HOW A WINEMAKER IS TAKING ON SICILY’S RURAL MAFIA

From the terrace of his winery near the baroque town of Caltagirone in south-eastern Sicily, Cesare Nicodemo surveys his fields of ripening vines – a glass of his finest spumante in hand.

It’s a warm July evening and the surrounding hills glow golden in the setting sun amid the chirruping of swallows and the song of cicadas.

It should be an image of rural peace and contentment, but on closer inspection, all is not quite as it seems.

Security cameras on high stilts dot the perimeter of his land. The metal gates leading into his winery remain securely shut throughout our interview, and inside the winery’s main building, images from across his vineyard flicker on a bank of screens.

Cesare has been threatened, his land has been repeatedly trespassed on, his buildings have been damaged and trees cut down or set alight. He’s even been physically attacked.

“The rural Mafia was trying to drive us off our land and destroy our business,” he says between careful sips of wine.

Sicilian struggle

So who are the rural Mafia? Well, they’re shepherds in the main – but some officials believe they’re acting in cahoots with local lawyers, accountants and possibly even local politicians.

Cesare believes the battle against them pits modern Italy against forces that want Sicily to remain rooted in the ways of the past.

Driving out of his winery, he points out wooden stakes in the ground. “See that?” he says. “They’re the signs of the rural Mafia”

The stakes are dotted across the land around his vineyard. They’re about a metre-long, distinctive for the strip of white cardboard wrapped round them.

And they’re a common sight in rural Sicily.

Burnt out

There are more about 100km (60 miles) away from Cesare’s winery, in the foothills of Mount Etna, where Sebastiano Blanco is rebuilding a house on his plot of land.

“What those stakes say is ‘this land belongs to us’,” Sebastiano says. “They, the rural Mafia, see all this land as their own, regardless of who has legal title to it.”

Like Cesare, he says there are local clans who believe that they, and not the Italian state, set the laws.

Last year, Sebastiano’s house was burnt down. The police and fire brigade said the fire was probably started by a homeless person who’d come inside to warm up.

But Sebastiano thinks it’s no coincidence that the fire happened soon after stakes appeared on his land. He believes the rural Mafia took revenge when he wouldn’t hand over his land.

He cuts a forlorn figure, kicking at the blackened rubble strewn across the charred ground of what were once his bedroom, with the early evening’s purple sky visible through the exposed beams of his shattered roof.

So, what exactly is it that the Mafia wants?

Widespread fraud

Giuseppe Antoci, president of Sicily’s largest national park, Nebrodi, and co-ordinator of Federparchi Sicilia, the Federation of Sicilian National Parks, has been investigating the matter for the past few years.

What he’s uncovered is widespread fraud involving European Union farm and rural development funds.

In an investigation conducted together with the deputy police commissioner Daniele Manganaro of the district of Messina, Mr Antoci found that local crime networks were falsely claiming land as their own – or presenting forged documents saying they had leased it – in order to make applications for EU subsidies.

“We’ve seen an evolution of Mafia here,” he says.

“This is not the Mafia of the illegal drugs trade or the trafficking of arms. It takes a lot of work and research to commit this sort of fraud. We’re not talking about the Mafia that existed 30 years ago, where the shepherd demanded a ransom or protection payment from a tradesman.

“What we have here is a Mafia whose business is to commit fraud with EU funds. And to carry out this sort of fraud, you need more than just a shepherd.

“What it requires is a network of people, people with schooling and education, people who know how the system works, because the first step in perpetrating this sort of fraud is to set up a company,” says the police commissioner.

New law

Mr Antoci has tried to put a stop to it.

He’s set in motion a new law that states that anyone claiming EU subsidies on land must now show anti-Mafia certification. In Italy, this means complying with regulations that require that a company’s shareholders and directors have no restrictions, limitations and bans according to anti-mafia regulations.

Sceptics say this is hardly enough to stop the fraud from being repeated, pointing out that many will simply make use of proxies to make claims on their behalf.

The European Union’s anti-fraud office, Olaf, says it is reviewing 35,000 applications for agricultural subsidies in Italy covering some 500m euros in disbursements going back all the way to 2006.

It has also started nine criminal proceedings, all of which involve a network of organised crime. But this 500m euros (£447m) that the EU is looking into is far less than the 3.5bn euros that Mr Antoci and the local police force say may have been fraudulently claimed.

“I can tell you that there is a very strong commitment at the level of the EU as well as the level of national authorities to fight this kind of phenomenon,” says Francesco Albore, the head of the Olaf unit investigating the matter.

Another 2.2bn euros have been earmarked in EU and Italian government funds for rural and agricultural development in the six years to 2020. So what guarantees are there that all those funds will be properly distributed?

Mr Albore says it’s difficult to guarantee but points out the EU also demands guarantees that payments go to the correct recipients. Where this is not the case, he says, “payments can be stopped.”

Ambush

Meanwhile, back in Sicily, Mr Antoci’s efforts to fight this fraud have come at a high personal price.

He’s suffered death threats and now lives under permanent armed guard.

Last year, as he was being driven home through the Nebrodi national park following a late night dinner, his car came under a volley of gunfire.

If he’s alive today, he says, it’s only thanks to his armed guard and the fact that his car was being followed by that of the deputy police commissioner Daniele Manganaro who managed to scupper the attack by firing back.

In the aftermath, there were attempts to discredit his investigation. Some Italian media reports questioned the authenticity of the attack, suggesting Mr Antoci and the local police force had made it up. But it’s only made him more determined.

“You know, afterwards, they found petrol bombs hidden in nearby bushes,” Mr Antoci says. “They wanted me dead. But my first thought as I was being saved that night was for my family and for all the police officers who guard me – the sacrifices they have to make for this battle I’ve chosen to wage.”

Still, one businessman I speak to, who’s been subjected to similar threats for not handing over land, complains that he’s had little support from local Sicilian political authorities in his fight to protect his land.

Which is why, back in the foothills of Mount Etna, Sebastiano Blanco wears a T-shirt emblazoned with the words: “Rural mafia – a protected species”.

“It’s 2017,” he says. “How can this be happening in our day and age?”

He gestures at the smoking volcano, looming large in the distance over his land.

“This is a Unesco world heritage site,” he says. “But as long as we’re intimidated this way, how can we possibly build on the economic value of our land and property?”

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