PALERMO, Sicily (Reuters) - In a large scale revolt, 36 shopkeepers and businessmen have denounced the mafia and reported extortion rackets in a mob stronghold near the Sicilian capital, leading to the arrest of 21 suspects, police said on Monday.
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi hailed the apparent collapse of the mafia code of silence, or omerta, in the town of Bagheria, where the “boss of bosses” Bernardo Provenzano had spent many years as a fugitive before his eventual capture in 2006.
Police said they issued 22 arrest warrants for mafia chiefs and their henchmen based on information the local businessmen provided. After the arrests, just one suspect was still on the run.
Giuseppe De Riggi, commanding officer of the Carabinieri military police, told Reuters it was unheard of for so many victims to stand up at once to the Sicilian Mafia, known as Cosa Nostra, especially in a traditional bastion for the mob.
“In a place like Bagheria, which is not a big city, it’s very significant to see such a high number of collaborators,” he said.
Sicilian businessmen have long had to choose between handing extortion money to Cosa Nostra - “Our Thing” in Italian - or face the consequences of violent reprisal, ranging from death threats to arson and even assassination.
“Thanks to the courage of those who refuse to be blackmailed, thanks to the Carabinieri and investigators, Bagheria is not their thing,” Renzi said on Twitter.
Many economists and experts blame organized crime for the south’s chronically sluggish and underdeveloped economy. The Mezzogiorno area, which includes Sicily and other southern regions, is only now emerging from seven years of recession.
Investigators documented about 50 extortion payments by construction firms, supermarkets, furniture and clothing stores, fruit and fish sellers and slot machine halls. A Bagheria mobster turned state’s witness also helped with testimony.
In one case, a construction business owner began paying the equivalent of 1,500 euros a month plus a percentage on individual jobs in the 1990s. He was eventually forced to sell his home and business to pay off the mafia, Palermo prosecutor Leonardo Agueci told Reuters.
Excessive extortion requests in recent years may have been what prompted so many businesses to decide to report the shakedowns to police, Agueci said, calling the revolt by businesses a “sizable and growing phenomenon”.
A number of the suspects were already behind bars when the arrest warrants were issued, police said.
Cosa Nostra was once Italy’s most powerful criminal group, but it has lost some of its sway due to the state’s ability to capture many of its top bosses.
The Calabrian mafia, known as the ‘Ndrangheta, has replaced Cosa Nostra as the country’s most dangerous criminal network. In Calabria, it is still rare for businessmen to stand up to the mob.
Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer, Writing by Steve Scherer; Editing by Tom Heneghan