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10 Bangladeshis stared down the Sicilian mafia, and won

  • Published at 08:22 pm January 14th, 2019
palermo-mafia_EPA
Palermo is the port of arrival in Italy for most immigrants across the Mediterranean EPA

In the heartland of the mafiosi, a band of migrant shopkeepers brought La Cosa Nostra to their knees

Palermo could have been a pearl on the Mediterranean. But centuries of rigid, unyielding grip by the mafiosi have maintained a blight over the island city in Sicily. The myth of the mafia has been immortalized through pop culture and their own exported culture of violence.

Aerial view of Palermo, Sicily | Pixabay

La Cosa Nostra, or "friends of the friends", as they are more politely referred to, have survived monarchies, autocracies, world wars, and dozens of democratic government. In fact, they have thrived. They are homicidally bent on forcing respect from all other groups, especially ones they extort. The definition of respect has become ludicrous, as made evident by the case of Yusupha Susso, a 21-year-old Gambian.

On April 4, 2016, Yusupha was walking with two friends in Ballaro market, a hive for the booming migrant community in Palermo, when a mafioso walking on the same street hurled insults at them. The norm would have been to swallow the epithet and continue walking, and inspire more to follow in their wake. But on this day, Yusupha was not feeling like kowtowing. He retorted, asking why the mafioso had to be rude and could not leave the migrants well-enough alone, especially after regularly paying protection money.

The act of defiance incensed the gangster, who stormed off angrily, and returned with a handgun to shoot the Gambian migrant in the head.

The barbaric and banal act of violence sent shockwaves throughout the city of Palermo. And the migrants from Bangladesh, Libya, Nigeria, and many other countries, did not cower. Instead they rallied and marched on the streets to send a message of defiance to the mafia.

But symbolic acts do not change the status quo. Ten brave Bangladeshi shopkeepers decided it was enough, according to Deutsche Welle.

They did not turn into sneering vigilantes a la Denzel Washington in "Man on Fire" or Masud Rana in "Agnipurush". They did not take to the streets in public protests. They banded together and filed a criminal case with the police against the mafia. Yes, they pursued the much-maligned and oft-discarded legal route.

It was an audacious move on their part. For the better part of a century and then some, the code of silence had reigned supreme. The ten Bangladeshis braced themselves against the threat and pushed forward with their allegations, which led to the arrest of ten members of the Rubino mafia family in May 2016, one of whose numbers had shot Yusupha. It was an electrifying moment, something hitherto unimaginable on the streets of Palermo. 

It was just the beginning of things, as two years of follow-up investigations led to December 2018 arrest of Sicilian mafia "godfather" Settimino Mineo and 40 members of the mafia, says the South China Morning Post. 

Don Settimino Mineo of the Sicilian mafia escorted away by the police | AFP

The Bangladeshi shopkeepers did not budge from their accusations in the face of intimidation. They knew their stoic resilience would shape the present and future of Sicily for generations. Mineo was not just the head of the Sicilian mafia, he was also a major candidate to be the "capo di tutti capo" (boss of the bosses) in the Italian mafia. It was no mean feat, as even chief justices and police chiefs crusading against the mafia have been blown up, shot, poisoned, and disposed of in a myriad number of ways. With such heady threats looming, the Bangladeshis did not waver.

It is almost poetic that a group with a history of exporting a culture of violence was brought to its knees by a group of people who come from a land that has a history of standing up against violent oppressors.