Addiopizzo: The Grassroots Campaign Making Life Hell for the Sicilian Mafia

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Eduardo Zaffuto, co-founder of Addiopizzo. Gianni Cipriano for Newsweek

In his heyday as boss of one of Sicily's most powerful Mafia clans, Giovanni Di Giacomo could order the elimination of anyone who got in his way. Even after being jailed for life in 1998 for two murders, he continues to control the family business, recently issuing detailed instructions to kill a foot-soldier suspected of disloyalty: "make sure you bury him in quicklime". Yet this seasoned capo, survivor of brutal power struggles within Costa Nostra, can only look on in dismay from behind bars as his empire begins to crumble under a challenge from a wholly unexpected quarter: a grassroots civic movement called Comitato Addiopizzo, set up by idealistic young Sicilians committed to ridding their island of the scourge of organised crime.

In a foul-mouthed rant to his mobster brother during a prison visit that was secretly videoed by state prosecutors, Di Giacomo raged against Addiopizzo's bold campaign to shut down the Porto Nuova clan's hugely lucrative extortion rackets. In Italian, pizzo means the beak of a bird, but it is also slang for protection money and, for as long as anyone can remember, the Sicilian Mafia has dipped its beak into the pocket of big corporations, restaurants, shops and hotels, even humble street vendors. An authoritative survey in 2008 calculated that the pizzo racket was generating €15bn a year, while some 80% of all businesses in Palermo habitually paid up to avoid trouble.

Yet in the decade since Addiopizzo was founded, its youthful volunteers have proved startlingly effective at encouraging public resistance to extortion and intimidation (hence "Goodbye Pizzo"). Today, around 800 organisations, ranging from United Colours of Benetton and supermarket chains to architects, travel agents and the Zsa Zsa Monamour nightclub, feature in the group's "Shopping Bag" guide to enterprises that have pledged never again to pay off the crooks.

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Sconzajuoco beach, part of Addiopizzo Travel, an anti-mafia tour operator. Gianni Cipriano for Newsweek

At the same time, about 10,000 individuals have signed up to another Addiopizzo initiative, "Pago Chi Non Paga" – "I pay those who don't pay" – that encourages consumers to spend money only where the group's distinctive logo is displayed. Significantly, most of them also allowed their full names to appear in a local newspaper advertisement backing the scheme: no small gesture given the Mafia's track record of killing those who dare to oppose it publicly.

"It's a fucking disaster," Di Giacomo lamented during the bugged jail conversation, complaining, entirely without irony, that the Addiopizzo campaign makes it much harder to earn a dishonest living. With so many businesses closing down in the face of Italy's ongoing economic recession and people increasingly prepared to defy his thugs, "it might not be worth the bother any longer". Times are getting so tough, Di Giacomo grumbled, that younger clan members would be well advised to start looking for "a real job".

Addiopizzo's inspiring journey began in the summer of 2004 when seven friends, all aged under 30 and mostly university graduates from middle-class backgrounds, were debating whether to open a bar in Palermo. "We budgeted for rent, utilities and insurance, but then somebody said 'What about the pizzo?'" recalls Vittorio Greco. "That tells you how deeply the culture of acquiescence to extortion had become embedded in Sicily."

The bar project was eventually dropped, but Greco, who is now a philosophy teacher, and his friends could not shake off the feeling that they should have defied the extortionists.

"We Sicilians place a high value on personal dignity," he observes, "but how could we square that with ignoring the Mafia's grip on our island?" Eventually they decided to gamble on enlisting the support of the public for a head-on confrontation with the so-called men of honour, introducing themselves to fellow citizens with an act of calculated defiance.

Late one night in June 2004, they pulled on black balaclavas and stole through the streets of Palermo plastering clandestinely-printed stickers all over the city. Designed to resemble a black-bordered death notice, these proclaimed: "A people that pays the pizzo is a people without dignity."

Greco, who composed this stinging rebuke, still remembers the adrenaline rush of that night. "Of course we were scared of being caught by Mafia heavies, but it was a fantastically liberating experience." Within a few days, more stickers appeared in five other Sicilian cities, laying the foundations from which the Comitato Addiopizzo would shortly emerge.

The sticker offensive grabbed media headlines all over Italy, as well as providing the sole topic of conversation for Palermitans taking their morning shot of caffeine. Most of the people I spoke to at the time were excited and enthusiastic, though worried about a violent Mafia backlash. Over a bitter ristretto at the Antico Caffe Spinatto, an experienced organised crime investigator predicted gloomily that "one killing will stop this campaign in its tracks".

