Italians Stand Up to Mafia

Italian businessman Ettore Artioli is still hanging tough, two weeks after hoodlums torched the Sicilian headquarters of his organization, the national employers' lobby Confindustria. Artioli's group is one of many fighting to break the mob's centuries-old grip on the island where the mafia began, and police say the arsonists made off with confidential files from Confindustria's offices, including a list of nearly 300 Sicilian business operators who had pledged themselves not to pay pizzo—protection money, a major source of income for the crime bosses. But in Artioli's view the attack merely shows the mob's growing desperation. "It's a sign that the mafia is in serious trouble," he says.

There's cause for hope, anyway. The day after the attack thousands of Sicilians took to the streets in Palermo and the small but iconic town of Corleone with banners demanding "NO MAFIA" and "MAFIA GO AWAY." All over Italy ordinary people have begun standing up against the crime syndicates that have bullied and bled much of the country for generations—in particular, the Cosa Nostra in Sicily, the Camorra in and around Naples and the 'Ndrangheta in Calabria. An unprecedented grass-roots revolt against the mob is growing, encouraged by the capture of Sicily's fugitive capo Bernardo Provenzano last year and his understudy Salvatore lo Piccolo last month, along with hundreds of other mobsters.

The arrest of 38 mafia suspects in Sicily on Tuesday may further embolden the anti-don campaign, which has netted more than 200 suspects in 2007, including the grandson of one of Sicily's most infamous bosses, Benedetto "Nitto" Santapaola. Earlier in the week another of Sicily's emerging bosses, Daniele Emanuello, was shot as he hid from police in a ravine. Before he died he swallowed secret notes with names and telephone numbers that the authorities are now trying to decipher after removing the fragments from his esophagus.

In Palermo, 106 stores now advertise "mob-free shopping," meaning no pizzo, no illegal merchandise, no mafia involvement—period. In Naples last week nonmob bakers handed out 20,000 loaves of what they called pane onesta—"honest bread"—to protest that city's 2,500 mob-linked bakeries, according to Confesercenti, a trade group. Recent initiatives like Sicily's "Addio Pizzo" and Naples's "Battle for Lawfulness" support and protect businesses that refuse to pay protection money. By swiftly prosecuting extortionists and publicly naming businesses still paying pizzo, prosecutors hope to shame those who still collude with the mob.

National Confindustria head Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, president of Ferrari and chairman of FIAT, promises to ban any industrialists or entrepreneurs proven to be associated with any organized crime syndicate, no matter who is at the helm. Montezemolo says that stopping pizzo "is a real and important fact, which must mark a changing trend," and called on businesses to "take on the responsibility even though it entails serious risks."

Andrea Vecchio, a Sicilian construction contractor who refused to pay protection fees, received four death threats last August and watched two of his building sites vandalized. He took his case to Italy's president, Giorgio Napolitano, who handed him a police escort. "We can't carry on living like this," Vecchio told the president. "It's not only us, the entrepreneurs, who are being attacked, but the state itself. We want to live like citizens in a normal country."

Local muckraker Roberto Saviano, 28, is credited with bolstering the antimob momentum with his best-selling novel "Gomorra", which was published in the United States last month. After infiltrating the Camorra in his hometown near Naples and scouring court records, Saviano crafted a damning portrait of the Neapolitan clans. Though the work was classified as "fact-based fiction" in Italy, the author names people, businesses and extortionists. "Italy is making progress against the mafias, but it's not enough," Saviano tells NEWSWEEK (while walking through the Villa Borghese flanked by his bodyguards). "These steps are tiny, and Italy's mafia problem is enormous."

Italy's crime syndicates siphon off the equivalent of 7 percent of Italy's GDP, according to a report by SOS Impresa (an antimafia business consortium), which says that organized-crime activity diverts nearly $132 billion away from Italy's legal economy. That doesn't even include the pizzo payments, which top $44 billion across the country. In cities like Palermo and Catania, an estimated 80 percent of business owners paid protection money to the Cosa Nostra in 2006, according to the study. In Naples, where the Camorra is run by clans rather than under a hierarchical system, the control is divided and tends to focus on industries rather than individual businesses. A pizzo of $25,000 per construction site is the going rate near Naples, the SOS Impresa study says. There, too, small family-run businesses pay protection sums of $300 a month, while higher-end stores in the city center pay up to $1,500 and supermarkets pay $4,500 a month. In exchange the businesses get discounts from other pizzo payers, preferential treatment for bids and contracts and, more important, protection from mob violence.

Traditionally, not paying protection money and standing up to the mob was a fatal mistake. In 1992 antimafia judge Giovanni Falcone was killed by a remote-controlled bomb set under the highway near Palermo's airport. Two months later another prominent antimafia judge, Paolo Borsellino, was killed by a car bomb as he entered his mother's apartment building in Palermo. Nationwide statistics on mob-related killings are difficult to come by, because many deaths are classified as accidents or families are reluctant to press charges, but Naples's Camorra alone is believed to be responsible for 3,700 deaths in the last 30 years.

Cynics might point out that Italy has been down this road before. "Italy without the mafia would be like America without Microsoft or Germany without Mercedes," quips Saviano, who points out that the Camorra has begun forming partnerships with Chinese companies, in addition to partners in Germany and other European countries. And wherever they go, Saviano says, "the trail is always bloody."