Wikileaked Document Describes Italian Anti-Pizzo Movement

One of the recently-WikiLeaked U.S. diplomatic corps cables concerns the “addio pizzo” tax resistance movement in Sicily. Excerpts:

¶3. (U) Business owners have been emboldened by the continuing string of law enforcement victories, with more and more reportedly refusing to pay extortion money (known in Italian slang as the “pizzo”), particularly since [Bernardo] Provenzano’s arrest. According to the recent annual report issued by the National Traders Association (Conferescenti), up to 80 percent of businesses in Palermo and Catania paid protection money in , and the cost of extortion is higher in Sicily than any other part of the country. Several anti-racket associations have been formed, reportedly with good results. The most prominent is “Addio pizzo” (“Goodbye, pizzo”), formed in , which counts 210 traders and entrepreneurs as members and over 9,000 consumers committed to buy only at shops belonging to the “pizzo-free” list. Palermo police and the prefect have agreed to discreetly look after the member shops. “Addio pizzo” has organized programs in more than 90 schools and educational institutes, with the participation of prosecutors and police, and also conducted a “pizzo-free” festival in one of Palermo’s main plazas in . (One of the association’s leaders has been selected for a State Department International Visitor program in , which will focus on awakening public opinion to rule of law and supporting NGOs who fight organized crime.)

¶4. (U) In , the Sicilian branch of the industrialists’ federation (Confindustria) voted unanimously to expel any of its members who continue to pay the Mafia’s tax. The vote came in support of Andrea Vecchio, a well-known construction company owner who told the Cosa Nostra he would no longer pay. Since taking this bold decision, he has received four death threats and two of his building sites have been sabotaged. Vecchio and his family are now living under police protection.

¶5. (U) On , forty Sicilian business owners launched a new “anti-pizzo” association to assist entrepreneurs who refuse to pay extortion money. The group is called “Libero Futuro,” which translates “Free Future,” but also pays homage to Libero Grassi, a Sicilian businessman who was murdered in for refusing to pay the “pizzo.” In response to the organization’s founding, Palermo mayor Diego Cammarata promised 50,000 euros to assist merchants who have been victims of extortion. The association’s inauguration was attended by national political leaders; in fact, the auditorium was packed, whereas when a similar launch was attempted two years ago, only around 30 people showed up.

¶6. (U) During the night of , the offices of Confindustria in the central Sicilian city of Caltanissetta were broken into, and computer disks containing confidential details of business owners backing a campaign against the payment of protection money were stolen. Confindustria leaders immediately blamed the Mafia and declared that they would not be intimidated by the act.

Tax resistance campaigns like this one can get a real leg up if they have the support of a competing government that would rather have all of the tax revenues itself. Another cable adds further details:

¶12. (C) Lo Bello, the President of the Sicilian Confindustria, took the bold step in of instituting a policy (adopted by unanimous vote) of expelling members who have paid protection money to the Mafia and not complained to police. Since that time, around 35 members have been asked to leave the Confederation. This courageous move has been praised by business owners, the media and political leaders. Lo Bello told us in that “The time has come [for Sicily] to move from an archaic, feudal past to modernity.” When we met with them in late , the Calabrian Industrialists were much more timid, looking over their backs before telling us that the time is not right for business owners to take a public stand against extortion there. (In , one of the founders of the Calabria anti-racket association, Fedele Scarcella, was brutally assassinated; his charred corpse was discovered in his burned car in what authorities described as “very probably a Mafia homicide.”) Nonetheless, the media reported in on talks between the two regions’ Industrialists Confederations on collaborating against organized crime. Lo Bello was quoted as declaring, “It may seem simple, but what has happened has changed the framework of the entire region: the idea that the fight against the Mafia cannot be delegated only to the State, but needs to include an assumption of responsibility on the part of Southern Italian society: in this case, the world of entrepreneurship.” Also in , the Industrialists Confederation in Caserta (Campania) took initial steps toward a similar policy, drawing praise from the anti-Mafia prosecutor. Lo Bello hopes to enlist other business and trade associations to adopt similar rules. Unfortunately, most Sicilian business owners are still unwilling to complain about extortion. In , a prominent businessman, Vincenzo Conticello, who has refused to pay protection money for his Palermo focaccia restaurant, told the CG that he had heard (probably from his police escort) that of 170 companies named in the accounting books of apprehended Mafia boss Salvatore Lo Piccolo, only three have owned up to it, while the others claim the accounts are in error.

