Paradise Looted How Sicily Became Ungovernable

Italy's poorest region, Sicily, is the country's problem child. Now it has elected a new government. To fix the island, it will have to overcome corruption and widespread Mafia control - and figure out how to convince its population not to leave.

Paolo Marchetti / DER SPIEGEL

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This land, a place where lemon trees bloom four times a year, is blessed with abundance -- of sunshine, world cultural heritage sites, Greek temples, Byzantine frescoes, Arab art, sandy beaches and Michelin stars.

Sicily, a slice of paradise.

But then come the statistics. More than one in five members of the working-age population is unemployed, and almost half of all island residents are either poor or at risk of poverty. Sicily seems wealthy, and yet is falling further and further behind, not just in comparison with industrialized northern Italy, but with the rest of the Mezzogiorno. The partially autonomous island, which was part of the "Magna Grecia" in ancient times, is now viewed as "Italy's Greece," the nation's problem child.

Sicilians voted for a new regional government on Sunday Nov. 5, handing the victory to center-right candidate Nello Musumeci, who was backed by a coalition of three parties, including former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia. The anti-establishment Five-Star Movement came second, while the center-left Democratic Party, the party of former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, came in third - a bad omen for its results in next spring's national elections.

But according to writer Pietrangelo Buttafuoco, it doesn't matter who manages Sicily's misery in the future. Buttafuoco claims the region, "with its budget deficit, high unemployment, exodus of young people and value creation lower than in the post-war period, not to mention corruption, crime and hunger," is no longer governable. "It has to go into forced administration."

And indeed, anyone who visits Sicily these days can see that Palermo's splendid palaces barely conceal bitter poverty elsewhere in the city, or notice the slums of corrugated-metal huts in Messina and the dying cities in the interior. On the island, the main causes of a crisis that has gripped large parts of Italy are magnified.

In the Land of the Mafia

Sicily is Mafia country, and no one is more aware of this than Nino Di Matteo. The 56-year-old public prosecutor is Italy's most endangered man. Because the Cosa Nostra wants to see him dead, Di Matteo has had around-the-clock protection for the last 23 years, with 42 officers working in shifts to provide his security in Palermo. With submachine guns over their shoulders, they follow Di Matteo wherever he goes. He also has bodyguards in Rome, where he was transferred in the summer, but he still spends his weekends in Sicily. And more importantly, he remains the prosecutor in a trial here intended to clarify the extent to which the government accommodated members of the Mafia in the 1990s, a case to which he is especially devoted.

This afternoon he is traveling in a convoy on his way to Palermo. An advance guard checks the scheduled route, to be followed a few minutes later by three Jeeps and Di Matteo's armored limousine. The car has a feature usually seen only in war-torn regions: a jamming transmitter to prevent remote-controlled detonations. Top Mafia leaders have supposedly taken out several contracts to kill the prosecutor. According to wiretapped conversations, they want to see him slaughtered "like tuna" and "taken around the corner." Some 150 kilograms of explosives have reportedly been delivered to Palermo already.

"I have been deprived of all freedom in my life," says the prosecutor, after reaching his office in the palace of justice. "I have to notify my escort before I open the door of my house in the morning. I feel as if I can't breathe. I would so much like to take a walk alone." He lives like a hardened criminal with a bounty on his head.

Although the days when blood-soaked bodies lay in the streets of Palermo are gone, the fight against the Mafia is far from won. The Sicilian Cosa Nostra is merely pursuing a different strategy. Instead of fighting the government with weapons, it is infiltrating it. As it invests money in the legitimate economy, it makes greater inroads into society.

"The Mafia has its roots here in the south, but it is eating its fill in the north," says Leoluca Orlando. The large man, a lawyer who is now mayor of Palermo, was in the same position in the 1980s as Di Matteo is today: at the top of the Cosa Nostra's hit list. It's been 32 years since he was first elected mayor of the city, but Orlando is still fighting for a different Palermo - for transparency, public spirit and resistance to organized crime. He had a banner attached to the city hall that, to this day, reads: "Palermo Supports Di Matteo." It's a courageous move in a city where keeping quiet improves one's chances of survival.

The Sicilian metropolis is "a Middle Eastern city on European soil, more Tripoli than Frankfurt," says Orlando, sitting in his office. But the mayor, who studied in Heidelberg and has lived in Paris, wants to change that. He ran for reelection in the summer with that goal - and won. He wants Palermo to become "an island on the island," an exception to the Sicilian rule calling as few changes as possible, says Orlando. "This is our only chance to survive."

The combined revenues of all Italian Mafia organizations are estimated at about a tenth of the country's gross domestic product. Now that prostitution and the drug trade are also counted as part of GDP, the Mafia's share is likely to be even bigger. Organized crime is more entrenched than ever in society and the local economy. The Cosa Nostra even makes money on the rental cars used by crews shooting films about the Mafia in Sicily, as well as the sandwiches the film workers eat.

