In Palermo, Bangladeshi store owners endured years of extortion and intimidation. Then they confronted the thugs and prevailed.
A local criminal with connections to the mafia in Sicily insulted Yusupha Susso and her two companions while they were strolling through the cobblestoned backstreets of Palermo one afternoon in April 2016. Emanuele Rubino declared, “This is my street,” telling the young immigrants to move aside.
Susso, a 21-year-old from the Gambia, was worried but carried on walking. After all, he thought, he had two friends with him. What could Rubino do?
Soon afterwards, Rubino reappeared with several other men and Susso ran for his life. But Rubino caught up with him and CCTV footage shows him holding a gun, approaching Susso and firing a shot. The bullet hit Susso in the head, but miraculously grazed his brain without seriously damaging it, though he was left in a coma. A few months after the shooting, Susso told me: “Now I feel some pain all the time.” He could no longer sing or play football, or walk far without discomfort.
The attempted assassination did, however, have one benefit: it inspired Palermo’s immigrant merchants to take remarkable action in a city long ruled by the mafia. They came to the conclusion that now was the moment to act, or they may die. They therefore took a stand against extortionists’ demands. 11 business owners—10 from Bangladesh and one from Tunisia—came to the Palermo police with the assistance of a local anti-mafia organisation called Addiopizzo.
“They decided it was time to act — or they could end up dying.”
The majority of victims have previously been silent or voiceless due to fear. The store owners bravely accused a group of mafia-connected individuals of robbing them, stealing from them, assaulting them, harassing them, and making constant requests for money. The Bangladeshis said that they had endured a long list of atrocities.
Addiopizzo means “goodbye protection money” and the group’s mission is to rid Sicily of the mafia extortion rackets that cripple local businesses and terrorise the community. Salvo Caradonna, a lawyer who advises the group and who helped the shopkeepers take their case to court, says their action was significant because “they wanted to press charges together”. The Bangladeshis were willing to do what most local Italians would not, and their united front was far harder to ignore — or scare off — than a lone complainant.
Not only was Rubino arrested for attempted murder, but police also arrested nine other members of his family and their associates for making extortion demands on traders at the city’s Ballaro Market, specifically targeting the Bangladeshi community.
In November last year, the Palermo appeals court upheld Rubino’s 12-year prison sentence for Susso’s murder. But more notably, in April this year, a judge in Palermo sentenced eight of those arrested, including Rubino, to a total of 60 years in prison for extortion, mafia association and segregation. race for traders. The court also recognized the trader’s right to compensation.
In the criminal case, their identities are protected and they do not speak to the media. But after the verdict, two businessmen agreed to be interviewed by me on the condition that their real names not be given. This is the story of how people with humble beginnings fought the mafia and won.
“This is the story of how people from humble origins took on the mafia and won.”
Ballaro is Palermo’s oldest street market and after being neglected for decades, it is firmly established mafia territory. In recent years, however, a growing immigrant community has begun to transform this unloved corner of the Sicilian capital.
Media attention on migrants to Italy has focused on those arriving from North Africa and the high death toll they suffered: It is estimated that more than 900 people have died this year trying to cross the border into Europe. People often forget that many people from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and other Asian countries also come to Sicily. Several politicians I spoke to in Palermo estimated there were between 10,000 and 15,000 Bangladeshis living in the city. On Via Maqueda and Via Roma in the Ballaro neighborhood, Bangladeshi vendors sell cheap plastic goods or run money transfer businesses alongside African women on the street braiding the hair of young Sicilian men.
For years, many Bangladeshi shopkeepers faced demands for protection money from mafia-linked criminals. Tafazzul Topu, a young Bangladeshi community activist who grew up in Palermo, says shopkeepers in his tightknit community would usually not talk about the extortion “because everyone was afraid”. According to Topu, people stayed silent and paid the protection money in order to prevent their shops being robbed.
Joynal Miah was one of those Bangladeshi shopkeepers who had spent years living in fear of mafia-linked criminals. He recalls watching Rubino grow up from a delinquent boy threatening shopkeepers on a moped into a hardened criminal capable of attempted murder in broad daylight. He says the local Ballaro mafia had threatened to rob his shops and kill him, but he was too scared to speak out about the threats or to go to the police. “Everyone knew not to walk on this or that street,” he says.
He was even too afraid to walk his daughter through the area. She used to ask him: “Why don’t you take me to school?” He was too embarrassed to tell her the truth. “I was scared when I saw them,” he tells me. “I wouldn’t look ahead of me.”
Miah’s buddy Amir Ali travelled from Bangladesh to Sicily via Jordan and Rome. He started a company in Palermo but claims he had to pay protection when he opened stores in the Ballaro district.
