Palermo's Cosa Nostra: The mafia is back in politics

Questionable supporters helped Palermo's new mayor win.

Palermo's Cosa Nostra: The mafia is back in politics

Questionable supporters helped Palermo's new mayor win. Experts doubt that the city could succumb to the mafia again. Nevertheless, there are signs that the anti-mafia rhetoric is no longer effective.

With the mayoral elections last Sunday, an era came to an end in Palermo. After 22 years in office, left-liberal Mayor Leoluca Orlando is stepping down. The now 74-year-old is succeeded by centre-right-backed Roberto Lagalla, a medical professor and former rector of the University of Palermo. The 67-year-old's victory raises a question: will the mafia come out of cover again and will they unabashedly get involved in politics again? In fact, among Lagalla's supporters were two questionable figures.

His political opponents also attest to the fact that Lagalla himself is irreproachable and has never had anything to do with Cosa Nostra. It was all the more astonishing for many that he did not refuse the support of Salvatore "Totò" Cuffaro and Marcello Dell'Utri. Cuffaro was President of the Region of Sicily from 2001 to 2008, and Dell'Utri was a co-founder of Berlusconi's Forza Italia party. Both were sentenced to seven years in prison for complicity with the mafia, a sentence they have since served.

Such concerns were reinforced just before election Sunday with the arrest of two city council candidates for machinations with Cosa Nostra. One belongs to Forza Italia, the other belongs to Giorgia Meloni's right-wing party Fratelli d'Italia (Brothers of Italy). Both are said to have asked mafia bosses for their votes. "If I'm powerful, so are you," Forza politician Pietro Polizzi told Agostino Sansone in a conversation overheard by investigators. Sansone is the brother of Giuseppe and Gaetano Sansone, building contractors who were once close to Totò Riina, one of the most bloodthirsty mafia bosses ever. It was Riina who ordered the two attacks in the summer of 1992 that killed prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. The Sansone brothers had made a villa available to Riina in Palermo, where he lived undisturbed for 25 years, although he was wanted.

"Of course I have a bad feeling about the outcome of the elections in Palermo," says university teacher Nando Dalla Chiesa in an interview with "But not because of Lagalla, but because of some of his supporters." These are not a good omen. Dalla Chiesa holds a chair in the "sociology of organized crime" at the University of Milan and is the founder of the mafia observatory. But he is also the son of the Carabinieri General Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa. The Italian government sent him to the Sicilian capital to get the mafia under control. In September 1983, Dalla Chiesa was assassinated by Cosa Nostra.

The old mayor, Leoluca Orlando, had managed to transform Palermo from a gloomy and dangerous city into an internationally renowned metropolis, visited by 1.6 million tourists from all over the world in 2019. At the same time, it leaves behind countless construction sites and problems. You don't need to go to the notorious Brancaccio neighborhood to get an idea of ​​it, where in 1993 the priest Don Puglisi was murdered by the mafia. All you have to do is take a side street or two off Corso Vittorio Emanuele, the street that crosses the historic center from the Cathedral down to the sea. There you are immersed in another world: rubble and ruins from the Second World War, rubbish, young people racing up and down the streets on their mopeds without safety helmets and to deafening music, poverty everywhere you look.

Of course there are contradictions, says Dalla Chiesa, but the city has nevertheless undergone a profound change. "30 years ago you could literally feel the involvement with the mafia and the great skepticism towards the judiciary, but not anymore." He doesn't rule out setbacks, new rapprochement between the old and the new milieu is evident and there is no doubt that the mafia also wants to benefit from the money from the EU reconstruction fund. However, he rules out the possibility that the city could fall back into the dark times of the past.

Attilio Bolzoni, a writer and journalist who has been involved with the mafia all his life, agrees that Palermo and the Palermitans have changed fundamentally under Orlando. "At least a part," he says However, he does point out a few changes in society that certain milieus seem to have recognized earlier than others. "Let's talk about Totò Cuffaro. He realized that the time for anti-politics was over and that's why he founded a branch of the New Christian Democratic Party in Sicily." With the end of anti-politics, Bolzoni refers to the Five Star Movement. In the 2018 parliamentary elections, the movement won 50 percent of the votes in the Sicilian mafia stronghold of Corleone. This Sunday in Palermo it was only 8.7 percent. And this despite the fact that Sicily is home to most of the recipients of the citizens' benefit, which was introduced at the urging of the Five Star Movement. The New Christian Democratic Party got 5.6 percent of the vote.

The second change has to do with a certain anti-mafia attitude that relies more on cult than substance. "Once a year, on May 23, the assassination attempt on Giovanni Falcone and on July 16 on Paolo Borsellino are commemorated," says Bolzoni. "Over time, these commemorations have degenerated into empty lip service. People speak of Giovanni and Paolo as if they were saints. But that's all there is to it and people are not stupid, they feel it."

For Bolzoni, neither Dell'Utri nor Cuffaro are the problem that the city will have to deal with in the future, but the new mayor. "I find it a strong point that Lagalla, former rector of the University of Palermo, did not refuse the support of these two men." Lagalla also did not attend this year's 30th anniversary of the Falcone assassination. The official reason was that he wanted to avoid protests against him. "Of course it would be wrong and stupid to claim that Lagalla was only elected by the Mafiosi," says Bolzoni, "but you can sense a certain longing for the past in the city."

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