Saturday, 21 June 2014

Sicily 5 - Corleone

Coppole e Lupare - Flat Caps and Shotguns


If looks could kill, these two would have been spoken for years ago.....


La mafia non esiste!  The writing was scrawled on a wall.  The mafia does not exist!  It was in Trapani, Sicily, in 1989, and although it wasn't new, the sharp ambiguity still stings. The killing of Generale Carlo Alberto dalla Chiesa and his wife and driver in 1982 had opened a new chapter in the history of the Sicilian mafia, in a story that has not yet ended.  At the funeral in Palermo many of the mourners expressed their disdain for the Italian President and other senior statesmen present, by booing and jeering.  It was a turning point.

Secrecy, and lies


According to Norman Lewis, in The Honoured Society, the word mafia probably derives from the identical word in Arabic and means place of refuge.  In the 21st century, however, it is the word that covers four main criminal organisations defined by their control of territory and their links with uomini dello Stato (politicians).  The four are the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, the Calabrian 'Ndrangheta, the Pugliese Sacra Corona Unita and the Campanian (ie Neapolitan) Camorra.  The name Cosa Nostra did not come to light until in the early 1980s the first of the pentiti mafiosi (supergrasses) Tommaso Buscetta, whose sons had been murdered by rival mafiosi, began to explain the structure and working methods of the organisation.  Having been suppressed by Mussolini, who imprisoned anyone with links, the mafia was given a new lease of life by Eisenhower and the US Administration in the second world war.  Legendary gangster 'Lucky' Luciano negotiated with the freshly released Sicilian bosses and huge amounts of money were imported to secure support for the invaders.  Post war alliances were maintained by the ruling Christian Democrat party, again with US support, partly to avoid any success by the communists.  The late Giulio Andreotti was closely involved in this, and, subsequently, Silvio Berlusconi sought support for his Forza Italia party from the Corleonesi in the 1990s.

Every dog will have its day


In the past, the Sicilian mafia may have had a social purpose, organising and perhaps protecting, the poorest labourers and their families.  However any nobility of purpose died out long ago, as hinted at in Sicily's greatest novel, Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), where Don Calogero Sedàra represents the rising order of mafiosi, distinctly classless but greedy for power, ignorant but astute at the same time.  As Tancredi says: If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change..... and again how neat is that ambiguity? How prescient was Giuseppe di Lampedusa, who wrote his novel in the very restaurant where years later Giulio Andreotti would have dinner with banker Michele Sindona and American mafia boss John Gambino.....?


Anyway, since the film of The Godfather brought the name Corleone to the attention of the worldwide public, intrepid tourists have been making their way there to see for themselves the real Sicily, even though not one scene was filmed anywhere near, as the modern town is not at all photogenic.  I wanted to see it, too, and so, intrigued by its Anti-Mafia Museum and by the Corleone on Tour Association, we set off, navigating through the vile outskirts of Palermo, and heading south on the Agrigento road.

The beautiful snaking ribbon of an empty motorway


I thought we had plenty of time, so we stopped for a coffee at the railway station at Ficuzza, a grand building, surrounded by scrub woodlands and backed by a block of craggy mountains to the south.  This was a station on the Palermo to Corleone line, a station used by the Royal family, who stayed at their palace in the nearby village, in order to shoot anything that moved in the countryside nearby.  Nowadays there is not a rail in sight, nor the toot of a passing train.  The station has become a bar and restaurant, a venue for weddings and celebrations.  Perhaps surprised to have customers on this quiet spring week day, perhaps out of genuine good nature, the barrista would not accept payment for our drinks, and, marvelling at how that would never happen at home, we pressed on for our appointment with the Associazione Corleone on Tour.


I thought we had plenty of time.  In my imagination (not entirely dispelled by research) I saw Corleone as a sleepy, unattractive and empty village, where parking would be easy, and reaching our appointment would be no problem. 

Old Corleone

I was right that the town is not exactly beautiful, but quite wrong in thinking it might be empty, or small, so finding a parking place, let alone our appointment, was a mission.  I had to drive round the town twice and then give up and park on the periphery, which meant a long hot dry and dusty walk to meet our guides for the TOUR MAFIA ANTIMAFIA.  We were late, but they had waited, slightly anxiously, with another couple itching to get going.

Our Guides

Thanks to The Godfather, everyone knows of Corleone.  However, what is not so well known is that Corleone really has a sinister and violent history of involvement with the mafia, and it was the home town of a number of convicted members of mafia families in recent times, including Salvatore Totò Riina and Bernardo Provenzano, who were the most powerful men in Cosa Nostra at the end of the twentieth century.  Riina was caught, where he lived untouched (for twenty years) in the centre of Palermo, in 1993, after a career of drug trafficking, crooked building contracts, and murder; Provenzano, nicknamed 'The Tractor' because of his imperturbable methods of killing, was eventually caught in 2006, in a house just outside Corleone, despite his lawyer's claim that he had died years previously.

The house where Bernardo Provenzano was found

Both these men are now serving multiple life sentences. Riina, who famously arranged mangiate (celebratory meals) for his victims - usually other mafiosi he had taken a dislike to - before strangling them, was the boss who ordered the deaths of the investigating magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. Provenzano, who took over from Riina, posed more as a sympathetic, business-orientated and religiously minded leader, but he was not soft-hearted, allegedly having murdered the doctor who treated him for prostate cancer, to avoid adverse publicity.



Our tour of the town includes paying respect to Bernardino Verro, leader of the socialist peasant cooperative in the early years of the 20th century.  In 1915 he was shot dead with five bullets to the body and five to the head, and his corpse was left in the street as a warning to others.  



