Although their presence is practically invisible to tourists, the Mafia is very much a reality for the residents of Palermo. One of the most tangible nuisances is the pizzo: the “protection fee” that Sicilian business owners are compelled to pay to the Cosa Nostra.
The pizzo is no joke: an estimated 80% of Palermo businesses pony up. Across Southern Italy, the Mafia is thought to earn around €20 billion a year in extortions. The pizzo rates start at a few hundred euros a month for small neighborhood shops, and into the thousands for larger construction firms. Sometimes, companies will be compelled to put a clan member on the payroll, or award contracts to specific firms.
Those who don’t pay are taking a big risk. Arson, harassment and even murder can be the penalty. In 1990, a Palermo businessman named Libero Grassi published an open letter in the Giornale di Sicilia denouncing the extortionists and publicly refusing to pay the pizzo. Less than a year later, he was gunned down, three bullets in the head. Since his murder, Grassi has become something of a folk hero, but while alive he was shunned by many other business owners and customers fearful of reprise.
The problem is that the Mafia means business and everyone knows it. Theirs are not hollow threats, and that makes the work of an organization called Addiopizzo all the more impressive. With a slogan that reads “A whole people who pays the pizzo is a people without dignity”, Addiopizzo encourages people to shop only at pizzo-free businesses. The grassroots movement started in 2004, after a group of friends who planned on opening a pizzería were angered by the realization they’d have to pay the Mafia. Their frustration manifested itself in stickers placed around the city denouncing the pizzo, and the movement quickly found a foothold among a fed-up populace.
With the special protection of police and virulent public support, a growing number of Palermo shops are operating with no Mafia influence. There’s even a supermarket across the street from our apartment with the provocative name “Punto Pizzofree”. (Though the store right next to it, I kid you not, is called “Don Corleone”).
Addiopizzo is an initiative that deserves the recognition, support and dollars of anyone who visits Palermo. Of course, nobody wants to pay the pizzo, but those who refuse to do so should be rewarded for their courage.
Addiopizzo – Website (English)
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