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Postcard: Venturing into mafia turf in Sicily

San Giuseppe Jato in Sicily is home to an Italian product not seen on trees or in fields, though it spreads like a weed - a poisonous weed. Nancy Greenleese got a taste of it, as she relays in this postcard from Italy.

marlon brando

Marlon Brando embodied the Mafia in "The Godfather" films

I arrive in San Giuseppe Jato on a gorgeous afternoon. The piazza is crowded with teenagers licking gelato cones. Older folks play cards outside coffee shops. On the surface, life is beautiful. But I'm here to look beyond the sun-dappled scenery. This is a stronghold of the Mafia group called Cosa Nostra, or "our thing."

And their "thing" isn't charity fundraisers. It's extortion, drug trafficking and prostitution. One of the biggest names in the game hails from here - Giovanni Brusca, nicknamed The Pig. He has confessed to killing about 200 people, but admits he lost count at some point.

Brusca is behind bars, but many of his followers aren't.

So, I'm a little uncomfortable to begin with. Then I start to notice that people are staring at me. But, I tell myself, it's a small town and I'm an outsider.

Reliving 'The Godfather'

I walk towards an intersection where a half-dozen signs point to nearby towns. One is Corleone - as in Michael Corleone, "The Godfather." And, in the real world, it's another town where the Mafia rules.

corleone

Corleone is one of the Mafia's strongholds in Sicily

I'm feeling on edge. But I'm not going to give in to paranoia fueled by silly mob films. I snap a few photos and head down the street. But I don't get far.

"Signora! Signora!" a young police officer calls out. I freeze.

"Why are you taking a picture?" he asks sharply. "The people leaving the station: you photographed them."

I look around. We are the only two people on the street. I respond in Italian.

" Ma, scattava i cartelli stradali!" I'm trying to say that I was photographing the street signs, but I botch it up, referring to myself in the third person like I was a professional athlete. My fumbling foreigner acts fails to charm him.

" Documenti," he snaps. I put my passport in his palm and he directs me toward the station. Inside, he tells me to make myself comfortable. Uh, sure, I think. I sit on the edge of the plastic chair.

"What are you doing here?" he asks, quietly, calmly. I tell him I'm a reporter. Then I lie and say I'm here for vacation. His eyebrows raise. He doesn't believe me. But I'm not about to tell him I'm here reporting on anti-Mafia efforts.

The truth is: I don't trust him. This is Italy. This is Sicily. While there are many brave and honest police officers, the authorities and the Mafia are often entangled. One palm greases the other. The locals are caught in the slime - extorted, contorted and wondering whom they can trust.

Subtle threats

While reporting here, I had met Girolamo Anselmo, one of many Sicilians fighting back against the criminals. He helps manage a farmer's cooperative that's cultivating land confiscated from his Mafiosi neighbors. The farmers are turning the soil from bad to good. A vineyard and a hotel have already sprouted. These are honest enterprises offering jobs in Italy's poorest province.

Nancy Greenleese

Nancy Greenleese did not feel welcome in San Giuseppe Jato

I asked Anselmo if he's ever scared. He immediately says no. But then admits he has worried about his family's safety. Why? I ask.

Well, there was that incident when Mafiosi intimidated farm workers who were cultivating the seized land. His coworkers mentioned the time when the Mafia torched the fields. Yet no one woke up to find a horse's head on their pillow. The Mafia is far more subtle, almost like a recurring nightmare. They peddle in fear.

Before leaving for Sicily, friends in Rome kept telling me to be careful.

"Stai attenta," they said. Even when I asked for directions in sleepy San Giuseppe Jato, two shop owners repeated the mantra: "Stai attenta."

I'm now very attentive as my passport number is being written down. I show the officer my pictures - amateur shots of the street signs.

"Signora," he says, "I'm so sorry for the mix-up."

He becomes super sweet, like one cannoli too many. I feel slightly sick. He's done what he set out to do: scare me.

I'm not part of "their thing." I'm not welcome.

Author: Nancy Greenleese
Editor: Sabina Casagrande

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