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Teaming up to beat the Mafia

Marketplace Staff May 23, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Sicilians choose a new regional president this weekend. Kinda like a state governor for us. The choices for voters are pretty clear. The incumbent’s suspected of having Mafia links. The challenger’s an anti-mob campaigner. Business owners in Sicily are facing a similar choice. As Megan Williams reports from Palermo.

MEGAN WILLIAMS: Dino Paternostro has had better days. He sits at this crowded café in the decaying historic center of Palermo, drains his espresso cup and lights another cigarette. This anti-Mafia activist has just come from the south of Sicily where he visited a greenhouse co-op the Mafia wants control of. To let the workers know, they left a calling card right out of the Godfather.

DINO PATERNOSTRO [voice of interpreter]: Two days ago 70 grape vines from the cooperative were uprooted and a strangled dog was left nearby. This was a clear sign of intimidation. If you keep working at the cooperative, you’ll end up like the dog. If you keep working, we’ll destroy everything you do.

Paternostro says “il puzzo della Mafia”— the stench of the Mafia — has only gotten worse in Sicily in recent years. The current regional president of Sicily, Toto Cuffaro, is standing trial for aiding and abetting organized crime. In the capital Palermo alone, more than 80 percent of stores and businesses still give a monthly handout to the mob.

Now, some young Sicilians are joining Paternostro’s fight against the Mafia. They’ve teamed up to offer a mob-free shopping alternative in the city, a first for Sicily.

Cecile Lamberto is one of the members of “Addio Pizzo”— Goodbye Extortion. Her small group has convinced more than 100 store owners to put a sign on their windows saying, “A population that pays extortion is a population without dignity.” And more importantly, they’re refusing to pay racket money to the mob.

CECILE LAMBERTO: People are really frightened. You get your car burnt, you get shop burnt, you loose all your clients.

Lamberto says support from big name politicians and small-time shopkeepers is key for the campaign to succeed. Rita Borsellino, an anti-Mafia crusader who’s running against the current Sicilian president in upcoming regional elections, has endorsed the group. And 7,000 consumers having pledged to shop only where the mob doesn’t call.

LAMBERTO: The shopkeepers get in touch with each other so they get to know each other and feel they’re not alone anymore. The problem was that everyone was alone. We’re making this group of shopkeepers so they can be stronger.

Standing outside his ceramic workshop near the decrepit port neighbourhood, 35-year-old Francesco Bertolino explains why he signed up after 4 years in business.

FRANCESCO BERTOLINO [voice of interpreter]: Why take the risk of putting myself on the front line, putting my name on a list that’s public? Because billions of dollars are taken away from the common good by the Mafia and this has blocked economic development in Sicily. Yes, of course, we save personally by not paying an extortion fee, but collectively that money can go towards helping develop Sicily.

Money that amounts to about $34 billion lost to the mob each year. Money, says Bertolino looking around at the crumbling buildings and potholes, that if put to legal use, could transform Sicily from being one of the poorest regions in Italy.

In Palermo, Sicily, I’m Megan Williams for Marketplace.

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