A Bullet For A Businessman

Via Thaon De Revel, with its 1960s-style housing projects, is typical of the ugly sprawl that surrounds the medieval center of Palermo. Walking along it, you wouldn't notice the tiny brass sign for Sigma. Tucked behind an apartment block, the Sigma factory churned out $5 million worth of pajamas and boxer shorts last year. And if it weren't for Libero Grassi, Sigma's remarkable boss, the company and its 100 employees would still be just another of those tens of thousands of small businesses that make Italy tick.

In mid-January, a Palermo daily published an open letter from Grassi denouncing the Mafia's attempts to milk Sigma for protection money. Then, Grassi did what few in Sicily ever do: He reported the names of his would-be extortionists to the police, a move that resulted in five arrests last March. By June, after appearing on nationwide TV, Grassi, 67, had become something of a national hero in Italy: a Sicilian businessman who stood up to the Mafia. "A hero is by definition someone who does something extraordinary," says Libero's old friend Gabriele Morello, who runs a local management institute. "The incredible thing is that he became a hero for doing something everyone should do."

Now, he is even more of a hero for many across Italy who want to put an end to the Mafia's stranglehold on such places as Palermo, a port of 750,000 that should be one of the fairest cities in Europe. In the already-sweltering early morning of Aug. 29, Libero Grassi was shot three times in the brain as he walked from his home to his Saab. No witnesses came forward: Omerta--silence--is rarely broken.

"But it would have been worse had he given in," says Libero's son, Davide, who with his sister, Alice, has taken over Sigma. Then, explains Davide from his late father's spartan office, Libero would have been sucked into the Mafia's infernal system, just like countless other businessmen in Palermo who fork over the monthly pizzo, or protection money. Libero's children say they certainly won't start paying now.

SILENT VICTIMS. Not long before Grassi's killing, Palermo police got lucky and found the ledger used by the Madonia Mafia family for its pizzo take from its turf in central Palermo. On spreadsheets prepared so elegantly a skilled accountant would be proud of them, the names of car dealers, drugstores, restaurants, and small factories were lined up next to the amounts of their

pizzo--from about $150 to $7,000. But not one of the more than 150 businessmen on the list would help identify the extortionists.

The pizzo is huge--an annual shakedown of $10 billion to $26 billion throughout Italy, the government reckons--but the really big money and profits for the Sicilian Mafia come from its international heroin trade. At home, the Madonias and scores of other Mafia families rely on their massive extortion machines more to show who's boss than to generate profits. "The pizzo is labor-intensive and needs serious logistic planning," says Benni Priolisi, an advertising executive and, like many in Palermo, an amateur Mafia expert. "It's basically done to delineate territory."

The pizzo doesn't always involve cash. It may be a service the Mafia needs, such as laundering some drug money or having a contractor buy materials at certain places. Refusal can bring death or perhaps a firebombing.

There's just no escaping. Take Patrizia Italiano, a cool-headed businesswoman who decided a couple of years ago to open a ceramics factory in Brancaccio, a Mafia-infested industrial zone just east of Palermo. She found a site and began to build a workshop and kilns. But the day before she was to have signed a long-term lease, the building's owner was shot to death for an unknown reason. "I didn't know what to do, but I wanted to open my factory anyway," says Italiano. A few days after the murder, someone from one of Brancaccio's gangs visited Italiano to suggest that she take on some employees from the neighborhood. She did. "You learn to live with them," she says.

Indeed, the Mafia is a vital industry in Palermo. In such poor neighborhoods as Borgo Nuovo, official unemployment is very high. But look around: People are well-fed, teenagers drive fancy new Lancias and Peugeots, and cellular phones seem as common as in Manhattan. Palermo ranks a dismal 86th among Italian cities in declared per capita income but No. 6 in per capita consumption. "The truth is that the great river of money from the illegal economy does drip down," says Giancarlo La Licata, a local journalist specializing in the Mafia. "That's why the idea that the majority is opposed to the Mafia is false."

But, as adman Priolisi, Davide Grassi, and others in Palermo will tell you, the Mafia is anything but the benevolent, somewhat romantic organization of Don Corleone in The Godfather. Here, the Mafia is a grubby, thuggish presence whose killers rarely face their victims.That reality hits me as I take a pre-lunch stroll with Priolisi. The stylish neighborhood could be anywhere in Italy. A middle-aged man stops to greet us. It turns out he's the father of Priolisi's friend Emmanuele, who vanished last year. Murder victims are often dissolved in acid or buried up in the mountains. Says Priolisi: "I can make a long, sad list of the people I know who have been killed or who've disappeared."

NO BARS. National outrage over Grassi's killing is prompting the often fearful Italian police agencies to look and act tough. Locals are cynical: Dozens of gutsy anti-Mafia investigators have been slain in recent years. Still, last month, police charged Francesco Madonia, the crime family's 67-year-old head, with having ordered Grassi's murder.

Madonia had been sentenced to 23 years in Palermo's grim Ucciardone Prison in May, 1987, on a variety of charges. But a life sentence is hardly a career impediment for a Sicilian don: For the past two years, Madonia, pleading illness, has operated from a private room at a local hospital, surrounded by

what the police now suspect are Mafia-controlled private nurses.

Davide Grassi hopes his father's killers will come to trial, but he has no illusions: In Sicily, fewer than 2 homicides in 10 result in conviction. When might things change? "Maybe 20 years," says Davide. "If we're lucky."

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