PALERMO, Italy — In pop culture, the mafia may enjoy an image romanticized by the Sopranos, the Godfather and tabloid coverage of dapper dons. Dealing with organized crime in the real world, however, is as much fun as living down the street from the Crips and Bloods.
In Italy, groups like Sicily’s Cosa Nostra are destructive as well as economically vexing. Mob operatives routinely extort protection money from businesses, intimidating and inflicting violence on those that don’t cooperate.
These days, tourists and specialized travel agencies in Southern Italy are fighting back, by supporting business that defy the mafia. It’s a burgeoning form of responsible or ethical tourism in a region with much to offer: splendid Mediterranean countryside, stunning shorelines, hearty wines and cuisine that’s superlative even by Italy’s standards — influenced by the Greeks, Arabs, Spanish and French who invaded the island.
“There is a strong demand for [anti-mafia tourism],” said Francesca Vannini Parenti, the founder of Addiopizzo Travel, a Palermo-based agency that offers mafia-free holidays. “People want to know which shops, restaurants and hotels don’t pay protection money to the mafia.”
The addio pizzo — literally “goodbye protection money” — network of businesses was created in 2004 by a few young locals outraged that they couldn’t open a bar without paying up.
Back then, organizing the mafia resistance movement was revolutionary. Today, about 700 local businesses in the Palermo region are part of the network — an encouraging if small number in an area with about 25,000 retailers. In Sicily about 70 percent of 50,000 retailers pay the protection money, according to the 2010 statistics of SOS Impresa, the anti-racketeering office of Confesercenti, the national retailers’ association.
Addiopizzo directs tourists to the shops, restaurants and hotels where it is certain none of their money will go to the mob. Addiopizzo can make reservations and publishes a map of Palermo indicating these establishments.
The group offers holiday packages to discover the "hot spots" in the fight against the mafia in Palermo and its surroundings. These include meetings with locals on the frontlines of the resistance. Participants in their tours say these are crucial to increasing their understanding of the mafia and what fighting it entails.
“I was very moved” said one German student on the tour, after meeting with Ignazio Cutro, a businessman who is under police protection after exposing men who tried to extort money from him. “He and his family live in complete isolation now. Afterward, his children lost all their friends at school – even his brother doesn’t speak to him anymore.”
So far, Addiopizzo mainly offers guided tours for schools and university students but it hopes to attract larger crowds. In September, Addiopizzo launched a one-day tour of Palermo which includes stops at the mafia victims square, the courthouse, police headquarters and the home of Paolo Borsellino, a leading anti-mafia prosecutor, assassinated in 1992.
Through the tour, participants learn the history of the resistance to the mafia, as old as the mafia itself, dating back to the end of the 19th century. They hear details about the legal fight against the mafia over the years led by prosecutors and the difficulties faced by police officers charged with tracking the mafiosi.
The guides also detail the collusion between the mafia and political elites, and they recount the Catholic Church's attitude toward the Cosa Nostra: mostly silence for decades, except for the resistance of a couple of isolated priests.
And to illustrate how film has portrayed the mafia, the tour visits the steps of Palermo’s opera house where one of the famous and final scenes of Godfather III was shot. In that scene, Mary, the daughter of Michael Corleone, the Godfather, is killed in front of him by a rival clan.
Meanwhile, the tour stops for lunch at the Focacceria San Francesco. The restaurant, which offers a celebrated veal spleen and ricotta sandwich, is also well known for its owner, Vincenzo Conticello. He was one of the first in Palermo to expose his extortionists.
In 2005, a man came to the Focacceria to ask him to pay a regular fee. He refused and reported the incident to the police. The man and two accomplices were arrested and in 2008, received prison sentences of 10 to 16 years for extortion. Conticello has been living under police protection since then.
“This is one of the very publicized cases, the majority of the ones who (report the mafia) today face limited risks," said Valerio d’Antoni, a lawyer affiliated with Addiopizzo who provides support to businesses to resist the mafia. "When the businessman is very determined, the mafia understands it is better to let it go.”
Still, there can be repercussions, says Parenti.
Last year about 50 acts of intimidation occurred in Palermo, according to SOS Impresa. These included arson, vandalism and “glue attacks” in which a shop’s locks are glued shut, a sign that the property doesn’t really belong to the owner.
“Often the ones who (resist) become isolated," Parenti said. "One of our members, a bar owner in a small town, lost all his clients after [resisting]. If everybody would stand up against the mafia, we wouldn’t need heroes anymore.”
Addiopizzo is not alone in using tourism to fight the mob. Another organization, Libera Terra (Free land), specializes in finding socially productive uses of assets seized from the mafia. In Italy, more than 11,500 assets have been seized from the mafia half of that in Sicily, according to government estimates.
Libera Terra, offers similar "ethical" travel packages, shows visitors how socially conscious organizations are currently producing organic pasta, wine, and traditional preserves on the land once owned by Cosa Nostra. In the stunning Sicilian hinterlands close to Corleone, a small town made famous by The Godfather and home of famous mafia bosses, Libera Terra farms about 300 hectares of land.
It also runs a bed and breakfast on the “Corleone lands” nearby. The charming stone farmhouse with a beautiful view of the surrounding hills once belonged to top mafia boss Toto Riina in the 1980s and the mastermind behind the assassinations of the famous anti-mafia prosecutors Falcone and Borsellino in 1992. He is currently in prison.
Since its inception 10 years ago, Libera Terra has pushed to create businesses that are run legally, respecting labor laws, worker’s rights and the environment. It offers higher wages, benefits and dignity to its employees, say officials.
“Our message is that one can work legally and make a decent living out of it, that there is an alternative to the mafia," said Francesco Galante, Libera Terra communication director. In Sicily, the unemployment rate reaches 14.7 percent. That gives the mafia a powerful lure.
“At the beginning we felt very isolated," said Galante. "Nobody wanted to work with us or commit to it. But things changed when workers understood that we offered better working conditions and also that there was no danger.”
In the early years, the organization's crops were vandalized or set on fire and their agricultural tools were stolen. A decade later, that type of intimidation has ceased.
“The mafia knows that if they attack us, we will get lots of media attention and official support," Galante said. "With this visibility, they will have more difficulties doing business.”
Today, Libera employs 30 people and is flooded with job applications. It sells its own brands of organic wine, olive oil and pasta throughout Italy and visitors are starting to crowd the scenic bed and breakfast and its restaurant.
“The campaigns for responsible consumer behavior have had a notable impact," said Umberto Santino, author of a book on the anti-mafia movement and director the Giuseppe Impastato Sicilian Information Center on the mafia. "They have received a lot of support from consumers.”
“However, if we look at how many businesses participate, this is still a very small minority," he added. "We have made progress since the 1990’s but there is still a long way to go.”