Corruption, Migration, and the Changing Face of the Mafia in Sicily

Sarah Meo is a Program Coordinator at the SHC Italy Center. Sarah attended the Italy Center in the Spring of 2015 and is a graduate of the College of New Jersey.  She spent the past year studying the Sicilian Mafia through a Fulbright scholarship. Through the sponsorship of Fondazione Giovanni e Francesca Falcone, based in Palermo, Sarah was given a front row seat to see what the Mafia looks like today.

 

 For ten months I researched the relationship between Cosa Nostra (the Mafia in Sicily) and migration in southern Italy, with subtopics of my research including labor exploitation of migrants, governmental corruption, human trafficking, and grass-roots Mafia resistance. 

I came to Palermo expecting to find obvious examples of fear and intimidation throughout the city. Instead, I found countless streets, piazzas and murals dedicated to anti-Mafia heroes such as Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. Storefronts proudly displayed the orange “X” insignia of the organization “Addiopizzo”, signifying that the owners of the store would not pay the “pizzo” (protection money to the Mafia). On Via Vittorio Emanuele, one of the city’s main crossroads, there was even a joint museum/research center being built in the memory of Giuseppe “Peppino” Impastato, a young anti-Mafia activist who was assassinated in 1978. Rather than a city living in fear of the word “Mafia”, I found a city that was embracing its past through immortalizing the men and women who gave their lives to fight organized crime.

These initiatives were exciting and inspiring, but in no way did they signify an end to Mafia control in Sicily (or, for that matter, the rest of Italy). Rather, it was in rural Sicily that I saw the living evidence of Cosa Nostra’s current strategy: the exploitation of migrant labor, and the regulated corruption connected to the processing of migrants. 

Over the century and a half of its existence, the Italian Mafia has proven itself to be an intelligent and adaptable organization. In Sicily specifically, the changing weaknesses of the island over the years have consistently been transformed into tools and lucrative endeavors for the Mafia. In the 1800s these weaknesses included a lack of governmental presence after the Unification of Italy; in the present day they include local corruption, lack of oversight for migrant reception, and poorly enforced labor laws. Designated Centri di Accoglienza, or “Welcome Centers” for “clandestini” (undocumented migrants), have been overfilled by the hundreds (to thousands) with government funding seeping through the cracks at a rapid pace. Seasonal migrant day laborers work under inhumane conditions, sometimes being paid just a few euros per day and working 15 hour shifts. I came to Sicily understanding these general concepts, but it was not until I actually met with the community organizers and activists working in Sicily that I could begin to paint a detailed picture of exactly what this corruption looks like. 

Several moments throughout the year remain particularly poignant in my memory. One turning point in my research was an interview I conducted with a local photojournalist, Francesco Bellina. Mr. Bellina has been using his work to tell the stories of migrants in Sicily for nearly a decade, having traveled through Africa himself and having spent years documenting stories from laborers in his home province of Trapani. His work spans from the stories of young sex workers to low level drug dealers working in Palermo’s Ballaro market. His stories are not circulated in any traditional anti-Mafia publication or magazine, and yet he is publicizing the stories of some of the truest victims of Mafia corruption. Towards the end of my time in Palermo I had the pleasure of spending a few days with the Spring Hill Italy Center summer students on their Sicily trip, and Mr. Bellina was kind enough to share his stories with the group. I could not be more grateful to those such as Mr. Bellina, who spent the time to share their work and speak with me.

I cannot thank my sponsors enough for the opportunity to see the anti-Mafia movement at work, and for the opportunity to play a small part in the greater understanding of the Mafia on an international level. This year I am continuing my work by researching anti-Mafia and anti-corruption organizations in Bologna, and by leading workshops for Spring Hill students to explore and investigate their own research opportunities. I look forward to visiting Palermo someday soon, and hopefully producing some useful work against organized crime in the future.