"I see the Mafia as Italy's cardinal problem, even without the bodies," says prosecutor Di Matteo. "The expansion of their methods and money into the legal economy harms our democracy."

The prosecutor witnesses this outside his own front door in downtown Palermo, where his house is as heavily protected as a foreign embassy in terror-ravaged cities like Baghdad or Kabul. Di Matteo's neighborhood belongs to the territory of a Mafia family that smoothly communicates its demands for protection money known to business owners, with the following message: "If it suits you, at Easter or Christmas, I will send someone to visit you and you, within your means, may make him a small gift."

For a bar owner in Di Matteo's neighborhood, this "gift" amounts to a 6,000-euro (6,960-dollar) reduction in annual profits. Many businesses are no longer able to pay the protection money, some are now unwilling to do so. Stickers from the Addiopizzo organization are now displayed in more than 1,000 shop windows in and around Palermo. The organization encourages consumers to shop in businesses that refuse to pay the "pizzo," or protection money.

The struggle against organized crime in Sicily invokes some important role models. May marked the 25th anniversary of the deadly bombing attack on public prosecutor Giovanni Falcone. Falcone and his colleague Paolo Borsellino, who was later murdered, and at whose coffin Di Matteo held a vigil, pushed ahead with trials that eventually brought hundreds of Mafia bosses a combined 2,665 years in prison.

Since 2013, Di Matteo has been fighting the battle of his life in the same "bunker" where the trials were then held under the tightest possible security. He and his colleagues are prosecuting a spectacular case in which the Italian government is essentially taking itself to court. The goal is to prove that, starting in 1992, politicians and civil servants made concessions to the Mafia in an effort to put an end to the bloodshed.

In other words, that the proud Repubblica Italiana gave in to mass murderers.

Di Matteo is convinced that there was an agreement between Mafia bosses like Totò Riina and government representatives, and that this original sin of the republic should be atoned for. "If politicians and members of the police or intelligence services served as go-betweens to the Mafia and passed on their extortion attempts," he says, the public, and particularly the family members of those who were murdered, have a right to learn the truth.

Di Matteo, a hero and source of hope for many Sicilians, is clearly an irritation to those in power. Sometimes, when the surveillance cameras are switched off, unwanted mail is delivered directly to his desk, including "threatening letters intended to show that they know exactly where I am."

Di Matteo's home address in Palermo, where he is protected by 42 bodyguards, is in the phone book. No one felt it necessary to delete the entry.

Imperative Emigration

Sicily is a land of emigrants. The island has the highest emigration rate in Italy, with one in seven Sicilians now living abroad. Agrigent Province is the most strongly affected. It is home to the Valley of Temples, a site near the sea with 2,500-year-old sanctuaries from the Greek period, one of five UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sicily.

But business from foreign tourists has recently declined by more than a third. Sicily is a jewel that needs to be dusted off, says Giuseppe Parello, director of the archeology park in the Valley of Temples. In 2016, he had a Google Camp built at the base of the Concordia Temple, a luxury workshop for business executives and guests like the queen of Jordan and actress Angelina Jolie.

As he stands there and talks about his plans, an elegant man standing among the ruins of a monumental Doric temple, Parello offers an unusually large number of ideas by Sicilian standards. "In an industrial desert like Sicily, we need to give young people the opportunities to stay here," he says. "We Sicilians are very attached to our soil."

But with youth unemployment on the island at 57 percent, something has to happen. Since assuming his position, Parello has doubled the park's revenues and generated new income by selling local products like wine, olives and almonds. According to the director, the "fast-food tourism" that has afflicted Sicily until now merely dooms the island's world heritage sites to remain what they are today: "Cathedrals in the desert."

With those words, he gets into his car and drives into the industrial wasteland outside Agrigent, a landscape of warehouses and abandoned factories, practically devoid of people. After 15 kilometers, Parello stops the car in Aragona, where he lives.

Aragona, formerly a city of sulfur workers, has been more severely affected by emigration than any other city in Italy. Of the official population of 17,954, about half now live abroad. Guest workers used to send home money to add additional floors to their homes, but many of those buildings are now fully or partially empty. In good times, residents built their homes with one floor per child. But the children are no longer returning to Aragona. Sicily has little to offer them. Today the ground floors of houses are occupied by old people, with pigeons on the upper floors.

The city has a middle school, three pharmacies and a handful of bars, and one restaurant on Via Roma. Dozens of refugees from sub-Saharan Africa are housed in the old palace of the Duke of Naselli on the piazza.

Nino Seviroli serves as the memory of this dying city. The singer, actor, anarchist and philanthropist is the city's librarian. His songs are about the history of Aragona. It is sad when someone has no choice but to emigrate, but not every change is a loss, says Seviroli, as he drives his Fiat toward the rust-colored slag heaps of the sulfur mines, empty furnaces and blasting towers high above the city.

