Into the Heart of the Mafia: A Journey Through the Italian Southby David Lane
In this investigation into the criminal underworld of the cities and villages of the Italian South, David Lane provides an unrivaled exposé of the operations of the Mafia today
From Naples, home of Mafia-controlled mozzarella and toxic waste, through the no less rotten Calabria, to Sicily, cradle of Cosa/i>/b>/b>/i>/b>/i>
In this investigation into the criminal underworld of the cities and villages of the Italian South, David Lane provides an unrivaled exposé of the operations of the Mafia today
From Naples, home of Mafia-controlled mozzarella and toxic waste, through the no less rotten Calabria, to Sicily, cradle of Cosa Nostra, the hold of the Mafia on Southern Italy is as strong as ever. Following a multi-decade career as a journalist in Italy, David Lane uses his extensive contacts into the world of organized crime to demonstrate how globalization has transformed the Mafia into more than simply a global phenomenon. In painful detail, Into the Heart of the Mafia describes the unceasing mafia pressure endured by priests and politicians, businessmen, trade unionists, and ordinary citizens, and the risks undertaken by the policemen, judges, and politicians who fight to weaken the Mafia's influence. A travelogue with the most deadly of implications, Into the Heart of the Mafia stands as a guide like no other into the darkest side of Italy.
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Into the Heart of the Mafia
A Journey Through the Italian South
By David Lane
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2009 David Lane
All rights reserved.
'GELA? Why do you want to go to Gela?' asked a friend in Palermo. 'It's the ugliest town in Sicily.' Perhaps it is, but it seemed the right place to begin, on Sicily's southern coast in the deep south of the Italian South, much nearer Tunis and Tripoli than Rome, in a town with the blackest reputation for everything in which the Mafia excels, such as extortion rackets, economic crime, political collusion and violent death.
The hotel where I had booked was then Gela's best but a local news-wire stringer warned me that it ranked low on comfort. I saw what he meant when I drove into the busy service station that shares the hotel's site, checked in and took the lift to my room. A dim corridor with stained carpeting and battered doors to rooms, some with chipped jambs that looked as if screwdrivers or chisels had been used for entry instead of keys, was uninviting and the room matched the corridor. However, the hotel was convenient, an easy walk to everywhere I wanted to go.
Crossing the ring road and making my way up the hill towards the centre, past mean buildings, Gela appeared a place without charm. I had arranged to meet the mayor and waited on a bench in the square outside the town hall. Soon a dark blue Fiat drew to the kerb. A casually dressed man got out, turned his head right, looked back down the square from where the car had come, then left towards the town hall's entrance and the neighbouring seventeenth-century church of Saint Francis of Assisi. The door on the car's other side opened, a second man appeared and also looked carefully around. But on that Sunday afternoon, like most Sunday afternoons, Gela's centre was a sleepy place with few passers-by, none suspicious or a cause of concern for the two men.
Had there been onlookers, they may not have seen the third man in the car. But many people in Gela would have known that their mayor, Rosario Crocetta, was a passenger; that the car was armour plated; that its thick, dark windows were bullet proof; and that the two men who had got out of the car before him were armed policemen in plain clothes. Crocetta was given bodyguards in July 2003, a few months after the regional administrative court in Palermo declared him the winner of the election that had been held in Gela in May 2002. I walked a few steps and said hello to Crocetta, a thickset man of indeterminate middle age with wavy black hair whom I remembered vaguely, having met him a few years before. 'Let's go for a coffee,' he said, taking me by the arm and leading me to the Bar Siracusa across the square.
Ten minutes later, sitting behind his desk, Crocetta began telling me about himself, the town and the Mafia that threatened him as soon as the court gave the ruling that installed him as mayor. In an interview with Italy's state broadcasting company he had said that his priority would be to fight crime. 'The Mafia didn't like that,' Crocetta told me. A large crowd had gathered in the piazza in Gela to celebrate the court's ruling when Crocetta's lawyer told him about a telephone call he had received from a person so powerful and confident of being above the law that he did not hide his identity. Crocetta should change tack or he would be dead within a week, the caller threatened. 'I went to the town hall next day and issued my first ordinance. From that moment, all bids for public tenders would be adjudicated in the presence of the police,' Crocetta recalled, 'and then I went to the police to tell them of the threat.'
Crocetta's election had itself been part of his campaign against the Mafia. Even in his own party on the radical left, the Comunisti Italiani, and among its allies, nobody thought that Crocetta could win the election. One year earlier Silvio Berlusconi's rightwing coalition had made a clean sweep in Sicily, taking all of the sixty-one flrst-past-the-post seats that were contested in a parliamentary election. When his opponent was declared the winner by just over one hundred votes, Crocetta's supporters were not surprised. 'Everyone thought my bid to be mayor was a lost cause.'
