After the suicide, a wall of silence

Andrew Gumbel on the lonely terror of a family who defied the gangs

Niscemi - The Papillon fur and jewellery shop is one of the few half-decent buildings standing in the miserable southern Sicilian town of Niscemi. Tucked away down a rutted, nameless side-street, off one of the main roads leading out of town, it offers a welcome splash of colour and well-scrubbed affluence among the monotonous, dilapidated strings of crumbling houses and shops.

The man who built it, Salvatore Frazzetto, was a property speculator who had dreams of bringing some honest, attractive business to this most depressed corner of the Italian south. But Mr Frazzetto did not count on the sheer hostility of the local Mafia gangs who have successfully strangled all similar attempts at independent private enterprise in the past.

On 16 October last year, two thugs burst into the shop and threatened Mr Frazzetto and his 23-year-old son Mimmo at knife point. When their demands for protection money went unheeded, they cut the two men up before finishing them off with a pistol. Mr Frazzetto's widow, Agata Azzolina, was determined not to cave into the pressure of the mobsters and, for a while, kept the shop going as a gesture of defiance. But she, too, was gradually ground down. On New Year's Eve the thugs returned to the shop and beat her up. She started receiving anonymous letters demanding millions of lire. Her customers deserted her, intimidated not only by the violence she had suffered but by the three soldiers sent by the authorities to stand guard outside.

Repeatedly, she and the mayor of Niscemi, Salvatore Liardo, requested a police escort but were told no resources were available for such a service.

Mrs Azzolina's persecutors followed her everywhere, even to the cemetery where they accosted her while she was grieving over the tombs of her loved ones, threatening to kill her remaining child, 21-year-old Chiara, if she did not pay up.

By the end of March, Mrs Azzolina could stand it no longer and hanged herself with a piece of nylon cord in her kitchen. "Forgive me, Chiara," she wrote in her suicide note. "Leave this god-forsaken place. I can't take it any longer."

For the moment, Chiara has not left, but she is desperately, terrifyingly, alone. Apart from the mayor, no state official turned up to her mother's funeral. Niscemi's shopkeepers were supposed to close their shutters for a day of mourning but carried on working as normal. The scores of death notices put up around the town at the municipality's expense disappeared in days. It was as if Agata Azzolina had never existed.

Chiara now has the escort that was denied to her mother, but it has only isolated her further from the rest of the town. She has retreated into the cocoon of her remaining family and refuses to speak to anyone.

Her 84-year-old grandfather, himself isolated and ignored by his neighbours, said: "I think she'll go soon, maybe not far, but far enough to get out of here. Her life has been shattered and there's certainly no future for her in Niscemi." Chiara's grandmother sits in a wheelchair behind a first- floor window and stares forlornly down into the street all day long.

The terrible story of the Frazzetto family is indicative of a new strain of Mafia activity in Sicily that has grown up over the past 10 years and is becoming ever more virulent. The extortionists and murderers that prey on Niscemi and the surrounding towns are not part of Cosa Nostra, the classical Sicilian Mafia, with its honour codes and strict family-based hierarchies.

They are a wilder, more volatile and ultimately more frightening phenomenon, known to Mafia experts as stiddari - members of a rival organisation to Cosa Nostra named after the Sicilian dialect word for a star, stidda, because many of its members are tattooed with star motifs.

The stiddari thrive in areas with no longstanding Mafia tradition, taking advantage of economic recession to pick up recruits and squeezing all available drops of wealth out of backwaters like Niscemi.

They do not operate protection rackets in any systematic way, or have any organised hold on the local state authorities; rather, they pounce on people in unpredictable fashion and generate a climate of fear as and when it suits them.

In Niscemi, gangland killings have taken place in the main square, right under the noses of the town council. Last year, a 19-year-old boy called Pierantonio Sandri disappeared mysteriously and has not been heard of again. Cars are not so much stolen as taken hostage - the owner being plagued by anonymous phone calls until he pays a bounty on his vehicle.

Businessmen complain of frequent attacks on their property and of intimidating phone calls, some of them apparently made by members of the police.

There was a fire in the projection booth of Niscemi's only functioning cinema recently, accompanied by a volley of pistol shots. When the manager got home that night, the front door of his building had been burned down.

The fear is palpable in the averted glances, in the tightly closed shutters, in the suspicion underscoring the overtly warm welcome offered to outsiders.

In Niscemi's main square, unemployed young men with large wads of cash in their pockets loiter outside an insalubrious bar. Town council workers turn away from them as soon as they come out of their building, scurrying away down the dusty side streets.

The Mafia never likes to operate under a spotlight, and the blaze of publicity surrounding Agata Azzolina's suicide has made Niscemi close ranks completely. Even Mayor Liardo, who until recently was making all the right noises and has worked hard to improve basic conditions in the town, has started complaining about Niscemi's bad press.

"This is not a Mafia town," he insisted, even while listing his problems with extortion, murder, kidnapping, drugs trafficking and the rest. "We just a have a problem with delinquency. People here are honest and hardworking."

The head of the local small business association, Giovanni Millitari, admitted on the day of Mrs Azzolina's funeral that he had paid protection money - albeit in kind rather than in cash. Two weeks later, having been summoned by an investigating magistrate to explain himself, he was complaining of having been maliciously misquoted. As for the cinema owner, a Mr Agliotta, he had only one thing to say about his recent misfortunes: "Nothing happened to me. Nothing at all."

This is the fourth in a continuing series on the new mafia.

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