When the last mines were closed in the 1960s and the miners moved on to the coal fields of northern Europe, Seviroli took his guitar and left, too. He made music with Jacques Brel in Belgium, acted under the direction of Andrea Camilleri in Rome and got to know another part of the world. Since then, he has been more critical than ever of the slow pace of change in Sicily.

"We have sulfur mines, conservation areas, Nobel laureates and Greek temples. We have something to show for ourselves, and yet what happens? Practically nothing," says Seviroli. "This city will cease to exist, because for anyone with any skills at all, emigrating is not a choice but an imperative."

Paradise Looted

Sicily may be the land of the Mafia and emigration, but it's also a land of milk and honey. At least for politicians like Francantonio Genovese, nicknamed the "King of Messina." In January, he was sentenced to 11 years in prison for forming a criminal organization, money laundering and fraud. Genovese, together with his wife, brother-in-law and sister-in-law, allegedly collected millions in EU funds earmarked for vocational training programs. The indictment mentions "completely fabricated services and overinflated invoices," as well as an unprecedented lack of remorse. "They considered themselves immune," the prosecutors write.

Genovese's story says a lot about Sicily, and about the ways in which this "paradise" is being looted. It illustrates the impotence of ordinary people, the greed of the political class and the power of dynasties. Genovese's father was a senator and an uncle served eight terms as a cabinet minister in Rome. Genovese himself was a member of the Italian parliament's commission of inquiry into the Mafia. "There is no area, no space, no corner in the administration or in the corridors of power" where the Genoveses did not exert control, the prosecutors write in their indictment.

But Francantonio Genovese isn't locked up in the Gazzi Prison in Messina, where he was confined before his trial. In fact, he is currently standing at the counter of the bar in the Italian parliament, where he has ordered tea, a croissant and a glass of orange juice, sustenance for another day as a representative of the people. Genovese has changed parties seven times and recently left Renzi's Democratic Party to join the Berlusconi camp. He is permitted to occupy seat number 536 at the Palazzo Montecitorio, which houses the Italian chamber of deputies, participate in debates and collect his parliamentary salary until his appeal trial is over. By the time a final judgement is handed down in Italy, corruption offenses have almost always reached the statute of limitations.

It is hard to say if Genovese feels guilty, or plans to give up his seat in parliament. He refuses to answer questions, in person, by telephone or in writing.

The politician is accused of tax evasion to the tune of 16 million euros. Tax evasion is a Sicilian national sport. The tax authorities have amassed 52 billion euros in outstanding tax receivables since 2006, a sum that would cover the island's budget for three years. In a major raid, investigators seized the following luxury vehicles from the tax evaders: 33 Ferraris, 119 Porsches, 49 Jaguars, 17 Maseratis, 2 Rolls-Royces, 3 Cadillacs, 4 Hummers - and one private jet.

In addition to lacking revenues, Sicily also faces inflated government spending. The island spends six times as much on its public servants as the larger and much wealthier Lombardy region. Sicily, which has enjoyed a special status since 1948, receives generous subsidies from Rome and enjoys extensive political, cultural and economic autonomy. This has resulted in a bloated bureaucracy and politicians enjoying generous benefits. After attending only five sessions of the local parliament, a lawmaker in Palermo has already earned the right to a monthly salary of 2,000 euros for the rest of his or her life. Sicily's special status in debt-ridden Italy is a constitutionally watertight encouragement to do nothing.

Politician Genovese, who denies all allegations, is currently facing new charges of having developed a Mafia-like system in his hometown of Messina, where minor public contracts were traded for votes. Three-month contracts were allegedly awarded in exchange for 10 votes for Genovese and his people.

In the Giostra district, where the descendants of victims of a 1908 earthquake live in miserable shacks surrounded by stables and Madonna shrines, the Genovese camp received an above-average share of the vote. According to the prosecution, some voters were "so desperate that a bag of groceries" was enough to buy their vote. In the primary elections for the Democratic Party in 2012, Genovese was the candidate with the highest share of votes in all of Italy. From his luxury beachfront estate north of Messina, the lawmaker enjoys a view of the mainland across the water. A mega project, the 3.3-kilometer "ponte sullo stretto" bridge which would tie eccentric Sicily more closely to the mainland, across straits shrouded in legend since the days of Homer, would extend from the mainland to somewhere near Genovese's estate.

There is talk of 8 billion euros in construction costs and a deeply symbolic bridging of the gap to the "continent," as the Sicilians call it. But the project, a topic of discussion for the last century and a half and approved by the parliament in 1971, is not making any progress. Genovese, the "King of Messina," doesn't mind. His family holding company earns millions from ferry operations across the Strait of Messina. But it would also benefit greatly from a suspension bridge project worth billions.

Arrangements have even been made for the unlikely event that Genovese is sent to prison. On Nov. 5 his 21-year-old son Luigi was elected to the Sicilian parliament, representing the Berlusconi camp. In his first major appearance, the young Genovese said that he was proud of his father, and that he intended to continue in his footsteps.

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