But Crocetta suspected that the rightwing candidate had won thanks to ballot rigging and took the matter to the regional administrative court. 'Something very strange happened in the second round of voting. The votes simply didn't tally with those of the first round. The Mafia had organised a campaign to prevent my election,' Crocetta explained to me. He refused to accept defeat and asked the court to examine the ballot papers handed in at thirty of the town's one hundred and eighty polling stations; the check showed him leading his rival by more than five hundred votes rather than lagging. By marking ballot papers, the Mafia controlled about fifteen hundred votes in Gela and was able to ensure that voters had voted the way it wanted.
A homosexual, Crocetta would cut an unusual figure anywhere on Italy's political stage. In the conservative south of Sicily, where a culture of padre – padrone (father-boss) still lingers widely, the figure is even more unusual. Going against the run of public opinion, perhaps it was no surprise that he captured the votes of many of Gela's young people but, surprisingly, Crocetta's biggest supporters were pensioners. He beat his rival because he was different, a politician outside the normal scheme of things and the usual party lines, and because he got enough voters to believe in his vision of the town with a future better than its past. And he was successful again in May 2007, winning two-thirds of the vote when he sought re-election.
'I am an Aquarius,' Crocetta confided to me, eyes twinkling through his thin-rimmed spectacles. According to those who believe that one's birth-star determines who one is, being an Aquarius means being friendly and compassionate but also unpredictable, with an aversion to convention. That sounds much like Crocetta.
Born in February 1951 in the centre of Gela, less than two hundred yards from the town hall, he grew up in the outskirts where his working-class family moved after being given an apartment in a development of social housing. Taught by Salesian fathers, Crocetta's first steps in politics were not in the ranks of the establishment, with the Christian Democrats, but with a grass-roots socialist Christian movement. It was a brief experience and by the age of twenty-one Crocetta had shifted left, to the junior section of the Communist Party. Four years later he was a card-carrying member of the party itself and within two years a member of Gela's town council. 'But I didn't agree with the other councillors and resigned after three months,' Crocetta told me. A long absence from active politics followed and a long period of work abroad.
Away from Gela during mafia wars in the 1980s, Crocetta was there on a terrible evening of slaughter in November 1990 when eight young men were murdered in two amusement arcades. 'Something had to be done. The Mafia had to be tackled one way or another. It had become the central issue here, the root of the town's economic and social failure.'
Crocetta and a small group of like-minded people set up a school and called it Preferisco Vivere (I Prefer to Live). 'Our efforts were of some use and we were able to keep some youngsters out of the Mafia's hands.' Run by teachers who gave their services free, the school took in teenagers who had dropped out of state schools in the town. Preferisco Vivere was a place for difficult kids with whom establishing relationships was hard. 'Normal schools don't allow smoking in class, but that was not an issue for us,' said Crocetta. Those teenagers in Gela had more important things on their minds than cigarettes and smoking; matters of life or death, like getting a heroin fix, planning a killing or thinking about the murders they had been involved in.
'It was at this school that I began to understand what the Mafia really is. Before then I thought that educating Gela's youngsters, offering them alternatives to lives of crime, was enough. But beating the Mafia needs more than education and showing young people different values,' said Crocetta. He told me about Alessandro, a sixteen-year-old shepherd who could not read or write when he arrived at the school. Alessandro was a member of a family of the Stidda, the Mafia whose clans control areas of southern Sicily, the equivalent in the south of the island of Cosa Nostra in the west. 'Alessandro was bright and learnt quickly. One day I asked him why he didn't change the way he lived. The reason was simple. He told me that human remains found a few months earlier had belonged to a young man who'd wanted to break free from the Mafia. The young man had been buried alive in a pit of lime. Had Alessandro tried to make a new life for himself that would also have been his fate.'
Once a member, always a member. Resignation is not a choice for those who might want to leave; the Mafia is not a gentlemen's club. 'It's the most ruthless of criminal organisations. It holds its members in total oppression, in a complete negation of freedom. What a terrible awareness for a sixteen-year-old of what the future held for him,' Crocetta reflected. It was then that he decided to return to politics and to campaign against the tyranny of the Mafia.
Gela has suffered tyranny before. The first records go far back in antiquity with the Greeks who began arriving in Sicily in the eighth century BC, a wave of colonisation which ended towards the close of the century with the arrival of Greeks from Rhodes and Crete in Gela, where they established a settlement in what would be the eastern part of the modern town. Tyrants would make their appearance during the sixth century BC. Classical scholars record that Phalaris, who seized power in Agrigento, a town established in 581BC by Greeks from Gela as they spread west along the coast, was given the honour of being Sicily's first tyrant. According to legend, he was a monster whose tastes included eating new-born infants.
Tyranny arrived in Gela itself in 506BC with Cleander, whose brother Hippocrates assumed power when he was murdered. Cleander and Hippocrates were responsible for the defensive walls on the northern side of the hilltop town and for building up an army, particularly its cavalry, to lay the foundations for Gela's expansion in eastern Sicily. Hippocrates's success was due in large measure to Gelon, the cavalry's commander, who seized power when Hippocrates died in 491BC. Forging an alliance with Agrigento, Gelon turned Gela's attention eastwards again, towards Syracuse and its port. Syracuse capitulated in 485BC, Gelon transferred his capital there from Gela and within ten years he became the most powerful figure in the Greek world.
