Though the political winds of change in Palermo in the late 1990s and a crackdown by investigators in Rome have helped bring Mafia activity under control in Sicily, organized crime and corruption make a tough stain to rub out from the island’s culture. The region’s roots are some 1,000 years old, and much of the land still belongs to families of the Cosa Nostra. Mafiaowned lands here never bore much fruit, as they were rarely tended or cultivated, but five towns around Palermo are now reaping a long-awaited harvest.
In 1999, 500 acres of agricultural land confiscated from the Cosa Nostra in the towns of Corleone, Monreale, Piana degli Albanesi, San Cipirello, and San Giuseppe Jato were awarded to a group of nonprofit organizations, which used the fields for organically grown produce. It was part of a larger plan to seize property that has so far taken more than ‚125 million in Mafia holdings and turned them into parks, farms, and public buildings such as schools and police stations.
One of the more famous products to grow out of the mob’s old turf is the olive oil created by the Libera association, an anti-Mafia group founded by Turin priest Luigi Ciotti and Rita Borsellino, sister of the Palermo prosecutor Paolo Borsellino, who was assassinated by gangsters in 1992. (The city’s airport, Falcone-Borsellino, is named after him and another slain judge, Giovanni Falcone.)
The olive trees sit on an estate that once belonged to Bernardo Provenzano, the Cosa Nostra’s presumed numero uno, who had been wanted by police for more than three decades before he was arrested in 2006. That symbolic provenance has helped Father Ciotti and his youths to sell about 10,000 bottles of their anti-Mafia brand oil per year.
In general, travelers need not worry about being the victims of organized crime. In fact, many Americans come to Sicily precisely to see the land of the mob, to cavort in the town of Corleone on packaged tours aimed at historic Mafia sites. (There’s even a Mafia museum there.) One should be cautioned, however, that starting a restaurant or some other retail business could expose you to a real kind of risk that you may never have dealt with back home.
A footnote in some history books, and one that you should be aware of as an expat living in Sicily, points out that the United States was partly responsible for putting the Mafia back in power after Fascism by installing allegedly shady figures in seats of power in exchange for their loyalty when the United States liberated the island during World War II.
This does not mean that Sicilians are anti-American. That historical detail is hugely overshadowed by a strong bond between the island and Sicilian families that emigrated to the United States. For example, one of them, a fisher named Giuseppe di Maggio, moved from the small island of Isola delle Femmine outside Palermo to a fishing village near San Francisco, and his son became one of the greatest baseball players of all time. Those immigrants are not forgotten in Sicily, and indeed many come back to visit every year. Even Joltin’ Joe made an appearance in Isola delle Femmine a few years before he died, and he was welcomed back with great fanfare.
Another reason for the close transatlantic ties is the strong military presence at the Sigonella base, near Catania. If NATO bases in other parts of Europe are sometimes the source of friction, this is rarely the case in Sicily. Overall, North Americans in Sicily will feel welcomed by the locals, and those whose ancestors left 100 years before might wonder if a permanent return ticket is in order.