Can the innovative measures adopted by an Italian NGO to help businesses and consumers combat mafia extortion be replicated in the Northern Triangle?

‘An entire population who pays pizzo is a population without dignity.’ This is the phrase that in 2004 sparked a social movement against extortion payments – or pizzo, in Italian – demanded by the mafia in Palermo, Italy. AddioPizzo was born as a civil-society organization whose manifesto is to inculcate a collective cultural revolution against the mafia. It is a grassroots organization advocating for a mafia-free economy. While its mission is to encourage opposition to pizzo among businesses and consumers, it also provides legal support and economic alternatives to businesses by promoting ethical consumerism to counter extortion, while educating for change, especially among the younger generations.

The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime in 2019 launched the Coalitions for Resilience project with the objective of gaining a better understanding of extortion in Central America, curating a conversation that sheds light on the phenomenon and setting out solutions by nurturing community resilience capabilities against this crime, which is rife across the region. This is done by documenting practices and developing local capabilities against extortion to develop resilient responses against this crime.

Although the Italian origins of the AddioPizzo movement may be very distant from countries like Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, there are distinct parallels between the way the Sicilian Cosa Nostra and the gangs, or maras, of Central America operate. Extortion, which is effectively a form of taxation, is a means by which the mafia or the maras exert territorial control and at the same time seek to legitimize their power; and in both cases, the cash from extortion is used to pay gang members.

The experience of AddioPizzo in pushing back against the Italian mafia’s stranglehold has shown how communities anywhere in the world, including Central America, can build resilience to organized crime. They offer nine recommendations that are critical for stakeholders, including civil-society organizations from the Northern Triangle countries, in their efforts to take a stance against extortion

1. Break the silence: Extortion is a pervasive crime that involves not only those businesses forced to pay fees to criminals, but also consumers who turn a blind eye to the fact their own money will end up in the hands of the mafia. To disrupt this cycle, AddioPizzo recommends starting an open conversation. The phrase highlighted at the start of this article was printed on hundreds of stickers and distributed in public in Palermo, Sicily.

2. Change the perspective: For a long time, extortion was accepted as a social norm in places where the Cosa Nostra operate. AddioPizzo raised public awareness of the problem by helping to build critical thinking among customers and business owners, such as shopkeepers. The logic is as follows: customers buy goods in certain shops; these shops are required to pay extortion fees; the money customers spend there goes to the mafia. Thus, the ordinary customer is part of the extortion problem, but, with a change of culture, he or she can be part of the solution too.

3. Create a network: In 2006, AddioPizzo established ‘Pago Chi Non Paga’ (meaning, literally, I pay the person who does not pay (i.e. protection money)). This is a network of over a thousand Sicilian businesses registered with the organization. Through this network of businesses that have chosen to resist extortion, AddioPizzo promotes conscientious consumption with a view to encouraging mafia-free shopping. A mobile application enables customers to locate participating businesses that don’t pay extortion.

4. Overcoming victim isolation: Refusing to pay can trigger retaliation from the mafia, and even rejection by the community for upsetting the criminal organization. It is paramount therefore to team up to provide support to those businesses who stand up against the mafia. AddioPizzo has successfully catalyzed community support for businesses facing retaliation from the mafia. Businesses that used to pay extortion can benefit from the shield that the network provides.

5. Declare your membership: AddioPizzo produces stickers with its logo that can be displayed by participants in their businesses. This serves both to attract customers and provides a visible warning to the mafia. According to co-founder Edoardo Zaffuto, arrested members of the mafia confirmed that this membership display was effective. In one particular town, said a mafia member, ‘everybody payed pizzo, except the AddioPizzo shops. We used to skip them completely, it would have been stupid even to try.’

6. Boost trust: The organization realized that the critical consumer movement and mafia-free business network would, in themselves, not be enough to resist the mafia. Therefore, they have built collaboration and trust with the Italian Carabinieri, who are key to the law-enforcement response. AddioPizzo also provides legal support and advice to victims of the mafia.

7. Leverage and economic impact: To increase the economic and social impact of the ethical consumerism campaign, the organization established AddioPizzoTravel and AddioPizzoStore to bring additional customers to the network and create financial sustainability. The first sells mafia-free tourism in Sicily; the second provides a variety of products that can be delivered to the customer’s door – guaranteed to be untainted by mafia involvement in the supply chain.

8. Develop a social approach: Economically depressed areas provide notoriously fertile ground for mafia recruitment. From donations made by businesses participating in the AddioPizzo programme, the organization has begun to develop social inclusion activities for children living in Piazza Magone, including the construction of  a playground, and various educational and social activities.

9. Educate for change: It is necessary to educate students about the mafia and extortion. For AddioPizzo, it is the younger generations who will be critical in resisting the influence of the mafia in society.

The holistic approach pioneered by the AddioPizzo initiative to help combat extortion has proven to be a useful tool in generating resilient businesses and communities. Its methods and approach could inspire civil-society organizations in Central America to replicate some of its activities. As Mauricio Bastien, member of the Network of Experts against Extortion, says, ‘It shows the importance of supporting victims of extortion and focusing on the root causes of the crime, as well as fostering community resilience and support against gangs.’

The Coalitions for Resilience project plans to continue the dialogue on the topic and in the following days will present a Training of Trainers Guide and a manual to help build resilient communities against extortion in the region.