Reportage

Taking on the Mafia

SOME YEARS AGO in the Sicilian capital, Palermo, I stumbled across the Antimafia. Out walking one night I noticed two Carabinieri cars parked outside the Antica Focacceria San Francesco restaurant and assumed there was a VIP inside. I went to investigate and found that the police were not there to escort a visiting celebrity but to protect Vincenzo (Enzo) Conticello who, with his brother Fabio, owns the eatery. Short, chunky Enzo told me his story.

In 2005, following Enzo's announcement that he planned to establish a second restaurant in Milan, diners' cars parked outside the establishment began to be scratched, glue was being squirted into the door locks of the restaurant after closing time and it was flooded from a water pipe that had been tampered with. At home, the corpse of the family cat was found on Enzo's bed.

Obviously protection was needed and a customer, Giovanni Di Salvo, offered it for a down payment of €50,000 plus a further €500 monthly. Enzo refused. Di Salvo, thinking he wanted different terms, offered fake receipts to ensure lower taxes. Enzo again refused. Di Salvo then proposed that Enzo pay wages to the Mafia for fictitious employees in return for aid against malefactors. Enzo ordered him out of the restaurant, then went to the door to note down the number plate of his car. Enzo was followed to the door by two young couples who had been sitting at a nearby table. Identifying themselves as Carabinieri in plain clothes, they told him they had overheard the conversation and secretly photographed the mafioso.

With relief, Enzo realised they were a response at last to his frequent reports to the police of the Mafia harassment that had nearly bankrupted the family restaurant, founded in 1834. Reassured, he and his brother abandoned plans to sell. They recalled the words of their grandmother Ermelinda, who had run it herself for sixty years, until 1979: 'If you pay the Mafia once, you'll be their slave for life.'

Subsequently Enzo discovered that a mafioso had infiltrated his staff and Mafia-linked suppliers had been paid for goods not delivered. The internal undermining and external assault were designed to force either a sale at a fraction of its value or the consent of the Conticello brothers to act as front men for Mafia money laundering. Instead, Enzo took Di Salvo and four other mafiosi to court.

The crucial moment of the trial occurred when Enzo was asked to identify Giovanni Di Salvo. If he failed to do so, he would spare himself a lifetime of threats and constricting police surveillance. In such trials it was not unusual for witnesses to become uncertain or amnesiac when face-to-face with a mafioso. But Enzo confirmed that Di Salvo was the man who had threatened him. Di Salvo and three accomplices were condemned to a total of forty-eight years in jail.

Enzo has since carried the fight to the Mafia as a whole: on Sundays from 8 December to 6 January each year an anti-racket festival is celebrated in the square in front of his restaurant with food and music. The profits go to an anti-racket fund. Enzo has opened other restaurants in Milan, in central Rome and at Fiumicino airport, and runs bistros in nine branches of the major Italian bookselling chain La Feltrinelli, with more to come.

Four Carabinieri guard him twenty-four hours each day and he keeps on the move because two of the mafiosi imprisoned as a result of his testimony were recently released. For fear of reprisals, his daughter Claudia, now beginning a master's degree, has lived outside Italy since 2007.

Di Salvo is due for release in 2020 and his boss, the leader of the gang, is due out only four years later. An accomplice, Nino Lauricella, nicknamed U Scintilluni, 'The Spark', who fled when the others were caught, was recently arrested. It is expected that he will come to trial by November 2012. He already has an old five-year sentence to serve and Enzo's testimony could mean another ten.

Enzo has received a message that he is still alive not because of his bodyguards but because the mafiosi want to see how he handles Lauricella. 'When I saw Lauricella on TV after his arrest, I didn't recognise him, he was so well dressed and well groomed,' Enzo told me, 'but if in court they show me a photo of him at the time the Mafia was applying pressure on me, I'll be able to identify him.'

 

MEETING THE ANTIMAFIA, in the person of Enzo, reminded me of a much earlier meeting I had with the Mafia, back when talk of the Mafia was taken by some as an insult to the honour of Sicilians. Others responded that the Mafia was invisible, like God: you only knew of its existence by its effects.

I had been writing articles about the Vatican for a leading Italian weekly, Il Mondo, when, in 1971, the editor asked me to go the island of Linosa, where eighteen Mafia suspects had been exiled after the assassination of the Chief Prosecutor of Palermo, Pietro Scaglione, along with his driver as they returned from their daily visit to his wife's tomb. The mafiosi had been shipped to the remote island under a Mussolini-era edict enabling suspects to be transferred indefinitely to another location.

