PIZZO CALABRO, Italy (Reuters) - Sometimes Filippo Callipo, one of southern Italy’s most successful businessmen, wonders why he is still alive.
Callipo’s refusal to play ball with the mob in an area where organised crime forces many businesses to pay extortion money and even dictates which suppliers companies must use has made him somewhat of a local legend.
But it also means he makes the sign of the cross when he leaves home. It is a silent prayer that he will return each day from overseeing four businesses that provide 350 jobs in a region that has one of Italy’s highest unemployment rates.
“Sure I‘m afraid. Only an imbecile wouldn’t be,” said Callipo, who drives his own car and has no bodyguards. “But I am a fatalist. If they want to get you they will. It would be so easy in my case,” he said in the offices of Callipo Tuna.
The company, which had revenues of about 40 million euros in 2010, sells high-quality tuna to supermarkets and up-market, gourmet specialty shops the world over.
He also owns Callipo Gelati, which produces the Pizzo area’s famed ice cream for worldwide export, a 200-bed luxury country resort and health spa overlooking the Mediterranean, and a volleyball team that plays in Italy’s national first division.
Achieving all this would be impressive anywhere in Italy. Achieving it in an economically depressed region like Calabria, home of one of the world’s most feared and powerful organised crime groups, the ‘Ndrangheta, is perhaps unique.
Investigators say the highly secretive Calabrian crime syndicate has overtaken Sicily’s Mafia to dominate drug trafficking and extortion rackets in Europe and beyond.
Five years ago, when he was regional president of the influential national industrialists’ group Confindustria, the ‘Ndrangheta fired shots at the tuna plant.
The shooting may have been a response to Callipo’s bold public appeal to Italy’s president to send the army down to Calabria so police could concentrate on fighting organised crime, which he said was suffocating the region’s businesses.
His response to the intimidation was bold. He started two new ventures -- the ice cream company and the resort, which together created about 100 new jobs.
Calabria is one of Italy’s most backward regions despite its potential in industries such as tourism and shipping.
Unemployment is about 12 percent against a national rate of 7.9 percent, and youth unemployment is 39 percent with peaks of more than 50 percent in parts of the mostly mountainous and coastal region.
“I think that maybe in a strange way the ‘Ndrangheta is more afraid of me than I am of it,” said Callipo, 65, who is known by everyone as “Pippo,” the Italian diminutive for Filippo.
“They are afraid of what I represent and what could happen if they kill me. There would be an uprising in Calabria, jobs would be lost, and maybe then the army would really be sent down here. I don’t think the ‘Ndrangheta wants that,” he said.
Anti-crime magistrate Michele Prestipino, who has appeared at roundtables with Callipo at schools, said honest Calabrians are making a great effort to change things but often feel overwhelmed by the force of organised crime.
“Calabria needs investors and investors don’t invest in an area where there is a strong presence of organised crime,” Prestipino told Reuters.
In a damning assessment of the region, U.S. diplomats said in cables written in 2008 and published by WikiLeaks this year that Calabria would be a “failed state” if it were independent.
“People are afraid. Do you think a businessman wants to pay extortion money to someone he knows can kill him? He pays it because he knows the state is not able protect him,” Callipo said.
Callipo’s tuna company, the flagship firm of the Callipo Group, was founded by his great grandfather in 1913 and in 1926 became the official purveyor of tuna for Italy’s royal family.
To maintain the family tradition of high quality, he chooses suppliers of related products like extra-virgin olive oil and has resisted mob attempts to dictate where he buys ingredients.
During a recent visit by a reporter, Callipo, donning a white smock, walked along the plant’s floor, where workers greeted him with the backslapping familiarity accorded to a member of the family rather than a boss.
The plant processes about 30 tonnes of yellow-fin tuna daily. That day, workers were preparing some 22,000 jars and cans for export to the United States.
The fish, each weighing 20-60 kg (44-132 pounds), goes through phases of cutting, cleaning, slow vapor cooking, packaging and months-long seasoning. Filets of the highest quality are cut and packed by hand into trademark jars.
Callipo says he is proud that the plant is eco-friendly, producing hardly any waste.
The first choice tuna is sold under the Callipo brand at the highest price, the second-choice under another brand, and the leftovers -- bones, guts, tails and fins -- are sold to pet food companies. The plant has its own sewage purification system.
Callipo’s reputation for being clean is such that when the local branch of an industrialists’ group in the regional capital Reggio Calabria was suspended for suspected links to organised crime, he was asked to run it as a commissioner.
“Calabria needs courageous people like him,” said Father Giuseppe Fiorillo, a Roman Catholic priest who is the head of the local branch of the national anti-Mafia group Libera.
“We need more people to help the next generation stay here and not be forced to leave,” Fiorillo said.
Callipo’s efforts to create and keep jobs in the depressed area won him the prestigious honorific title “Knight of Labor” from Italy’s president, but he does not rest on his laurels.
In 2010, he lost a bid for the presidency of the Calabria region. He says he was not driven by political ambition but by a desire to stir up the stagnant waters in his native land.
“At my age, I don’t need to be a politician, but I would team up with the devil if I could bring change to Calabria,” he said.
“The first thing I would have done was ask for protection from the U.S. Marines,” he said, half jokingly. “Then I would have tried to change everything, the whole system.”
Callipo says Calabria suffers from a vicious cycle of organised crime, corrupt or inefficient politicians and resignation by people who think things will never change.
He says the central government in Rome has not done enough to help the region combat organised crime and spur development.
“The only thing that will save this region is lawfulness, meritocracy and an end to a system where you get what you want, what you need, or what you have a right to only because you know someone in a position of power,” he said.
A recent government report said southern Italy seemed headed toward a “demographic tsunami” as the population ages, more young people leave and more companies shut down.
To try to change the local mentality, Callipo founded a group called “Io Resto In Calabria” (I am staying in Calabria).
Describing itself as a “social and political association,” it sponsors round tables and publications and works with young people to discuss ways of bringing about change.
“Young people leave Calabria because they have no faith in this system,” Callipo said as he moved around the tuna plant.
He threw his hands up, shrugged and said: “Look, I can leave, put my money in a bank and live off the interest. But what happens to these poor people if I shut down?”
Editing by Sonya Hepinstall