¶13. (SBU) Sicilian businesses, emboldened by the arrests of top Mafia bosses, are openly defying the Mafia by signing on with a grassroots organization called “Addiopizzo” (Goodbye “Pizzo,” the Italian word for extortion payments), which brings together businesses in Palermo that are resisting extortion. The campaign was launched in by a group of youths thinking of opening a pub. They started off by plastering Palermo with anti-pizzo fliers, reading “AN ENTIRE PEOPLE THAT PAYS THE PIZZO IS A PEOPLE WITHOUT DIGNITY,” and eventually brought their campaign online where it struck a chord with Sicilians fed up with Mafia bullying. The rebellion has since spread to other strongholds of the most ruthless Mafia clans, including places such as Gela, an industrial coastal town, where some 80 business owners in recent months have denounced extortion attempts. This is a dramatic turn since the early 1990’s, when a Gela merchant who denounced extortion was slain by the Mafia, and a Gela car dealer, whose showroom was repeatedly torched, had to move his family and change his name after he testified in court. “Addiopizzo” has recently launched a supermarket selling products certified as being “pizzo” free, and maintains a public list on the internet of businesses rejecting extortion. Another NGO was launched by forty Sicilian business owners to assist entrepreneurs who refuse to pay extortion money. The group is called “Libero Futuro,” which translates “Free Future,” but also pays homage to Libero Grassi, a Sicilian businessman who was murdered in for refusing to pay protection money. In response to the organization’s founding, Palermo mayor Diego Cammarata promised 50,000 euros to assist merchants who have been victims of extortion. “This rebellion goes to the heart of the Mafia,” says Palermo prosecutor Maurizio De Lucia, who has investigated extortion cases for years. “If it works, we will have a great advantage in the fight against the Mafia.”

Another cable complains that in another part of the country, Calabria, it is the mafia that seems to have gotten the upper hand in the tax war:

¶5. (C) The Prefect of Vibo Valentia province, Ennio Sodano, has practically written Calabria off. In his view, “the entire Calabrian society is involved” in perpetuating an intractable situation. “Business owners pay extortion, but don’t complain. They don’t pay their taxes,” he said. “It’s a cultural problem, this indifferent society.”…

We’re overdue for some more Vivien Kellems, I think. Here’s an example of her work, from the Evening Independent:

Vivien Kellems Returns to Battle

Withholds Portion of Own Tax from Government Hands

Miss Vivien Kellems, cable grip manufacturer, renewed her battle with the government over the withholding tax law by herself withholding $1,685.40 from her income tax payment.

The Westport industrialist contended in a letter to Secretary of the Treasury John W. Snyder said [sic] “ I have paid my income tax but I have deducted the sum of $1,685.40 which you illegally took from me.

“If you wish that money you can sue me or you can again send your gestapo agent and grab it from the bank.”

The $1,685.40 was the amount seized from her account in the Westport Bank and Trust company when she refused to pay the first installment of the withholding tax for her employes. The government claimed $837.70 in taxes and a like amount in penalties.

Miss Kellems contended that she had no right to withhold money from her employes. Through the remainder of the year she furnished them with statements of the amounts due which they paid personally to the income tax division.

The treasury department asserted that all employers were compelled to collect withholding taxes. In the initial failure the treasury department refused Miss Kellems’s invitation to arrest her and collected the money from her bank account without the court action she sought.

If the government wants her to collect the tax, she has said in several statements since then, it must make her a tax collector, pay her for her trouble and give her a badge.