How Cosa Nostra’s ‘cattle mafia’ is destroying Sicily’s farmers

Broken by prosecutors and rivals, the Sicilian mafia has retreated to its rural origins, driving farmers from their lands with grisly intimidation campaigns.

The Napoli sisters keep their entire harvest in a glass jar, resting on a wooden table in the living room. Inside, there are only a dozen stalks of wheat. The rest of the crop – 80,000 kilograms – was destroyed by the Sicilian mafia, determined to force out these three women working in the land of The Godfather.

For three generations, the Napoli family farmed wheat and hay in Corleone, the historic stronghold of Cosa Nostra. Their father, Salvatore, was a hard worker who, after much sacrifice in the fields, managed to send his three daughters – Marianna, Ina and Irene – to university.

But a crisis in what was the world’s most notorious mafia, broken apart by prosecutors, has pushed Cosa Nostra back to their rural origins, and they want their land back.

The first threat to the Napoli sisters came on a cool April morning in 2009, a few months after their father’s death: 80 cows and 30 horses invaded their fields, destroying the entire crop. “We thought it was an accident,” says Ina, “but deep down we knew these things, around these parts, are never simple accidents.”

Illegal grazing is the oldest form of mafia intimidation in Sicily. To make it clear the act was not just an accident, two poisoned dogs and dozens of cow carcasses were delivered later to their old country cottage. Two threshers were destroyed and cattle invasions continued for almost eight years.

From time to time, a man appeared at the sisters’ house, offering them €5,000 (£4,450) a year to “manage” their 90 hectares of land. Cosa Nostra saw the three unmarried sisters – zitelle, in the local dialect – as easy prey and wanted to take advantage.

The crisis in the mafia’s origins lie in the jailing of more than 4,000 mafiosi since 1990 and the replacement of the old mobsters with younger bosses who lacked their authority.

Drug trafficking, once under the monopoly control of Cosa Nostra, is now run by the most powerful Calabrian mafia, the ’Ndrangheta. The Sicilian construction industry, which once represented a giant business for the mafia, has lost more than €1bn since 2007, according to the Italian Association of Builders.

Far from Palermo, hidden in the Sicilian interior, Cosa Nostra is trying to start again from scratch.

“It is as if, pushed by the crisis, Cosa Nostra has withdrawn into the countryside,” says Sergio Lari, the head of the Caltanissetta prosecutor’s office in the centre of Sicily. “Far from the pressure of the authorities in the big cities, the bosses seem to have found a safe haven.”

The sisters are not unique in Sicily, where annual EU agricultural subsidies of up to €1,000 a hectare provide an incentive to organised crime. Prosecutors in Catania arrested nine men in February, members of the Cesarò and Bronte clans, who investigators say forced farmers to sell hundreds of hectares. The trial is ongoing.

“The cattle mafia is destroying these lands,” says Emanuele Feltri, who in 2010 set up an organic farm in the Simeto valley that was soon after subject to fire and theft by mafiosi. Four years ago, the mafia killed four of his sheep with rifles, one of which was decapitated.

“They ask the farmers for protection money, from €50 to €500 a month. They want to take our lands. Their goal is to bring the farmer to bankruptcy, by destroying his crop or burning his lands. In that way, they will be able to buy that land, for very little money, and benefit from EU agricultural subsidies.’’

The sisters’ land is thought to be worth €1m. Besides the wheat, there is an artificial lake and a source of pure, fresh water that could be used to produce bottled water. Before their father died, the farm produced 80,000lb of grain and several ttonnes of hay with a total annual profit of about €35,000.

Today it produces just 330 bales of hay, while wheat production is at zero. Debts have accumulated, year after year, reaching €100,000. “This year, we earned €660,” says Marianna, tears wetting her face. “The mafia has bent but not broken us.”

The sisters have filed more than 28 complaints since 2014 to the Carabinieri, the Italian military police, but their recourse to the law has isolated them in their community. “People no longer say hello to us; workers refuse to come to work with us,” Ina said. “Someone came to ask us to withdraw the complaints, to avoid it getting worse. But we did not.”

A few months ago, the mafia delivered yet another macabre gift to the Napoli sisters: the skins of three sheep.

Those responsible for the gruesome intimidation campaign remain free. While prosecutors are taking the cattle mafia on in dozens of cases across the island, the eight-year campaign against the sisters is not among them. Individual cases of illegal grazing are treated as minor offences, with fines of just €300.

“We hope this sad story receives the right attention from the investigative authorities,” says the sister’s lawyer, Giorgio Bisagna. “Someone needs to investigate all the cases, together, from 2009 to today. If they don’t do it, those criminals will get only a couple of fines.”

The Napoli sisters refuse to surrender and, in a few months, their land will come under the protection of Libera Terra, an association that usually manages lands confiscated from the mafia.

“The bosses thought that stealing from three zitelle would be like stealing candy from a baby,” says Irene, “but this time they messed with the wrong zitelle.”

 

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