It was not that the editor saw a resemblance between the Vatican and the Mafia; he just thought mafiosi might be more willing to open up to a foreign journalist than they would to a local. I knew that some journalists who had written about the Mafia had subsequently returned to Rome only to find their cars set on fire, but it was an offer I couldn't refuse. I accepted the assignment.

Linosa was an island with several low craters of extinct volcanos, five square kilometres in all. At that time it had four hundred inhabitants, countless prickly pears and other cacti, caper bushes, some vines and a handful of sheep. The volcanic soil would have been fertile if only there were water. A cloud was big news, drinking water arrived by boat. There was a village idiot, Michele, of indeterminate age, who jogged everywhere in imitation of the crack Bersaglieri troops. Wearing rolled-up trousers and garish shirts, he carried an open penknife inoffensively: the only threat on this island was boredom. The postal packet boat arrived three times a week. The few TV sets had better reception from nearby Tunisia than from Italy. There were no hotels – we lodged with local families, the mafiosi and I. There was one public telephone, in a tobacconist's whose irascible owner, Sorrentino, rubbed just about everyone up the wrong way. Mistaking a newly-arrived Carabiniere out of uniform for a mafioso, he told him it was a pity one of his partners in crime hadn't strangled him and thrown him overboard. The mafiosi made a lot of calls and sat in his store waiting for return calls. One mafioso took a long time on the phone listing the warmer clothes he needed because he had only been given five minutes to pack and hadn't realised there would be a cold night wind. Sorrentino chipped in, 'Tell them to send some decent fishing gear.' Most complained about the conditions and some seemed to send coded messages, interspersed with 'Capisci?' ('Do you understand?').

Would you welcome Cosa Nostra in casa vostra? Not many Linosans did. At first many were hostile to the mafiosi dumped on their shore, partly because of a fear that they would scare off the midsummer influx of diving enthusiasts. Some of the islanders sent a telegram to the President of Italy, Giuseppe Saragat, warning him it was 'them or us'. But they had to accept that it was going to be them and us. A wit dubbed the mafiosi a folklore group. They could have been the men left behind in so many Sicilian villages, the pensioners and the unemployed, after those with more get-up-and-go had emigrated. One mafioso said they felt paralysed, perhaps because the state had so little success in identifying and condemning the culprits – no one was ever convicted of the Scaglione killings. This Italian Devil's Island was a kind of limbo for them, although they were not all innocent souls. A Linosan asked a mafioso to draw the politicians' attention to the neglect of the island, only to be told politicians were contemptible because they would even stoop to buying the votes of corpses. Some were surprised to see mafiosi, who normally had trouble arranging meetings without attracting police attention, being brought together on an island where they could freely meet and pool their experiences, alibis, plans. The Carabinieri here, their number boosted to eleven, were not interrogating any of them, just keeping the peace.

The only journalist on the island and the only foreigner, I stood out all the more for being six foot tall and fair-haired. I watched the mafiosi and they watched me as we strolled along the street to the port or frequented the one coffee bar, called Elena, where they played interminable card games. It was a standoff –how to break the ice? – but I never felt in any danger among these unarmed men. The Mafia is tightly organised and its members are expected to calculate the consequences – or else. A mafioso suspected of a grave crime and stuck on this island would be crazy to harm a journalist. Better to try to persuade the journalist to at least present the mafiosi's version of events.

At last, one afternoon in an empty side street, a mafioso carrying a plastic bag beckoned me over. The breakthrough! Introducing himself as Giuseppe Sirchia, he said, as if we were old acquaintances, that he had something for me.

Slight, in a dark suit and glasses, he had the seedy, unprepossessing air of a government clerk, except for the old tennis shoes he wore. In a low voice he said his plastic bag held medicines but he could not get hold of the right ones that he needed. The only doctor on the island, he whined, had just left and it was not known when he would be back. Sirchia told me that he had bad nerves and suffered from colic, above all he needed tranquility. I said only death was more tranquil than Linosa. His rejoinder was that the constant sunshine was bad for him. We began to walk towards the port, passing the Carabinieri headquarters, where their Jeep, the only motor vehicle on the island, was parked. Two mafiosi were standing in the shade further on. They barely acknowledged Sirchia. If looks could kill, he would have been a dead man.

One of the pair in the shade, in a blue silk suit and white shirt, was sturdy and swarthy with an air of authority. He seemed a hard, solid mass but moved with a feline swiftness: he could have come from Central Casting. He was Angelo La Barbera, who had carved out a career in Palermo gang warfare but had made the mistake of taking the battle to the state by planting a car bomb that killed seven policemen. His companion was Rosario Mancino, heir to a Palermo transport business, also known as the King of the Mediterranean: he was a major player in the drug traffic between Lebanon, Sicily and the US. Unlike La Barbera, he was tubby, poorly dressed and downcast.

