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Feature Articles


September 2005
The Art Of The "PIZZU"

By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus


Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

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PIZZU, PIZZO: A term signifying the extraction of money, goods, information, etc., by means of force, intimidation, fraud, deceit or abuse of authority. A protection racket that imposes a tax to guarantee no mafia intrusion on businesses, property or persons. Extortion. An exacted tribute. Blackmail.

Pizzu is a Sicilian word with many definitions. The traditional mafia meaning is found in the phrase "abbagnarisi la pizzu"—to wet your beak (mouth). The original sense was one of "gaining profit, usually modest." Today, the word is in general use in Italy as pizzo and has been specified to involve a "sum extorted by criminals from wholesalers, construction companies and small business retailers." (For more detail, see Vocabolario siciliano, vol. 3, 1990.)

NAPLES, 25 July 2005. Agents of the Mobile Squad of Naples for extortion and theft have arrested Michele Arcone, 58, and his son Ciro, 36, both felons. The two were extorting a building contractor who was renovating an apartment in Mortelle. When the contractor did not react to the first approach, the two men stole several tools. Another contact was made demanding 1000 euro for restitution of the stolen material. The anti-extortion agents who were monitoring the activities of the construction companies have arrested the pair while in possession of the loot.

Thanks to the pizzo the mafia clans assert control over their territories, enrich themselves and increase their prestige. With those funds they can penetrate companies, affect the activities of businessmen and limit market independence, with negative consequences for the entire society. (Marco Nebiolo, 2005)

     "On 11 May 1860 General Giuseppe Garibaldi paid the pizzu to the mafia to obtain permission to disembark his army of one thousand on the island for the invasion of Sicily to free its people from foreign tyranny." Mafia informer Antonino Patti made this claim, in 1997, during a deposition by Palermo judge Massimo Russo. "I learned about that," Patti continued, "during a meeting with some old capos who had heard it from their grandfathers. Even my great grandfather told me that Garibaldi had to pay a pizzu in order to land his troops at the Sicilian port of Marsala and again to pass through the mafia stronghold of Salemi."

     Patti’s remarks have no other corroboration. Yet they are fascinating in that the observation, whether historical fact or a part of mafia mythology, points to the historical centrality of extortion activities as a source of funds for criminal organizations. Extortion practiced against middle-class entrepreneurs is the most significant technique, the most typical and the most traditional. As Libero Grassi, the Palermo businessman assassinated in 1991 for publicly denouncing his extortionists, said, "With the pizzu the mafia acquires state power." The practice is a secure source of funds that can be utilized to finance large criminal enterprises such as drug trafficking, and allows the continued viability of the clans in periods of crisis when other illicit avenues of profit are in decline.

     The extorted businessman fully understands that such a person is ready and able to ruin his life if he does not get what he demands. He doesn’t fear the cops and he doesn’t fear incarceration. It has to do with the power of intimidation, which is demonstrated through the expression of potential violence. As one mafiosi declared, "When I present myself to him [the intended victim] he must feel the weight of my presence and the strength of my words. I’m always smiling, but behind that expression of friendliness lies a dire threat that can become only too real."

     There are those who won’t await the request for payment but will go to the local capo in person to solve the issue before it arises. Where the mafioso presence is not strong or where one hopes to pass unobserved, the encounter with the criminal element might occur in various ways. It might initiate with a midnight telephone call with silence at the other end. Then the telephone rings for several successive nights. Then a tough guy strolls into the place of business. He will engage in a rambling discussion about the disturbing question of lack of security in the neighborhood and the incapacity of the police to guarantee proper protection. Employees may be pushed around to give the owner the message. If the proprietor understands what will come next he will ask others what he should do to prevent further harassment. A well-dressed person, a gentleman by all appearances, pays a visit. He is willing to intercede and says he will talk to "those people" to come to an accord on a reasonable sum to be paid agreeable to both parties. The owner will be left with the illusion that he got off cheaply and now can go about his business in tranquil fashion.

     To those who refuse to heed the warnings, the threats will escalate. A telephone call from someone who knows the school frequented by the children or damage to the storefront or a bomb. Now the message is clear: Pay or run the risk to life and limb.

     Mafia manipulation of the local economy may exceed that of the State. The mafia knows what a business brings in each month. If business is good, the mafia tribute increases. When business suffers a downturn, the mob might decide to suspend payments for a period of time. A death in the family would bring condolences from the clan capo and an appreciation that the monthly "clan dues" can be a bit tardy without penalty. When a business becomes especially profitable the clan will get greedy. The owner will be constrained to accept clan affiliates into the business as silent partners, which means in substance that the owner can eventually become a mere figurehead.

     What will happen at this point is not always predictable. The business can be bled dry and the businessman left with nothing but debts. Or a manipulation of prices to bankrupt competing firms. If the business is a warehouse the clan can transform it into a depository for arms, drugs or stolen property. Progressing from a simple extortion to ownership of a legitimate business, the clan turns to bigger sources of profit, extending its tentacles, increasing recruitment and subverting the territory it dominates.

     The pizzo can take many forms—the only limitation is the range of imagination of the extorters and evolving opportunities. The mafiosi can take goods from a business or have the owner cash checks that turn out to be worthless. There is the so-called cavallo di ritorno scam, which consists of the theft of vehicles and farm machinery to be then held as ransom. The authorities rarely follow up on such crimes, leaving the victims with few alternatives other than to pay for return of their property. The insurance firms will invariably delay payment and when the check arrives it can be much less than the cost of replacement. When the victim assesses his situation, he will often decide that the lesser evil is to pay the "mob tax" and charge it to business as usual.

