risk of a crime career cut short prematurely.

But what about the future of Addiopizzo? “When we started, the older generation would rarely talk about the mafia and even if they did they would say it’s not something you can change,” says Cottone. “Now, four years later, they say there is hope. We will continue to grow in strength. We started the change and we must finalise it. Nothing can stop us.”

Tourism and the mafia

• Anti-mafia association Addiopizzo organises holidays for tourists that only promote hotels, restaurants and shops that have publicly declared they do not pay protection money to the mafia. Visit

• It is estimated by Confindustria, the association representing Italian companies, that the Sicilian Costa Nostra collects US$140 billion or seven per cent of Italian GDP every year.

• Following successful convictions, many mafia headquarters have been converted into tourist sites. The farming co-operative called Portella Della Ginestra is based on land once owned by gangster Giovanni Brusca.

• Libera Terra is an organisation that specialises in giving land seized from the mafia back to the community. Often tourist accommodation is available and there are shops selling anti-mafia products.

• The town of Corleone, immoralised in Godfather films, suffered 155 violent deaths, the highest murder rate in the world between 1944 and 1948. Today in the town there are anti-mafia tours and an anti-mafia museum.

• It is seen to be in bad taste to glorify Corleone’s mafia associations and some traders are campaigning to change the town’s name.

• The land and former home of mafia boss Toro Riina outside of Corleone has been transformed into a marshlands wildlife reserve run by a cooperative called Pio La Torre.

• Pio La Torre was the man who first suggested seized mafia assets should be handed back to the community. La Torre was killed by the mob in 1982.


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