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The modern Mafia took root in Sicily in the 1860s, ostensibly to help the rural poor have their share of the land reform and other benefits from unification. In effect, the Mafia became an integral part of the island’s power structure, controlling business and the workings of government. By the 1970s, Sicily had emerged as a strategic centre for drugs, arms and international crime. In the early 1980s, a Mafia war left Palermo’s streets strewn with blood and the Corleone based clan undisputed victors.
In response to charges of governemtn complicity to crachdown on the Mafia was launched. Thousands of suspects were rounded up and an anti-Mafia pool of magistrates was assembled. One “maxi trial” resulted in 18 life sentences. Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, two magistrates, were murdered by the Mafia in 1992. The terror continued in 1993 with bombs in Milan and Rome, and an explosion at Florence’s Uffizi Gallery.
The antrocities weakened the Mafia’s grip on public opinion, its greatest weapon, and dented the age old code of loyalty.
In response to changing circumsyances the Mafia has gone to ground, abandoning high profile terror for money laundering, arms dealing, drug trafficking, protection rackets, embezzlement of EU funds and property speculation. Where once Mafioso activity was seen as revolt against the state, justified by centuries of foreign oppression, today Sicilians are less tolerant of organised crime, particularly the young.
The confiscation of Mafia prperty continues apace, and there’s a genuine gassroots movement calling for change. The Addiopizzo association fights against the payment of pizzo (protection money). Since it was founded in 2004, hundreds of business across Sicily have signed up.
Civic minded Sicilians also support Libera Terra shops and cooperatives, which sell pasta, oil, cheese and wine produced on confiscated Mafia land.
The refusal to support the Mafia in many quarters is just part of sicily’s revamped image. Recent years have seen the resurgence of Palermo, the restoration of Baroque towns, particularly the Unesco listed gems of southeast Sicily, and the creation of nature reserves to protect areas of outstanding beauty. Chic boutique hotels, seductive farm stays and wine estates are also part of the exciting new Sicilian landscape.