What comes to your mind when you hear me say Sicily, the Mediterranean island at the toe of Italy?
Could it possibly be the notorious Mafia?
That was exactly what a friend said to me when I broadcasted that I was going to Sicily for a holiday. Why do you want to go to the Lair of the Mafia?
To humour him and to satisfy my curiosity, John and I drove to the village of Corleone one day in the 40 C July heat. You see, one of the first Hollywood films I ever saw in the late 1970s whilst still in China, was the Godfather. I still remember vividly the setting of Michael Corleone’s wedding in the stunning countryside of Sicily. Now that we were there, I wanted to check it out. Our resort was about an hour’s drive away.
The summer sun was beating down relentlessly, and en route we saw the rolling hills, mostly golden following the harvest of wheat, also due to heat. Sicily has one of the driest climates and July is especially arid. There were some green trees punctuating the fields but all around, were the magnificent golden views greeting our shaded eyes. I asked John to stop. For me it was never enough just to enjoy the views myself – I wanted to record some of the natural beauties I encountered and share them with my friends and followers on Social Media. A joy shared is doubled, I firmly believe that.
It was lunch time when we arrived, so first things first. We found a place and ordered pizza in one of the small piazzas in town. There was an advert for the local wine with Corleone on it. I sat down, and somehow I imagined Al Pacino sitting there sipping a beer and eating his pizza, some decades ago. In Italy, it does not matter where, don’t you feel that you are going back in time? I do.
As we wait for our guided tour at the C.I.D.M.D (International Documentary Centre of Mafia and the No Mafia Movement), we walked up to a monastery atop a rocky outcrop at the edge of the village and enjoyed a panoramic view of this famous location. What surrounds Corleone was breathtaking, and it was also apparent why this place could operate so successfully for so many years, not just for the Mafia within Sicily and Italy, but as far as New York in America. The roads to the village are winding and difficult. Its isolation was useful.
Yes, I am familiar with the story of the Godfather, not just because I have seen the trilogy starring the likes of mega stars Marlon Brando and aforementioned Al Pacino, I had read the book by Mario Puzo. Yet the visit to CIDMA was an eye opener. There was no romanticised take on what the M families did, only horrifying facts and figures. How did it begin?
For centuries, Sicily was ruled by a long line of foreign invaders, including the Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, French and Spanish. The residents of this island formed groups to protect themselves from the often-hostile occupying forces, as well as from other regional groups of Sicilians. These groups, which later became known as clans or families, developed their own system for justice and retribution, carrying out their actions in secret. By the 19th century, small private armies known as “mafie” took advantage of the frequently violent, chaotic conditions in Sicily and extorted protection money from landowners. From this history, the Sicilian Mafia emerged as a collection of criminal clans or families.
In the 1950s and afterwards, the Mafia flourished and its ever expanding criminal empire became a major player of international drug trafficking. Bribery and intimidation of officials, murdering those who dared to defy them and even innocent bystanders. There was a time when nobody could speak about them, and people in Corleone lived in fear for their lives.
Our guide led us into a room with a massive bookcase of court files, which recorded one of the biggest trials of mafia bosses in the late 1980s, the room also housed two busts of the judges who were subsequently assassinated by the Mafiosi, and a picture of a brave woman who first spoke openly about them in church, breaking the silence code which had sealed the mouths of residents, both within the M Families and outside.
Another room was filled with pictures taken by a courageous female journalist, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Letizia_Battaglia, documenting the ferocious internal war of the Mafia, and its assault on civil society. Each picture in that room told a story, some heartbreaking (a Mother’s face after losing her son), and others bloody and harrowing (a lone body and a coffin next to him). The M families not only had a code of “honor”, but they sent messages to heighten the fear and terror.
Time has moved on, as you can see from the establishment of the Centre, right in the heart of the Dragon’s Lair and the anti-Mafia movement. According to our guide, although the government crackdown of the M families was determined and successfully weakened them, they are still everywhere. The Mayor of Corleone was recently found to have M connections hence the seat of Mayor is currently empty. Although the village of Corleone is no longer that hotbed for breeding Godfathers and Professors (apparently all the M bosses had nicknames to suit their demeanours), some 80 % of Palermo shop owners still have to pay protection money, even in 2017.
Finally our guide said to us: we want the world to know that Corleone is not just a notorious place for Mafia, we have come a long way and the villagers now lead a normal life. Please spread the word.
Here I am, spreading the word. Visit Sicily and Corleone. Truly stunning island with an amazingly rich history, wonderful landscape and much more. I’ll share some of these beautiful experiences in my next blog, so do pop back in.