Returning to Palermo some years later, I asked veteran activist Edoardo Zaffuto what had impelled young people like him to throw in their lot with Addiopizzo, knowing that this could put them at personal risk. Now working in the ethical tourism business, Zaffuto pointed out that most of the original members of his group came from a generation known as "the children of the massacre". They had come of age during the 1980s when the Mafia seemed invincible, nonchalantly assassinating judges, police officers, politicians, businessmen and journalists.

Zaffuto talked particularly about the fate of Libero Grassi, a Palermo industrialist murdered after contemptuously rejecting a demand for protection money in an open newspaper letter addressed to "Dear Extortionist".

At the time, he recalled, nobody from the business community had come forward publicly to support Grassi's brave stand, leaving him utterly alone and exposed. The wording on a memorial plaque installed by his widow, Pina Maisano at the spot where he was killed refers pointedly to "the code of silence of the business association". Addiopizzo is taking steps to ensure this can never happen again by joining other anti-racket organisations in a "collective support" network that will back up anyone who rejects extortion with legal advice and help to liaise with the police.

Last year, Addiopizzo joined itself as a civil party to the trial of four hardcore Mafiosi who threatened a well-known Palermo chef, Natale Giunta – star of the Italian TV version of Ready, Steady, Cook – with "difficulties" if he refused to pay them off. Instead, Giunta, 33 and married with children, went straight to the police and subsequently testified against the pair in open court. He related how the mobsters had confronted him after he opened a restaurant on their clan's turf without first securing their permission. From now on, they informed him, he would have to hand over €2,000 at Christmas and Easter for the fund to support the families of imprisoned clan members.

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Addiopizzo headquarters, where staff deal with all matters related to fighting the Mafia through consumerism. Gianni Cipriano for Newsweek

After he had sent them packing, Giunta recalls, his life became "a true hell", with repeated death threats and attempts to burn down the restaurant (he still requires police protection).

In February, two of the accused men received lengthy prison sentences: echoing Addiopizzo's message, Giunta told Italian radio, "I call on everyone to say no to extortion. If there are a lot of us, it will have to stop."

In the early hand-to-mouth days, Addiopizzo relied heavily on donations from private individuals and a few supportive companies: it is still proudly self-financing, but glowing international media coverage of its campaigns has helped to bolster resources. The group's rent-free headquarters are in an imposing condominium seized by the state from a local Mafia capo. Both the Sicilian provincial government and the European Union have provided grants.

Five years ago, the group launched its own travel company, offering "100% pizzo free" ethical holidays that include excursions to properties confiscated from Cosa Nostra. Addiopizzo also operates educational missions, going into schools with the message that by standing together Sicilians can break the hold of the extortionists. The head of Palermo's Anti-Racket Association, Enrico Colajanni, regards this as crucially important: "For years after Grassi was killed nobody dared to denounce the Mafia in public, so we have to teach our children that it's possible."

Although Giovanni Di Giacomo's tirade from jail contained oblique threats against Addiopizzo, Cosa Nostra chiefs appear to understand that with public opinion solidly behind the group, targeting its volunteers could backfire disastrously.

Fabio Messino and Valeria De Leo set up Sicily's first pizzo-free supermarket in Palermo's historic centre in 2008, selling goods only from suppliers who refuse to pay protection money, and organic wine, pasta and olive oil grown on estates confiscated from the Mafia. The couple had half-expected Cosa Nostra's traditional response to such temerity: a bullet in the post, a severed goat's head on the doorstep, windows smashed regularly. Yet they never received so much as a threatening note or menacing phone call, while supportive Palermitans made long detours to shop with them.

"Over the past 10 years," they say, "Addiopizzo has succeeded beyond anyone's expectations in altering the perception of the Mafia among ordinary Sicilians."

That is music to the ears of Pietro Grasso, a proud Sicilian who was a senior anti-mafia prosecutor before being elected as president of the Italian Senate last year. In a recent interview with the Giornale Di Sicilia newspaper, Grasso fondly remembered a meeting with some of the Addiopizzo ragazzi (boys) shortly after the group was established. He was struck then by their idealism and over the intervening years, he observed, "their passionate commitment and their courage have never wavered".

Addiopizzo: The Grassroots Campaign Making Life Hell for the Sicilian Mafia