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Mafia fighters

June 7, 2010

The police in Sicily, often corrupt themselves, have failed to crack down on the Mafia. Now, a group of young people are taking charge and risking everything to win back their towns.

Blood on a car windshield
A group of young Sicilians hope to achieve what the police haven't managed: freedom from the MafiaImage: picture-alliance/dpa

They call themselves the children of the massacre.

On May 23, 1992, the Mafia detonated a bomb that annihilated a car carrying a magistrate who'd helped put hundreds of Mafia criminals behind bars. Giovanni Falcone, his wife and three police bodyguards were killed.

Less than two months later, another bomb ripped open a car, killing anti-Mafia magistrate Paolo Borsellino and his five police bodyguards. The explosions sent emotional shrapnel across Sicily.

"For us, the massacres of '92 are comparable to September 11," said Francesco Galante of the anti-Mafia group Libera Terra. "Every one of us remembers where we were, what we were doing when we heard the news."

Galante was 10 years old and at the beach with his family when the first bomb exploded. Immediately afterward, he remembers that a thunderstorm rolled in. Yet the angry skies couldn't compare to the furor of Sicilians who'd been jolted by the Mafia's brutality. It was the young people in particular who stormed the streets to protest.

Francesco Galante of anti-Mafia group Addiopizzo
The 1992 Mafia massacres had an effect on GalanteImage: Francesco Galante

During the next few years, many took the same streets in the opposite direction - to leave Sicily. They were disillusioned, convinced that the chronic unemployment and poverty the Mafia had caused were too big to conquer. However, 28-year-old Francesco Galante and other budding activists refused to leave.

"It became important to stay put and make Sicily better, to possibly bring about changes," said Galante, his mellow manner masking a steely determination.

A few years ago, he started volunteering in the anti-Mafia movement and eventually rose to his position as Libera Terra's communications director. Nearly all of his cohorts in the movement are under 35. They say they have the energy to take on the mobsters - and the guts, too.

"It is slow going and will take a long time," said Galante, "but we have the feeling that, bit by bit, something is happening."

A room with a different view

Libera Terra has its headquarters in a rustic farmhouse once owned by Bernardo Brusca, the Mafia boss whose son killed magistrate Giovanni Falcone. In the 1990s, the government confiscated the property. The young Mafia fighters converted the house into a bed-and-breakfast that they run to fund their efforts.

"Today, this is a marvelous place with an amazing view that can be enjoyed by everyone," said Galante, gazing out at a valley rimmed by rocky promenades. Horses munch on grass on a distant ridge. The hotel and restaurant employ four young people - honest jobs that don't have Mafia ties.

"We hope that this will be the base for tourists seeking a Sicilian vacation that stops at many spots confiscated from the Mafia and returned to the people," he said.

Tourists from northern Italy, France and North America spend the night here and enjoy meals made with local ingredients grown on Mafia-confiscated lands. The bed-and-breakfast also lodges travelers who book an anti-Mafia tour.

Travelers with a conscience

Dario Riccobono of Addiopizzo Travel
Riccobono organizes anti-Mafia tours of SicilyImage: DW

Addiopizzo Travel is the agency that offers these unique trips that celebrate Sicily's splendors but also unmask its seedy side and inform people how to clean it up. It's the little brother of the anti-Mafia organization Addiopizzo, which means "goodbye pizzo." (Pizzo is the so-called protection money that the Mafia extorts from business owners and the money is used to fun the organized criminals' illegal ventures.)

Addiopizzo Travel provides tours for interested visitors and school groups, who eat and sleep at hotels and restaurants where courageous owners refuse to pay pizzo. The tours also visit sites where Mafia atrocities occurred and meet with victims' relatives.

"I saw with my own eyes the horrors of the Mafia," said 31-year-old tour organizer Dario Riccobono, who was 10 years old when Falcone was killed in his hometown of Capaci. "I saw the highway blown to bits. It seemed like a war zone. From that moment onward, I said to myself that if I didn't do something, it would be like I was their accomplice, an accomplice to the mobsters."

So, Riccobono put on his trademark baseball cap and got to work. He volunteered in his community and later for Addiopizzo. The experience has helped him recover from that horrible spring and summer of 1992.

"I would say that AddioPizzo has been my medicine," he said. "It's allowed me to feel at ease with myself."

Riccobono and more than 40 other young people work without pay for AddioPizzo. He says they're proof that you don't have to be a judge, a police officer or even a legal adult to fight crime. Average Sicilians merely have to frequent businesses that refuse to pay pizzo. Addiopizzo provides a list of more than 400 of them. Pizzo-free purchases help build up the legal economy and take away funding from the Mafia - which already siphons away six percent of the country's gross national product.

Not surprisingly, the Mafia isn't pleased with AddioPizzo's efforts or with the local businesses who are standing up against organized crime. Some of those involved have received death threats.

"We don't have time for fear," said Riccobono with a nervous laugh. "We have so many things to do and don't have the time. Truth be told, I am fearful - and my fear is that Sicily will always remain the way it is."

A generation without fear

Silvia Pellegrino of Addiopizzo stands in front of a banner made by some of the school children that she helps teach about the Mafia. It says, "Free, Free, We Are…Against Any Fear."
Pellegrino is dedicated to educating the next generation about the MafiaImage: DW

In the Addiopizzo office, the telephone rings constantly. Thirty-five-year-old Silvia Pellegrino, the office manager and a volunteer, is there answering the call for a new Sicily. She grew up in Gela, a Mafia stronghold.

"I'm very tied to this land," said Pellegrino. "I was born here and this land has made me into who I am. I would like in some way to change it."

Education is fundamental, according to Pellegrino. She helps organize events in the schools, such as guest speakers or field trips, to help inform the young Sicilians who weren't even born when the massacres occurred in 1992.

"If we are educating people now about how to defy the Mafia but fail to teach those younger than us, we will never be able to reach our goal of eliminating the Mafia," Pellegrino said.

One day, she dreams, every business owner will refuse to pay pizzo and the Mafia will die out. Then there will be no need for AddioPizzo and its youth brigade.

Author: Nancy Greenleese

Editor: Kate Bowen