Maimed by the Mob

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Francesco Zizola / Noor for TIME

GOING NOWHERE: Southern regions like Calabria suffer most under the stranglehold of organized crime, which permeates nearly every sector of the economy — from transportation to construction, from hospitals to fashion

No one will win next month's elections in Italy, especially not the nation's citizens. For all the campaign rhetoric about change and reform, everyone seems dead set on ignoring the country's fundamental problem: organized crime, or what we might call our criminal economy. Talk of this corruption crisis never goes beyond expressions of solidarity with the victims, praise for the valiant police, and generic appeals to morality. All of which leads nowhere. Last year, a report by the Italian business association Confesercenti estimated that the Mob in Italy generated more than $125 billion of annual revenue, a figure equal to 7% of the country's gross domestic product. That's more than double the annual income of Italy's entire agricultural sector.

The world reads headlines such as MAFIA INC. ITALY'S LARGEST COMPANY, but none of the candidates for Prime Minister deem this worthy of mention. The Sicilian Mafia, 'Ndrangheta in Calabria and Camorra in my home region of Campania currently reign over one-third of Italy's territory, infiltrating entire sectors of the aboveboard economy — transportation, hospitals, construction, fashion, supermarkets, agriculture — like a cancer to which no part of the nation is immune.

Mafia networks now exert such strong control over local politics that they no longer need protection at the national level. They have learned that throwing their weight around in Palermo or Naples is the way to obtain results in Rome. And no government has managed to blunt the Mob's economic power. In today's Italy, going up against organized crime leads not only to a loss of consensus and votes, but also to a world of trouble in getting public works projects completed. Our failure to take on these Mafias risks letting them live on and thrive forever. It doesn't matter who will govern the country after April; the Mob has already identified which candidates it can deal with on either side of the political divide.
 Too many elections in Italy are won, even today, by the time-tested process of buying votes. It is an especially formidable weapon in the south, where high unemployment is so endemic that many ambitious young people emigrate to the more prosperous north or abroad. When I was a kid in the 1980s, an individual's vote tended to cost more than it does today. It might have been worth a job at the post office, say, or in public administration or a school or hospital. By the time I grew up, votes were typically sold for far less: telephone and electricity bills paid for the two months before and one month after an election. In the last few ballots, the new bait has been the cell phone. Someone shows up and gives you one before the election, and you can keep it if you come back with a photo on this new, shiny handset showing your ballot marked for the right candidate. The phones, which are worth about $75 apiece, are even conveniently set up to snap the pictures silently. The fluctuating value of a vote seems to have returned to its level in the 1950s, when the businessman-mayor of Naples, Achille Lauro, offered packs of pasta and a new left shoe before an election. The right shoe could be collected afterward upon proof that the correct choice had been made.

But even then, politics did not have the low standing it has today. Italians perceive it as the pursuit of private affairs in the public sphere. It has lost its primary purpose: to set goals, solve problems and lead the country forward. Nobody expects that Italian politics can be renewed in the arc of a single election campaign. But we have to acknowledge a plain fact: that a political system so prone to manipulation and myopia is incompatible with an advanced democracy. Is it an advanced democracy if scores of local city councils have been dissolved in recent years because they had been infiltrated by the Mafia? Or where 3,100 people have been killed by the Mob since 1992? That is more victims of violence than in Beirut during the same period.

We should not forget that the collapse of Prime Minister Romano Prodi's center-left government in January was triggered in the land of the Camorra. Shortly before the fall of his government, the latest in a string of shutdowns of Campania's trash collection — a business in which the Mob has long had its fingers — left tons of rubbish piled up on Naples' streets for weeks on end. Prodi had allowed the governor of Campania to stay afloat despite his failure to manage the trash emergency. The Prime Minister didn't see the situation in Naples for what it really was: a chilling lesson that government ends up cornered and powerless if it yields even tacitly to criminal interests. He also underestimated the risks of having on his electoral lists unknown candidates who would later be placed under investigation for conspiring with the Mafia. All this while the center-right (led by Silvio Berlusconi) watched its ally, the governor of Sicily, celebrate as a victory a recent court decision that determined he was not a mafioso, even while finding that he had done favors for a noted Mob boss. In this febrile environment, Berlusconi is again seeking the Prime Minister's office, while Prodi has been replaced as the center-left candidate by former Rome mayor Walter Veltroni. This will be the first election for Veltroni's Democratic Party, and it should take to heart the lesson Prodi missed: that it must tackle the Mob head-on.

The forces for decency and transparency are present in every party, not just the left, which has traditionally led the fight against the Mob. The martyred Palermo magistrate Paolo Borsellino came from a right-wing anti-Mafia tradition that persists today. Young Catholics, too, are among the most militant Mob fighters, and should demand candidates worthy of the cause. We recall the words of Pope John Paul II in 1993 in Sicily after a series of bloody Mafia attacks: "This people, the Sicilian people, so attached to life, who love life, who give life, cannot continue to live under the pressure of ... a culture of death. I say to those responsible: Convert! Convert! One day the judgment of God will come!" These words should take root in the conscience of all who call themselves Christian. Yet destroying the bond between politics and organized crime is not just an ethical choice, but a vital necessity for democracy and a basic exercise of self-defense.

Veltroni has asked me to join his electoral list to fight against organized crime. But I will not be entering politics. My job is to write, which is the strongest tool available to me to combat these problems. I know how to portray power, but I wouldn't be able to manage it. I am not renouncing the responsibility to do my share; I consider that my daily work. And doing our jobs well may be the last form of resistance we have. That, and refusing to be satisfied with the way things are.

In 1793, the French constitution included the right to insurrection. Perhaps the moment has arrived in Italy to exercise the right to be fed up. To rediscover a true democratic choice. To make the most of our votes, instead of swapping our very destiny for nothing more than a new cell phone. Italy's future is worth a whole lot more than that.

Saviano is a journalist and author of the book Gomorrah, an exposé of Mob activity in Naples. He now lives under police protection