THE toll of “pizzo” protection payments made by firms to Sicily’s Mafia is closely monitored. Nearly half pay up these days, according to estimates from the Confartigianato, a national business association—a big improvement from the early 1990s, when at least four-fifths of Sicilian firms paid it. Back then the levy claimed nearly a tenth of the turnover of victimised businesses. Today’s ratio is around half that. Other regions in Italy’s south, where the pizzo system is most entrenched, have also seen big drops.

For that businesses can thank a clutch of anti-pizzo groups. One is Addiopizzo (“goodbye, pizzo”) in Palermo, which advises businesses on pressing charges against crooks. It also encourages them to publicly forswear pizzo payments. Extortionists now think twice before bullying shopkeepers, knowing there will be a flurry of media attention and police investigations, says its founder, Daniele Marannano.

Addiopizzo has endorsed as pizzo-free 1,045 (and counting) businesses in Palermo and surrounding areas that display window stickers to discourage would-be extortionists. Entrepreneurs say the stickers seem to work, a claim supported by intercepted phone calls in which mafiosi complain about the difficulty of meeting extortion targets. Other anti-pizzo groups including Libero Futuro, also in Palermo, have cropped up.

Their efforts have registered on a national level. A group in Naples, the Italian Federation of Anti-Racket and Anti-Usury Associations, says that pizzo payments now amount to a fifth at most of all income for Italy’s organised-crime groups, down from a whopping half in the early 1990s. The biggest drop came in the past four years, says the group’s founder, Tano Grasso.

But the system itself is worth more to crooks than the money and is unlikely to disappear. This is because it provides power over payers, who are often also pressed into aiding more lucrative crime by, say, concealing drugs or firearms, or by turning a blind eye to a robbery, fugitive hideout or insurance scam.

An operation may begin with a squirt of superglue in a shop’s keyhole, or a bottle of petrol left on a doorstep. Mafia members might threaten a new bar’s prospects by starting drunken brawls. Such ops are “word-of-mouth marketing” for pizzo compliance in a targeted area, notes Giuseppe Todaro, an entrepreneur in Cinisi, near Palermo, who handed over about €245,000 ($290,000) in 17 years. Many remaining payers are largely content to continue, he says, for the pizzo payments also elicit useful services from the Mafia. These include help with debt collection; stopping a competitor from opening; and discouraging workers from unionising or suing for mistreatment.



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