Some modern-day Sicilians say the tyrants were simply the leaders of their times who in their own ways of government interpreted the aspirations and interests of the urban and rural plebs. Moses Finley, one of the great classical scholars of the twentieth century, was harsher. He thought that adjectives like brutal and despotic were inadequate to describe the rapidity with which tyrants founded and destroyed whole cities and the frequency with which they transplanted tens of thousands of people. In 282BC, for example, the people of Gela were forcibly moved by the tyrant of Agrigento to what would be the town of Licata, about twenty miles along the coast towards Agrigento. Gela was destroyed but it was already in decline. About thirty years before this enforced migration, the tyrant of Syracuse had ordered the massacre of around four thousand of Gela's inhabitants. The bloodletting was typical of the time and place; many people said much the same when ferocious mafia wars left hundreds dead in the town during the 1980s and 1990s.
Crocetta had suggested that I talk to Paolo Caffà, a left-leaning civil lawyer who had been a member of the town's council for many years, and I was able to arrange a meeting. 'Agrigento was a colony of Gela. Syracuse was conquered by Gela. Yet tourists travel from one to the other without even stopping here. They just pass Gela by,' he told me. And so I discovered. Few tourists call at the town's museum with its large, well-presented collection of archaeological finds; apart from a handful of staff, it was empty when I went there. In their cars and coaches, travellers from Agrigento to Syracuse keep travelling around Gela's ring road and through the urban sprawl on the town's northern outskirts. With little left of the glory that the ancient Greeks gave Gela, the modern town is a place that many have been to but few have visited.
Yet standing on a narrow plateau, overlooking the Mediterranean to the south and rising steeply out of a broad plain that spreads inland to the north, Gela ought to have become a magnet for tourists. It enjoys an enviable position. The fascist dictator Benito Mussolini had swum there, in the clean, clear sea, in August 1937 and later spent the evening dancing with 'young ladies of good Gela families'. Even today it is not hard to imagine how it was then and what it might have been now had the town developed differently. A long esplanade overlooks a broad sandy beach, large areas invaded by rough grass and rushes, and directly below the town hall a white pavilion standing on the beach, its roof blackened and one wing collapsed, tells of different, better times. Was it here, I wondered as I walked past, that the Duce swam and danced?
Thanks to the depredations of modern man, Gela does not draw visitors. It offers grim evidence of man's violence towards his fellows and also towards his surroundings. Planning abuse has been the rule; thousands of homes were built without permits and the old town centre destroyed as the authorities granted licences for the demolition of houses and palaces. A director of the museum complained that almost all that was old has been lost and what remains is ruined. Blocks of apartments sprung up everywhere with no concern for appearance as well as no regard for permits, the narrow streets of mid- and late-twentieth-century back-to-backs enjoying little light and no greenery to soften the desolation. Most are inhabited, many remain unfinished. 'Few people think that external plastering is necessary,' said Caffà. And so I found when I explored the warren of streets between the centre and my hotel; streets so narrow that two cars fit tightly, homes whose living rooms open directly onto narrow pavements, some living rooms turned into garages, the daily wash decorating balconies that almost touch, imposing cheek-by-jowl living on those who live there.
One of my calls in Gela was on the Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro (CGIL), Italy's large, left-leaning trade union, and I walked to the western end of the town's main street to reach its offices. There I talked to Emanuele Scicolone, its secretary, finding him to be yet another local willing to speak about his town and its problems: 'For the many youngsters who live in social housing's concrete boxes, or in the decaying homes typical of districts built without permits, the street is the only training ground for life. Here they often bump up against the criminal organisations that preach their myth of immediate and easy success, and gospel of violence.' Teenagers are not alone in thinking that Gela, a town of about eighty thousand, is short on attractions. In 1990, when the government in Rome decided that Gela should have its own law court it was put in a small category of hardship posts where magistrates – judges and prosecutors – enjoy benefits not granted to colleagues who work in the many easier, less isolated and better provided Italian towns and cities.
At the eastern, smarter, end of the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, past the large parish church and the shops selling fashionable eyewear, perfumes and jewellery that are found in all large towns, next to the museum with the acropolis just beyond, the Hotel Venezia stands shut, not for renovation but for good. The faded blue paintwork and the crumbling pillars on the top-floor terrace suggest that if there ever was a golden age it ended long ago. Rusting gates, slightly ajar, lead to an overgrown garden, where I could imagine that guests once enjoyed aperitivi before dinner or digestivi after. Like the Hotel Excelsior that I had noticed when walking to the centre, another closed and shabby remnant of a distant past, perhaps the Hotel Venezia had been built expecting that visitors would give the town more than passing attention and stay overnight.
Excerpted from Into the Heart of the Mafia by David Lane. Copyright © 2009 David Lane. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Meet the Author
DAVID LANE has written for The Guardian and the Financial Times, and since 1994 has been The Economist's business and financial correspondent for Italy. He has lived in Rome since 1972.
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