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Paying a price to stand up to the Mob

Vincenzo Conticello in Italian television interview.

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: You know economic times are tough when even the bad guys are feeling the squeeze. In southern Italy more than three-quarters of all small businesses pay protection money to the Mob. A movement to just say no has been gaining ground, mostly because business owners just can't afford to pay up anymore. There were street protests this week against the Mafia. And for the first time a restaurant owner has reported the extortion to the police. He named names.

As Megan Williams reports from Palermo, he's waiting for others to do the same.


MEGAN WILLIAMS: In some ways, Vincenzo Conticello is a typical Sicilian -- proud, gregarious and welcoming. . . . But when it comes to resisting extortion from the Mafia, he's one of kind.

Conticello tells how, two years ago, the Mafia laid the groundwork for extorting "pizzo," or protection money, from his thriving historic restaurant in downtown Palermo.

VINCENZO CONTICELLO [translation]: They began by pick-pocketing and damaging the cars of clients. Then they cut our electricity, our gas, the water. I didn't know who was doing this and began to get very worried, extremely anxious.

Then, he got a visit.

The police arrested the gangster, and later, despite threats and more damage to his restaurant, Conticello fingered him and three others in court. They're now doing up to 16 years in prison.

That's cost Conticello his Mafia clientele, but his local-hero status has made up for it. His restaurant is thriving. His life, on the other hand, will never be the same. He's under 24-hour protection and he worries constantly about his family.

But Conticello doesn't feel alone. That's because Italy's most powerful business association, Confindustria, recently announced it will ban any business from its group that is found paying protection money to the Mob.

Dino Paternostro is a longtime anti-Mafia activist from nearby Corleone -- the name made famous by the "Godfather" movies. He's pleased with the move. But he also says business groups need to keep pushing the issue, not just when it suits them.

DINO PATERNOSTRO [translation]: It's an important stance, but I think it's also influenced by the economic crisis right now. Businesses can no longer afford to pay the Mafia, and groups like Confindustria are responding to that.

Italy's economy is the worst in Europe, and southern regions like Sicily are sliding into poverty.

Back at his restaurant, Conticello says despite Confindustria's new anti-Mafia stance, support from other Palermo shop and restaurant owners has been scant. He says instead of applauding his move, they resent that he's now off the hook from paying the Mafia while they're not.

CONTICELLO [translation]: Here in the neighborhood, none of the other shopkeepers came by. Nobody. Absolutely nobody.

But while the ever-present police guards are a reminder of the high price Conticello is paying for having denounced organized crime, until other Palermo businesses start naming names, they'll keep on paying, too. The Mob.

In Palermo, I'm Megan Williams for Marketplace.

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