What Sirchia had for me seemed to be his story, which was typical in so far as he, like other mafiosi, considered himself to be a victim, persecuted by the Italian press, the politicians and the police, who arrested people solely on the word of lying informers because the authorities could not, or did not want to, find the real culprits.

'They treat us like the Gestapo,' said Sirchia earnestly. 'You know what the Gestapo is? There are delinquents everywhere; it's only in Sicily that they're called mafiosi. This gives the authorities the right to use draconian measures like shipping us here without charges – it's like Franco's Spain. There's no such thing as the Mafia– but if there is, it's in Rome, with politicians who are faggots (froci), men who are not men.'

Another of the mafiosi at the port, elderly, blue-eyed and ruddy-cheeked like a village patriarch, explained that he had been sent to the island in place of those who were really guilty. He blamed it on Michael Pantaleone, a well-known critic of the Mafia, adding that Pantaleone had only been to primary school. 'He deserves to be killed for his lies,' he added calmly. 'I'm old but there are younger men who share my views.'

I pointed out that, while they all claimed to be victims, someone had assassinated Chief Prosecutor Pietro Scaglione in Palermo.

'In his long career,' said the patriarch, 'he must have condemned an innocent man who took revenge.'

Sirchia went off with some others to check the fishing nets they had laid: what fish they had caught, and how it was to be cooked, were two of the few variables here.

He had complained that his transfer to the island was as unwarranted as his earlier 'obligatory sojourn' in the Veneto region (a practice that has aided the spread of the Mafia to northern Italy). He recounted that when four Palermo acquaintances had driven up to see him in Castelfranco during his exile there, they had been wrongfully arrested. Apparently he thought I could set the record straight.

Sirchia told the typical Mafia-as-victim story but in other ways he was an unusual mafioso, convinced that speech could be more use than silence. He was also unusual both in that he was an amateur painter and had initiated a correspondence with the Sicilian novelist Leonardo Sciascia, who had written insightful fiction and non-fiction about the Mafia, and tried to persuade Sirchia to tell investigators all he knew about it.

Later I found out more about Sirchia. He was number two in the gang of Michele Cavataio ('The Cobra'), which had been feuding with other mafiosi in Palermo. He had been involved in the murder of a mafioso. During his earlier exile he had worked conscientiously in a factory, shown interest in the local library and museum, and wanted to bring his two daughters from Palermo to attend a local convent school. His four 'acquaintances' from Palermo who had been arrested were coming to dispose of him.

 

AFTER SOME MONTHS on Linosa, Sirchia and the rest were shipped back to the Sicilian mainland and released, nursing some justifiable grievances. On May 21, 1978, he was gunned down in Palermo together with his wife – he usually had her with him in public, as insurance. Traditionally the Mafia had not sunk to targeting wives or children. The killing of the Sirchia couple was a first.

Sirchia seems to have glimpsed a life beyond crime. At the same time, his whitewash that day on the island, of the mafiosi who had been after him in the Veneto, had implied that the Mafia should be left to settle its own accounts. Eventually it dealt with him, the insider-outsider who could not keep his mouth shut, before he had acted on Leonardo Sciascia's plea to name names. Perhaps he feared the dishonour of being a traitor, as well as defenceless, if he switched sides: there were no legal provisions then for mafiosi who went over to the police. The revelations of the only one who had switched, Leonardo Vitale, were not believed, although later some were verified: he was consigned to a lunatic asylum for a decade and assassinated two months after he left. The bleak and basic fact of the lives of mafiosi is that they are never sure whether they will be killed by their enemies or those they believe to be their friends.

At least Sirchia lasted longer than multiple murderer Angelo La Barbera. After Linosa, La Barbera was shot at in Milan but survived; five bullets were removed from his body; reportedly two more already there were removed at the same time, but this might be mythology, always a temptation in stories about the Mafia. He told the police he had no idea who would want to kill him. He found out in 1975 when he was knifed to death in prison by three other mafiosi.

The killing of Sirchia and his wife was a clamorous denial of his claim that the Mafia did not exist. It was also evidence that it was entering a new, bloodier phase in which even the children of rival mafiosi would be strangled and dissolved in acid. The pre-war rural Mafia, dominant in the territories of absentee landlords, had delivered rough justice. The Mussolini regime had driven many mafiosi out of Italy, but the Americans enlisted the aid of crime bosses like Lucky Luciano before invading Sicily in World War II – the aftermath of which was a resurgence, and the election of many Mafia-linked mayors.

