Migrant merchants in Palermo decided to fight back against blackmailing mafia structures. At the same time, Italian businessmen, who also suffer from the mafia, are in no hurry to support immigrants from abroad. There was a time when Ruben had to keep the door of his store constantly closed even during working hours. Ruben is from Bangladesh. In 2002, in the Sicilian Palermo, on crowded Via Makeda, he opened a money transfer office abroad. In shops on Via Makeda, amidst dilapidated facades and old palazzos, you can buy anything from souvenirs to Indian saris and North African spices. It was here that several shopkeepers – ten immigrants from Bangladesh and one from Tunisia – wanted to change the routine of things. They decided to no longer tolerate unrequited street crime and extortion.
With the support of the local Addio Pizzo group (translated from Italian as “Farewell to Blackmail”), which is fighting crime, shopkeepers turned to the police. In May 2016, this led to the detention of nine people who were brought to trial on charges of extortion, robbery, arson and mutilation.
Migrant merchants against Sicilian racketeers
After these delays, Ruben says, his customers no longer had to press the call button to enter the store. “There used to be cases of armed robbery on this street,” he tells a DW correspondent. The robbers tried in every possible way to get to the money. “Sometimes I was forced to pay, only to be able to continue working,” says Ruben. According to him, racketeers usually demanded from 40 to 50 euros weekly.
In 2015, Ruben’s situation worsened. “After they tried to rob me, I began to keep the door closed. Many times they wanted to break into my store. And they were constantly on duty outside, eight to ten people, day and night, ”recalls a native of Bangladesh. But now the door of his store is always open during business hours.
The turning point was the incident in April 2016, when one of the criminals, Emmanuel Rubino, who terrorized the entire quarter, shot the young Gambian Yusuf Susso in broad daylight. By a miracle, Susso survived. The incident provoked protests, and they eventually led to the arrest of mafiosi. Rubino was tried and sentenced to 12 years in prison. At the same time, five of his accomplices were acquitted in the case of extortion, and another is under house arrest. In the near future, the process will continue.
Mayor of Palermo: Mafia weakened
This is the first time that such a number of small businessmen of foreign origin jointly sue someone, states Daniele Marannano of Addio Pizzo. “We always called for joint reporting of incidents, because the more applicants, the less risk,” the activist adds. The Ballaro district with narrow streets and small shops has long been a stronghold of the Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian mafia. However, now the situation has changed.
The old order, when one of the mafia’s bosses could transfer areas to their subordinates for “control,” no longer exists, says mayor of Palermo in an interview with DW Leoluca Orlando. After the response that the mafia has faced in recent years, this criminal structure has become more “horizontal.” “The old system is weakened now,” Orlando points out.
According to the report of the Transcrime research center on international crime in 2013, the Sicilian mafia, through its illegal actions, received about half of what the Camorra, the Neapolitan mafia, “earned”. But in recent years, influential new players have come to the fore – such as the Black Ax criminal group Nigerian. 14 of its members over the past months have been convicted of involvement in mafia structures. This was the first time that Italian justice issued a similar verdict against a foreign criminal organization.
Italian businessmen do not rush to contact the police
“I used to keep as much cash at the box office as I could. Now I don’t need to be afraid anymore, ”says Faisal, who showed me not to give his real name, showing a bundle of notes. It serves one of the supermarkets on Via Makeda. Faisal is one of those who reported to the police on Rubino’s gang.
And although many of the injured businessmen from Via Makeda came from abroad, there are locals among the victims of the mafia. However, none of them signed a joint statement to the police from the owners of the stores. Many of them are still buying off the mafia, the representative of Addio Pizzo notes.
The organization since 2004, from the moment of its foundation, primarily tries to convince people of the need to speak out loud about the fraud of the mafia. “Now it has become easier to speak out, but, given the scale of the problem, very few have yet to be resolved,” Marannano admits.
Addio Pizzo not only helps merchants who are victims of racketeers and are ready to contact the police. The organization also created a network that included about a thousand stores wishing to resist extortion. In particular, the protesters in prominent places pasted stickers with the Addio Pizzo logo at the entrance to their establishments. Now, choosing a store for shopping, residents can support the fight against crime.
“The work of the police is very important, but until consciousness changes, such things (cases of extortion. – Ed.) Will happen again and again. As long as there is a businessman ready to pay, there will be someone who takes advantage of it, ”Marannano summarizes.