Feature Articles

June 2009
Extortion Sicilian Style

      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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     The Italian term "pizzo" signifies a form of extortion. A typical practice is to demand a percentage of earnings or a fixed monthly rate from businesses and entrepreneurs in exchange for "protection." Failure to pay (for the illusion of insurance) can result in intimidation, physical and economic threats to the business, persons or family, even murder. Non-compliance appears to be rare. The mafia tax is often seen by the exploited as traditional, and one of the costs of doing business. Publicity, arrests and convictions have apparently not lessened the problem.

     The pizzo represents an estimated sixteen percent of mafia illegal profits and functioned from the beginning the means by which it secured an uninterrupted flow of cash for daily needs. By extorting citizens, the clan affirms its control over its "mandamento" (territory) by assuming a function properly belonging to the state. According to recent surveys, a majority of commercial enterprises in Palermo submit to the pizzo. By diverting millions of euros from the legitimate economy, the result is a dampening effect on economic growth by lowering business profits, increasing prices and hindering investments.

     Many of those who are being extorted would rather not make a fuss. Take the case of Antonino Madonia, capo of the Resuttana-San Lorenzo clan. A raid on his house, in 1989, uncovered a listing of names and pizzo payments by eighty-one stores, markets and restaurants. Every month Madonia took in 180 million lire in cash, averaging about $500 per victim. Not one of the extorted would admit in court to paying mafia tribute. They preferred, rather, to risk a criminal charge of false testimony than to suffer the wrath of retaliation.

     When capos Salvatore and Sandro Lo Piccolo were arrested in November of 2007, similar accounting ledgers were found, which listed names and sums paid, monthly or periodically. The neatly-detailed bookkeeping confirmed to the authorities the extent to which Palermo businesses large and small were under the grip of a very vigorous extortion racket. This confirmation could hardly have come as a surprise. Corruption in its myriad forms is a quotidian Sicilian experience, one might say institutionalized, as has a resignation to the status quo.

     The mob forever thinks in terms of new scams. There is a new game in town. Some extortion schemes are out of the ordinary or respond to changing circumstances. The Lo Piccolo clan attempted (and failed) to impose its will on the inhabitants of a working-class housing project. The clan threatened to cut water and electric services if the occupants did not deliver a monthly sum to the boss. The anti-mafia popular reform movement Addiopizzo (Goodbye to the Pizzo) has had increasing success in calling attention to the necessity of standing up to extortionists: "If you don't collaborate, the mafia is finished."

     The Madonia family has survived despite many arrests and incarcerations over the years. The authorities noted that the imprisoned Giuseppe 'Piddu' Madonia continued to direct his men from his cell. Through his wife and sister, Piddu continued to oversee such decisions as investment strategies of illicit monies as well as maintaining communications with supporting politicians who were on the take.

     The Atlantide-Mercurio investigations, completed in early 2009, documented an operating system of extortions, a few extending beyond the clan's mandamento. "The economy is infested with the mafia," the report concludes. (This infestation included the accusation that the president of Caltanissetta province, Giuseppe Federico, ask for and obtained the support of the "Madonia mafiosa cosca" during the 2006 regional elections. The link between the political sector and the mob was a jeweler from Gela. Piddu's sister, Maria Stella Madonia, notified the clan to get the vote out for Federico. For each vote the clan charged 50 euros.)

     The duration and extent of the extortion rackets have remained a "cancer" on Sicilian society. The solution to this "plague" is far from clear, authorities have admitted, because the scope and effectiveness of the pizzo phenomenon goes deep into the very fabric and culture of the society.

     Extortion payments amount to 1.3 percent of the island's gross economic product, a drain on living standards of approximately a billion euros. There are on average 1300 such crimes each day. The pizzo is mainly an urban dilemma, mostly seen in the two major cities, Palermo and Catania.

     The extortionists are careful not to drive the businessman to bankruptcy. Too much greed provokes a tougher police stance and more visible public outrage. Better a steady stream of income than overworking the cash cow that delivers the milk. Gouging the victims is not good business practice. One needed to negotiate in a manner that was not abusive and allow proprietors to come to an agreement without losing their dignity or driving them to ruin. Top boss Bernardo Provenzano, who was considered one of the shrewder mafiosi,  cautioned his minions to thread softly, to adjust the tap accordingly, recommending "Pagare poco, ma pagare tutti": "Modest payments, but timely payments for everyone."

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