We also pause by a bust of Placido Rizzotto, a veteran of wartime resistance and a trade union activist; he was taken out of the town and shot in the head by Luciano Leggio (also known as Liggio) on March 10th 1948.  His body was disposed of in a deep ravine in the mountains between Corleone and Ficuzza, and lay there, mutilated and chained, for two years before being discovered.  It was not until May 24th, 2012, however, that he was given a proper burial with state honours.  In the meantime Leggio had taken under his wing the young  Totò Riina, and Bernardo Provenzano.

Placido Rizzotto

Further up the hill, in the old town, we are shown the Laboratorio della Legalita, which includes a shop selling produce from lands reclaimed from Cosa Nostra (Riina's estate was said to be worth £125 million).  The building belonged to Provenzano, as one of many that he owned in the area, and also on display are paintings depicting various infamous mafia crimes, including the kidnapping of J Paul Getty Junior, and the assassinations of dalla Chiesa, Falcone, and Borsellino, to whom the collection is dedicated. 

   Mafia - your silence kills as well

What came next was not what I expected.  We walked out of the village, and entered a small park - Il Parco Fluviale delle due Rocche (The River Park of the two Rocks [castles] - as the notice says, surprisingly, in English) and we are taken to admire a fine waterfall surrounded by wild Sicilian limestone country.  The notice board tells us to expect a run among the wonder of mother nature and the manufactured articles of the civilisations of the past.....  and my admiration of the Corleonesi begins to grow.  Not only are we being shown the horrors of the town's indelible association with the past, but they are also proudly showing us the positive side of life.  In respect for the illustrious corpses of dead heroes, the Corleonesi are living up to Giovanni Falcone's sentence: He who is silent and bows his head dies every time he does so. He who speaks aloud and walks with his head held high dies only once.  Corleone may be a typical southern town, a little scruffy perhaps, but it is not going to lie down and be killed by Cosa Nostra, and it is going to show itself off in as much glory as it can muster.


Not far from the waterfall we enter the church of  the Monastero del SS Salvatore, which dates from the 13th century.  It is wonderfully light inside with a marble altar and eighteenth century frescoes.  Having been damaged by a bomb in the second world war it is still undergoing reconstruction, but the remains of the cloister and the garden outside are cool and quiet. 


The town below is a patchwork of red roofs and concrete; the river is channelled between steep walls, and the streets are filled with cars, but our guides chatter on about holidays and festivals, and their infectious smiles aren't false.  Unemployment is high, as it is everywhere in the south, and for some there may still be an attraction to criminal activity, but the will to overcome tendencies to tacitly support the mafia is very clear.  At number 7, Via Orfanotrofio, is the home of C.I.D.M.A. (Centro Internazionale di Documentazione sulle Mafie e del Movimento Antimafia) which holds the archives of the maxi-trial of mafiosi that took place in Palermo between February 10th, 1986 and December 16th, 1987.  With the help of revelations by Tommaso Buscetta, Magistrates Falcone and Borsellino brought charges against 475 presumed mafiosi.  At the end of the trial 114 cases were dismissed, but a total of 19 life sentences, 2665 years of prison and 11 and a half thousand million lire of fines were imposed on the rest, some of them, including Riina and Provenzano, in absentia.  The centre also has a permanent exhibition of photographs of mafia-related deaths by Letizia Battaglia (who this year had a show at Liverpool's Open Eye Gallery) and a room dedicated to Generale Carlo Alberto dalla Chiesa.  The centre's objectives are to promote Culture, Progress and Legality, and to show visitors that Corleone is no longer a town of Coppole e Lupare (Flat Caps and Shotguns).

Corleone today

Since the eventual arrests of Riina and Provenzano Cosa Nostra has been relatively quiet, though the traditional activities of extortion (the pizzo) and drug trafficking continue without much change.  But despite the graffiti the mafia does still exist.  The 'Ndrangheta and the Camorra make more headlines than Cosa Nostra, but Sicily has not been purged and the anti-mafia movement needs support and publicity.  Only last August, Totò Riina's daughter, Lucia, defended her father and praised him as a devout catholic.  Then, last December, Riina himself was recorded in Milan's Opera prison vowing mafia vengeance against Palermo prosecutor Nino Di Matteo and his colleagues; issuing a death threat, as a good catholic would.

Just outside Corleone

Before disappearing into a witness protection scheme, and then dying in America, Tommaso Buscetta reportedly accused Totò Riina of ruining Cosa Nostra.  It is no longer Our Thing, he said;  it is now Their Thing (Cosa Loro).  And other voices repeat this; northern Italians say it is a thing of the south, not our business.  While the opinion is understandable, it is much mistaken.  Organised crime, especially that which infiltrates politics, is an offence to democracy.  Even today the details of the who arranged the assassination of Falcone, his wife and escort are still unclear and the probability that the state was involved cannot be ruled out.  Even though Andreotti is dead, and Berlusconi (perhaps) finished, the doubt about state complicity casts a shadow over all of us, and not just in Italy.  How close were the ties between Blair, Bush and Berlusconi?  As Paolo Borsellino said at the funeral of his friend Giovanni Falcone, just two months before his own death, La lotta alla mafia.... non doveva essere soltanto una distaccata opera di repressione, ma un movimento culturale e morale che coinvolgesse tutti e specialmente le giovani generazioni..... [The struggle with the mafia.... should not be just a cold repressive act, but a cultural and moral movement which involves everyone, most especially the young.....]

The Politics of Waste.  Paradise Lost

Corleone may not be the most attractive spot in Sicily, and perhaps making the trip might call for specialist interest, but it is a place that stands for resistance to stereotype, and integrity of purpose, and for that alone, it is worth the visit.  It is to be hoped that one day the graffiti La mafia non esiste!  will be scrawled across walls without any ambiguity.....

I have a confession to make.....



Totò Riina

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