“It didn’t stop with paying, that was the problem,” Ali tells me. “It went beyond that. They were making threats to the others — those that didn’t pay — threatening them with violence, breaking the windows, threatening the customers. They threatened children, showed off their guns, put it on the table, demanded money. That’s when I thought that the police couldn’t do anything, that was the point at which I was really desperate,” he says.
Just before Susso was shot in 2015, Ali says things had become so bad that he had considered quitting Palermo. “In that period, I thought of closing up everything and leaving,” he says.
After Susso was gunned down in the street, Miah believed the community faced a stark choice. “How much can someone take? It was either go ahead or die, something was going to happen. That’s why we decided to do something.” He was determined to take matters into his own hands and, as a respected voice in the local Bangladeshi community, helped to orchestrate action against the mafia with other shopkeepers. He and Ali joined forces, shared information and approached Addiopizzo for help.
The arrest of Rubino for attempted murder and extortion gave the shopkeepers hope. “After we saw the law working properly we had the courage, not only for us, but also for our children,” Ali says. “It came from that. That was a moment when people started talking, and the fear went away. People felt more free, their mentalities changed.”
Even so, when the extortion court case began towards the end of 2017, it was difficult for the Bangladeshi shopkeepers: they had to attend court to give evidence in person. For the 11 shopkeepers that meant confronting Rubino and his associates. “They all know each other, of course they were scared,’’ says Caradonna, the lawyer advising Addiopizzo.
“This was the first time in my life I was in court,” Miah says. “Even in my own country, I’d only seen a trial on TV.” He says the case took a heavy toll on his wife. “She was very scared. She didn’t know what might happen — whether I might be shot. Who knows?”
The case relied heavily on the shopkeepers’ witness testimony as the main source of evidence for the prosecution because there were no wiretaps or video recordings. This, according to Caradonna, put enormous pressure on the Bangladeshis. In his 15 years of counselling Addiopizzo, he said it was one of the most “emotional” instances he had ever worked with. Miah claims there was no escape from the burden: “We had to cope with it. Returning would have required terminating the business and quitting my work.
Nor did the Bangladeshis get the support of the Sicilian shopkeepers in Ballaro. “The Palermitans in the area wanted to help, but they were even more scared than us,” Miah says. “We went to the police and made the complaint, but none of them wanted to press charges. In their hearts they were with us, but they couldn’t say it.”
As you enter the central street of Ballaro Market, a barrage of sounds assault your senses, as do the smells of Sicilian specialties that permeate the air: arancini, caponata and fried sardines. But the neighborhood still holds a dark side. Young Sicilian men carry suspicious packages through the side streets, Nigerian gangs run brothels where madams act as grooms for trafficked girls, and African women walk along the main road to sell themselves. . In many places, the atmosphere is distinctly dark.
The political climate in Italy is also feverish, partly because of the wave of migrants. However, the judgment in the case of the Bengali Merchants Court had a clear effect. It not only demonstrated that the mafia and other criminal elements could be fought but also showed the contribution that migrants could make to their local communities.
“Not only has it proved that the mafia and other criminal elements can be confronted, but it has also shown the contribution that migrants can make to their local communities.”
At its worst, the Sicilian Cosa Nostra mafia would intimidate and even murder influential officials. Two months after his friend and colleague anti-mafia magistrate Paolo Borsellino was similarly slain by a vehicle bomb in Palermo, the magistrate Giovanni Falcone was assassinated on May 23, 1992, along with his wife and three police officers.
Since then, the Cosa Nostra’s influence has waned and the mafia is now viewed as disorganised and splintered. More than 45 people were detained on charges of extortion, arson, possession of illegal weapons, and mafia membership one year ago this week.
Political change is also in the air. Sumi Dalia Aktar is the first Bengali politician in Sicily, elected as a local councillor for the centre-left Partito Democratico, which shares a coalition with the Five-Star Movement. She says the shopkeepers’ court case has proven beyond doubt her community’s commitment to the city.
Caradonna says the case has led to salvation in Ballaro. “This was the importance of the trial. The liberation of a whole street, a whole neighbourhood.” When the judgments were read out in April, Caradonna says there was silence in the courtroom. “That moment was very special, it was the final act of a whole journey that had gone on for three years.”
For Miah, Palermo has become “very calm”. He hasn’t heard of any burglaries since the spring, and he and his family have lost most, though not all, of their fear. “For my children, there isn’t any fear,” he says. “That’s gone down, and surely will in the future. They will also become Palermitans.
“Now I go to Ballaro without any problems,” he says. “I can take my daughter to school.”