Don Luigi Ciotti (Screen shot via)
In Italy, publicly bad-mouthing the Mafia is the dry-land equivalent of punching a shark in the gills. They don’t like it one bit, which is pretty evident in the long history they have of executing anyone – be they priests or politicians – who dares criticise them.
You may have noticed that Pope Francis has recently taken it upon himself to become one of those critics; last month he excommunicated Mafiosi from the Catholic church, which must have hit a nerve. The Mafia have traditionally loved Mary as much as they love money, and anecdotal evidence suggests some capos even sprinkle holy water over packets of cocaine in the hope that it doesn’t kill anyone.
Don Luigi Ciotti, a 68-year-old priest from Turin, has been hassling the mob for 20 years. In 1995 he founded Libera, an organisation that uses land and assets seized from the Mafia to set up local food co-operatives, anti-drug projects and community centres, as well as seeking to provide employment for those sidelined by La Cosa Nostra.
I gave Don Ciotti a call to talk about his work and the Mafia’s role in modern Italy.
A Libera protest (All photos below courtesy of Libera)
VICE: Why did you start campaigning against the mafia?
Don Luigi Ciotti: The impulse came from a season of Mafia massacres and bombings [in the early 1990s], in which two key anti-Mafia campaigners – Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino – were killed, alongside many others.
You don't hear about the Mafia as often as you used to. How do they remain such a threat to Italian society?
The Mafia isn't just a criminal organisation – it has more impact than that, and its roots go deep. It is a mentality. It is about ruthless individualism, selfishness, indifference and the theft of the common good. The Mafia is a social and cultural evil that causes injustice, abuse of power and corruption. So arresting and prosecuting the Mafia is not enough; we need to weed the Mafia mentality out of our communities.
Most Mafia members are Catholic – how do they square murder, extortion and all the other stuff they get up to with their faith?
The Mafia exploits God. The religiousness of the Mafia is the opposite of the gospel. It is a form of superstition and a way of appearing respectable in the eyes of others. Worshipping God is not only about faith, but the way people behave. Rosario Livatino, a young Catholic magistrate killed by the Mafia in 1990, wrote in his diary: “At the end we will not be asked if we were believers, but if we were credible.”
Among its other activities, Libera sells and grows Mafia-free products. How likely is it that the Italian food we buy in Britain has Mafia links?
This is a complex issue. However, there are two aspects to highlight. Because of the large profits available in the food industry, it has become a land of conquest for organised crime – mainly fraud, adulteration and counterfeiting. Checks – which, fortunately, are strict in our country – reveal that some of the Made in Italy products are not made here. They are produced elsewhere, with inferior raw materials and at lower manufacturing costs. It's an illicit market that causes serious damage to honest farmers and entrepreneurs.
The second aspect is the presence of the Mafia in the restaurant industry. Half of the 160 companies recently shut down by police in the Lazio region, for example, are restaurants, hotels and bars used by the Mafia for money laundering.
A Libera vineyard
And then Libera turns some of these seized premises into Mafia-free businesses, right? Can you give me some examples?
There's the story of the Café de Paris on Via Veneto in Rome, which was made famous by Fellini’s classic film La Dolce Vita. Its owner had links to the 'Ndrangheta, the Calabrian mafia. It was shut down by the police and, in 2009, reopened – with the help of Libera – as a restaurant serving wine and food produced on land confiscated from the Mafia. However, in February it was destroyed in an arson attack.
In Turin, Bar Italia on Via Veglia – where members of the local Calabrian mafia gathered to plan their business – was confiscated and given to a project linked to Libera, which re-opened it under the name Bar Italia Libera. These are small but important steps. They are signs that through shared responsibility – the joint effort of the judiciary, police forces, government, entrepreneurs and citizens – it is possible to reaffirm the principle of legality – the force of law instead of the law of force.
Have Libera staff ever been threatened or attacked by the Mafia?
There have been several incidents of vandalism, arson or damage to agricultural equipment on land confiscated from the Mafia. Luckily, assaults directed at people are rarer. However, the message from the Mafia is still clear: what is no longer cosa nostra [our thing] cannot be yours or anyone else's.
There have been several anti-Mafia priests executed by mobsters for speaking out against them. Unsurprisingly, you use an armed guard. Have you personally been threatened by the mob?
For sure. The Mafia doesn't stand watching while we interfere. Don Pino Puglisi, who was killed in Palermo in 1993, was considered by the Mafia to be a priest who "interfered", and the same was said about Don Peppe Diana, who was killed by the Camorra in Casal di Principe in 1994.
I believe that the Church should pursue interference – that is, not being silent in the face of injustice and violence, being always on the side of the weak, the oppressed, the victims. We can not expect justice only from heaven – we must begin to build it on this earth. This involves combining the spiritual dimension with social and civil commitment.
A Libera farm on ex-Mafia land
I heard you say in a speech earlier this year that the Mafia commits "violence with white gloves". How embedded are Mafia members in business and politics in Italy nowadays? Have things improved since the endless political corruption scandals of the 1990s?
It's hard to admit, but the situation hasn't improved. There's still a serious corruption problem, even after the so-called "Clean Hands" investigations during the 90s, which led to many of the major political parties disappearing altogether. The recent corruption cases around Expo Milan and Venice Mose [the engineering work being carried out to protect Venice from flooding] – not to mention the bribery trial of a former prime minister – are all proof corruption as a whole is still present.
When I say “violence in white gloves”, I don't mean the Mafia has become more lenient or that it faces any qualms of conscience. I mean the Mafia uses its economic power – enabled by financial markets that allow too many grey areas and too many tax havens – to strangle people, not physically, but in terms of their livelihoods. As the number of dead bodies diminishes, the number of living dead grows. There are many people in Italy who have had their job, hope and dignity removed by the Mafia.
What can Italians – and anyone else whose life is governed by gangsters – do about this?
A raised awareness of the Mafia should be nourished, beyond the often misleading, folkloristic representation of the Mafia in the media. Above all, this awareness could result in more courageous political measures against the Mafia, and a greater accountability. A democracy is not only based on compliance with the law, but on the willingness of each of us to strive for the common good. Ethics come before the law.
What's more important to the Mafia – God or money?
The Mafia worships one faith: money. To them, God is money. Money is, in the end, the Mafia’s reason for being. This also explains why Mafia organisations are so powerful in an economic system that sees money as the unit of measurement to assess not only material objects, but also people.
To defeat Mafia organisations – and all forms of corruption and illegality related to them – it will take a substantial cultural revolution. We need to attribute value to the dignity of the person, a dignity that lies in being, not in having.
Thanks, Don Ciotti.
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