Battle for the soul of Sicily

world | Sep 20, 2007 | By Eric J Lyman

The battle over the future of the Sicilian Mafia is being waged now across the southern Italian island, where business leaders are trying to figure out whether they can afford notto pay the pizzo - extortion money - to the Cosa Nostra's enforcers.

Earlier this year, Sicilian construction magnate Andrea Vecchio wrote a letter to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano asking for help in avoiding his share of the pizzo that by some estimates adds at least 10 billion (US$14 billion) a year to Mafia coffers.

"We can't go on living like this," the desperate letter said. "We just want to live in a normal country."

Vecchio's missive sparked a series of initiatives that may prove to be among the most serious anti-Mafia crackdown since before World War II, including increased police funding, random raids, the freezing of bank accounts and the possibility that the government could station veteran troops just back from Iraq and Afghanistan in Sicily to keep the peace.

But the biggest step is the attack on the pizzo.

Napolitano vowed that the government would track down and arrest Mafia enforcers collecting the illicit payments. Confindustria, Italy's leading employers' lobby group, in August declared war on the pizzo, which is thought to be one of the main drains on the under-developed economy of Italy's south.

The group said it would expel any members who paid the levy, which is thought to range from around 50 per month for street vendors to as much as 10,000 per month for large businesses. Major construction sites are reportedly forced to pay at least 15,000 to the Mafia to ensure security.

Both Vecchio, who wrote the original complaint and Ivan Lo Bello, president of Confindustria's Sicilian chapter, were put under around-the-clock police protection. Both men have reported receiving multiple death threats, and Vecchio has said that two of his work sites had been sabotaged.

Meanwhile, the jury is still out on whether the move will be effective, especially as the first round of payments since the announcement is not yet due . Also, even if they are made they do not leave a paper trail that would point the finger at Confindustria members that broke ranks. But Lo Bello says the importance of the move cannot be underestimated.

"This is the battle for the soul of Sicily," he said in a television interview. "It is a battle we cannot lose."

A new crackdown

The existence of the Mafia as a crime group in Sicily dates back at least to the middle of the 19th century - and there is some speculation it might be much older, when it took the form of a guerilla movement that fought against foreign invaders of the strategically placed island.

Whatever its origins, it has always existed as a substitute for government, providing - according to the legendary crime boss Calogero Vizzini in the 1950s and echoed by many since then - a kind of justice, order and local autonomy when the official state was unable to provide. The pizzo is the substitute government's form of taxation.

The times when the Mafia has been the weakest has been when the Italian state has been most aggressive, most notably under Benito Mussolini's fascist regime, which gave extraordinary powers to the Palermo prefect, Cesare Mori, who nearly finished the organization off in the 1920s. It was resurrected, interestingly, by the US military, which utilized ties between New York's Italian mobsters and what was left of the Sicilian organization to case the island ahead of landing allied troops there in 1943.

The latest crackdown may prove to be the strongest since Mori's day, though current efforts have the disadvantage of being backed by a government on much weaker political and popular footing than Mussolini's governments of the 1920s.

The Mafia crackdown is just one of the divisive issues Prime Minister Romano Prodi has chosen to



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