Once in control of the Palermo fruit, vegetable and fish markets, the Mafia gradually got its hands on theexpanding city through rigged public works contracts and drug trafficking as well as protection rackets.Giuseppe Sirchia and Angelo La Barbera were both involved in what is called the First Mafia War of 1962-63 between rival gangs for control of the city. The Second Mafia War of the 1980s began when mobsters from Corleone set out to conquer Palermo.

 

SUCH IS THE Mafia that Enzo Conticello continues to defy. He is one of many brave entrepreneurs who reject the implication that if they operate in Sicily they owe protection money (pizzo) to the Mafia. The Sicilian Industrialists' Federation now expels any members who have paid the Mafia.

The Antimafia movement was strengthened as a result of four Mafia killings. In 1990 a courageousmagistrate, Rosario Livatino, only thirty-six years old, was gunned down in the countryside near Agrigento. In 1992 the two crusading magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino – who had not only put individual mafiosi on trial, but for the first time tried hundreds of them together as members of the one centrally controlled criminal organisation – were killed in separate car bombings. The following year it was a priest, Don Pino Puglisi, who was shot in the head. He had vigorously opposed the Mafia in his poor Palermo parish.

The Mafia seemed to be at the height of its power but it had overstepped the mark, setting off a public backlash. Thousands of ordinary people marched through the streets of Palermo bearing the slogan 'now kill us all'. Subsequently the Mafia has been badly dented, not least because of a law allowing Mafia turncoats (pentiti) to turn state's evidence. Sicily has become a model for the fight against the Mafia elsewhere, upsetting the stereotype of Sicilian passivity in the face of organised crime.

In his novel The Leopard (1958), set in the Sicily of his grandfather's time, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa portrayed the unification of Italy as the yielding of a tired aristocracy to a coarse, grasping, ambitious new class, a change to avoid radical renewal. Modern Palermo suggests he was on to something. The newer suburbs reflect the influence of the ex-mayor, Vito Ciancimino, who enriched himself and the Mafia by putting development in its hands. In 1993 he was sentenced to fifteen years' jail and a fine of €150 million for his part in what they call the Sack of Palermo, in which heritage villas and the city's green belt were replaced with shoddy apartment complexes.

All the same, Tomasi di Lampedusa may have been overly pessimistic. There are courageous Sicilians who dare to believe it can be better: Antonio Presti, for one. He has taken a different path from his father, a wealthy builder who paid a percentage of earnings to the Mafia to ensure work was completed on time.Antonio has involved the schoolchildren of Librino, a soulless suburb of Catania, in public art projects that have given them a new perspective on life. Near Cefalù, on the northern coast, over the past twenty years, despite initial opposition from local administrators, he has installed, at his own expense, contemporary sculptures in regional parks, and has established a seafront hotel where artists create guest rooms devoted, for instance, to the Sicilian puppet theatre or such figures as the filmmaker and author Pier Paolo Pasolini.Presti says he provides free art in the parks because 'if you don't do business with the Mafia they can't get at you'.

People such as Presti and those in the Antimafia movement help break the unholy nexus – born of a stagnant economy with 38 per cent unemployment between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five – of the political sphere and the bureaucracy with crime.

'The Mafia,' wrote Leonardo Sciascia, 'delivers jobs as well as death.' Those who create honest jobs lessen the Mafia's power to deliver death with impunity.

'We have effective police and rigorous magistrates but too many criminals get early release,' Enzo Conticello, who is now fifty-eight, summed up. 'The Mafia can be rolled back if there's sufficient political will.'

A Palermo travel agency, Addiopizzo ('Goodbye Protection Money'), takes tourists to shops and restaurants whose owners refuse to be blackmailed, and also to seized Mafia properties, such as farms where organic crops are now being grown. Life-giving food from land once bought with the blood of Mafia victims: this in itself is a potent symbol of regeneration. Moreover, one of those farms used to belong to the imprisoned Mafia boss Totò Riina, of Corleone, where The Godfather: Part II was partly set. Today the town has an energetic Antimafia movement and a museum and library documenting Mafia crimes.

For Sicilians only too eager to be rid of the Mafia, the fascination it has for foreigners is unexpected. One hotel owner told me he used to reassure tourists who asked about the Mafia that they would not see any evidence of it – as is usually the case – until he realised they were disappointed. Perhaps they were after a safe glimpse of evil on its home ground; and would, if they got it, be just as disappointed that it was no match for the glamorous Hollywood version. To meet the demand, some years ago there used to be Mafia nostalgia tours of the sites of notorious killings – a car bombing here, shots fired from speeding motorbikes there – and one-time Mafia haunts like the art deco hotel Delle Palme in Palermo. But for those who live with the Mafia, it has about as much glamour as cancer.

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