The Mission Impossible Backpack

Sunday, January 25, 2009


Near the start of this episode of the PBS international newsmagazine FRONTLINE/World, Vincenzo Conticello, a restaurant owner in Palermo, Sicily, describes his first run-in with the Mafia: “A man I had never seen before asked to meet with me and said: ‘I’m your tax collector. ... Pay me $800 a month, and you’ll have no more problems.’” Conticello continues: “I looked at him. I felt an intense fear. Still to this day, when I think about it, my heart drops. I lost my breath. The Mafia was right there in front of me.” The surprising tale of what happened next to Conticello would open a new chapter in the region’s long history of Mafia dominance and provide the dramatic spine of a story that would resonate through Italy. “I realized that it wasn't just my personal battle,” Conticello tells FRONTLINE/World. “It was the battle of an entire city.”
In Taking on the Mafia, airing Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2009, at 9:00 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings), FRONTLINE/World producer and reporter Carola Mamberto tells the inside story of how the restaurant owner—backed by an upstart anti-Mafia movement of young people and an elite anti-Mafia law enforcement team—combined for a rare victory in the nation’s uphill battle against mob bosses who have kept the country in their grip for decades.

“The Mafia feeds itself as if it were Dracula, this vampire that bites into people and sucks the economy,” says Lirio Abbate, whose controversial recent exposé on the Mafia led to an attempt on his life. “Shop owners and businessmen are scared, and so they pay and don’t report it. Some are so terrified that they’ll deny it in court, even if they are caught on film.”

To catch mafiosi in the act and to persuade their extortion victims to cooperate, the police have undertaken an extensive surveillance effort. In the case of Conticello’s restaurant, the police cameras rolled as one mobster after another entered the restaurant to get him to pay the extortion which locals call “the pizzo.” “In Palermo, 80 percent of businesses pay the pizzo,” one of Sicily’s top anti-Mafia cops, Jacopo Mannucci, tells FRONTLINE/World. “Even market stands pay protection. They pay $80 to $150. For larger companies, the payments can be thousands of dollars, up to $15,000 per month.”

Paying the pizzo to the Mafia has been a pillar of Mafia power for decades, but after a series of high-profile Mafia murders in Palermo, an anti-Mafia spirit began to grow among the city’s next generation, among them two young people considering opening a pub who instead started a protest movement after they realized they’d be forced to give a larger part of their profits to the mob. “Why [did we decide] to focus on the pizzo rather than drugs, weapons or other shady deals?” Laura Nocilla and Raffaele Genova, the founders of the Goodbye Pizzo movement, tell FRONTLINE/World. “Because we immediately realized that it was the tool for the Mafia to create a culture that accepts their control of the territory. If you take that away, everything else the Mafia does will collapse.”

Ultimately in this story, members of the Goodbye Pizzo movement—young people, shop owners and even some members of the Palermo establishment—pack a Palermo courtroom as the restaurant owner Conticello faces his moment of truth and points a finger at one of the men who had tried to shake him down, leading to some rare Mafia prosecutions. “What I have made is a small opening, a small hole,” Conticello says. “We have to hammer every day so that it becomes bigger, and we can advance in this ongoing war.”

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