     There are types of the pizzu that strike at employees and ordinary citizens. To name a few: shipyards, where gaining employment is contingent on the employee paying a percentage of his salary to obtain certain jobs; in some cities—Palermo, as one example—the extortion fee to get essential services like water and electricity hooked up ranges from ten to twenty-five euro.

     Not everyone folds at the sight of a threat at the doorstep. There are those who do not bend to anyone. The press will hail them as heroes, but the outcome can be tragic. Libero Grassi not only refused to pay, he went public about a phenomenon that dare not speak its name. He fingered his tormentors, writing to newspapers and being interviewed on TV. Libero was cut down by four pistol shots as he left home for work. A year later, two other merchants, one in Sicily, the other in Puglia, suffered the same fate.

     A proprietor of a car dealership, Antonio Sorrenti, from Foggia in Puglia, turned the tables on his extorter by giving him two shots in the head. The victim was no ordinary street picciotto, but the local boss, Leonardo di Tommaso, who had a prominent police record. Sorrenti was taken into protective custody to an isolated prison cell while his family, out of fear of mafia vendetta, was bundled off to a secret location.

     They were brave but foolish men because they acted alone against a determined force. To counteract the mobsters a united front was essential as well the backing of at least a portion of the community. The risk of going it alone is too great; your business can be lost, your wealth, even your life. The past few years have seen the first formations of grass roots anti-racket Italian associations. The first was founded in 1990 in the Sicilian hill town of Tortorici. The burgers of that village united under an anti-racket banner, took legal action against the extortionists and assisted victims of the pizzu. The village clan came to the realization that there was force in numbers and that the silence of decades had been breached: to extort one citizen was to extort all. Since 1990, no member of the Tortorici anti-racket association who denounced the pizzu has suffered a clan reprisal.

     The extortion rackets in metro Naples are most obvious at the periphery. One such quarter is San Giovanni a Teduccio, with 23,000 inhabitants, many low-income, under the tight control of various clans, which are often in fierce competition with one another as clan boundaries shifted. "When I arrived in San Giovanni in 1984," one priest noted," it was called the ‘Wild West.’ Shootings were commonplace. I celebrated dozens of funerals in the 1980s of murder victims. By tradition, the shooter would attend the funeral and the clan capo would pay for a corona of the most beautiful flowers. To raise babies in these hellish slums is to ultimately assign them to the criminal life. In 2002, the store owned by the Fucito family was set ablaze because the Fucitos refused to pay. Other incidents drove us to found the Anti-racket Association of San Giovanni in 2004."

     Silvana Fucito became the president of the association. Her story is an example of the honest merchant who becomes fed up with the degradation and hopelessness in the face of persistent criminality that surrounded the family and her husband’s business.

     "With my husband," Silvana Fucito recounts, "we operated a wholesale and retail paint store. The family had the business for thirty years and little by little with expansion we had ten employees. The camorra began to take an interest in us during the past two years because we were profitable. In San Giovanni there are four or five clans that control the territory. They come together at times—they make war at times. We kept a low profile. And then the day came when representatives of the clans presented themselves. They did not ask for money outright, but did help themselves to some merchandize. We let it go—the price of doing business—thinking that that would be all. We were fooling ourselves because to take without paying is a form of the pizzo. What we were witnessing was two clans fighting over their claim to us because we were located near the clan street boundaries.

     "Young toughs would come in, arrogant, arrogant men, camorristi swaggerers, the dregs of society. They would burst in with pistols at the ready, taking away more and more. Then they wanted us to cash checks of dubious authenticity. They manhandled my husband. And then the requests for money, unrealistically huge amounts, which we could not possibly satisfy. I was in a rage and my husband cautioned me to remain calm. But I could not do that. I confronted them face-to-face. I could not accept that such degenerate lowlifes could ruin a business that we had sweated for years to create.

     "One day I went to their house and told them straight off that they were ruining us, we could not sustain such loses. They derided me, laughed with scorn, saying that perhaps they could float me a loan."

     In September 2002 the apartment building housing the paint store was torched. "We lost everything—our investments, our goods. One hundred people lived in the apartments above. Those mafiosi put at risk the lives of the elderly and the babies. If a mother had not been awake that night feeding her infant it would have been a disaster. Tenants had to flee to the roof to escape the flames and were rescued by helicopter."

     The neighbors’ reaction to the disaster that had befallen the Fucitos was anything but supportive. In fact it was downright critical, prompted perhaps by a touch of envy at the Fucitos’ prosperity. Silvana Fucito had this to say: "Did they stand with us? To the contrary. Some insinuated that we had set the blaze in order to get the insurance money. And us with no insurance! Others speculated whether it was the work of an imaginary lover my husband had on the side. The feeling was that we should have paid the price rather than being so stubborn. Now look at the result, they said."

     But not all in the community were of that opinion. Many rallied around the founding of the Anti-racket Association of San Giovanni and the Fucito family. As opposed to a year ago, today the merchants who refuse to pay the pizzo know they have an organization that will support them. If the authorities do not have the ability to protect the community, then those who live under the heel of the clans must take action. They have come to realize that the pizzo is not some kind of divine right to those who demand it. "People who pay the pizzo are a people without dignity."


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