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Car Parkers!
by Vincenzo Salerno

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Car parker accepts payment from German motorist in Palermo's Piazza Castelnuovo.If not a prominent tourist attraction, it's one of the few forms of organised crime visible to the naked eye. The "tip of the iceberg" or, in more Sicilian parlance, a tentacle of "the octopus." A profitable enterprise divided among local bosses, often with the tacit approval of local law enforcement authorities. We're talking about those greedy little men known as posteggiatori ("car parkers"). This is a blatantly illegal "profession" pursued in streets and squares --public property-- of large southern Italian cities, Palermo being the worst offender in Sicily. Legally, parking in most of these areas is free of charge. Sporting money pouch belts, American style baseball caps and police whistles, these local men, and some African immigrants pressed into service in less profitable zones, will charge you at least a euro (payable in advance, naturally) to "assist" you in parking your automobile in "their" territory. The Africans seem more affable than most of the Sicilians who, if you don't pay, may damage your vehicle. Think of your payment as extra insurance or "protection money." Lack of parking space makes it easy for motorists to fall prey to these charlatans, and the police don't follow up on offences unless you're present to confront the car parker face to face following an immediate complaint (perhaps initiated with a call from a cell phone) that he demanded money from you. The posteggiatore will deny it, of course. He's just standing around in a baseball cap and money belt because he prefers this kind of exercise. Even if the police issue a court summons, the car parker, being listed as "unemployed" in the labour rolls, will probably be exempt from paying any fine. Thank the Italian welfare state for that, but the fact that the problem exists at all is the fault of the most famous Sicilian criminal organisation, usually referred to as "the Mafia."

Taking Palermo as an example, each large Sicilian city is divided into zones of Mafia influence. Illegally, of course. Boundaries of larger Mafia jurisdictions shift constantly. Presently, it appears that Palermo's two most powerful clans, the San Lorenzo and Brancaccio, have divided most of the city, including prestigious neighborhoods and the old historical district, roughly in half. There's no actual "San Lorenzo" family, Italian Mafia clans usually being named for the geographical areas they "control" through protection money collections (the "pizzo"), illegal gambling and other rackets. The Riina and Provenzano families, for example, are identified with the town of Corleone, hence the term "corleonesi" (Mario Puzo's inspiration for the name of the crime family in The Godfather).

It's true that the more elite ranks of the Mafia are now associated with political corruption and things like expensive construction contracts and international money laundering, but in Palermo the Madonia family, lords of the so-called "San Lorenzo" territory, still make a good deal of money from their share of the car parking and pizzo ("protection") rackets. Mafia influence in local politics may partially explain why Palermo has not installed more parking meters, which, at least in theory, would discourage the car parker phenomenon. But we've even seen car parkers on parts of Via Libertà where there are meters, and in parking lots (car parks). The typical car parker, such as the one in the photo above (accepting payment from a German tourist in Piazza Castelnuovo), gives at least half his daily revenues to an intermediary of the Mafia, who in turn deducts a percentage before giving the remainder to a local boss. Sometimes there's the bustarella (bribe) for the patronage of various local bureaucrats, but in reality that may not occur as often as many people suspect. We estimate that, after paying the posteggiatori and other collaborators, each of the Palermo gangs nets at least five thousand euros in an average week from car parking. That's over a quarter million US dollars yearly, all tax-free. Crime pays.

Why, apart from these statistics, are we dedicating this space to a few petty criminals? It's because they are part of the larger picture of organized crime in Sicily. If there's no serious law enforcement for relatively minor Mafia activity, what can we expect when larger issues --even life and death-- are at stake?

Let's define the term "corruption." It doesn't always mean "illegal." When a mayor allows a friend to buy a piece of public property without it going to public auction, that's corruption. When the same mayor assigns public monies or public contracts to friends, with no public review taking place, that's corruption. Italian law makes such things easy, even legal. This "theft" or misappropriation of public funds is serious enough, but failure to protect citizens from organised crime is far more serious, even in a city (such as Palermo) that once had a known Fascist war criminal (Giovanni Ravalli) for a police prefect.

I used to believe that Sicilian bureaucrats were being persuaded to turn a blind eye to the activities of the car parkers, but it's not always that simple. Even if it were, this would constitute only a small, if lucrative, part of the institutionalised corruption that permeates Sicilian public life. It is for this reason that Sicilians compare the Mafia to an octopus ("piovra") whose arms seem able reach every place in Sicily. That said, it's unfortunate that the posteggiatori operate with impunity under the eyes of Italian police officers. The two most offensive cases I've seen are the car parkers who work in the piazzas across from the Tribunale (courthouse) and next to the carabinieri station behind Palermo's Teatro Massimo opera house! Sadly, this kind of thing, with its links to organized crime, makes a mockery of Italian justice. But nobody seems to care. Call it "apathy."

Sometimes the law itself is inefficient in punishing the offenders. After all, "unemployed" car parkers may be exempt from paying fines, though the local police occasionally pursue cases against these thieves when enough complaints have accumulated. I believe that a week or two in jail would be more effective. Sometimes the various law enforcement agencies cannot decide which one should enforce the law. The carabinieri (a national para-military police force) say it's the responsibility of the polizia (national police), who think it's the job of the vigili urbani (local traffic police). So nobody does anything. In practice, it's often difficult to enforce the law because even successful prosecution (for a crime considered extortion in Italian law) may not yield serious punishment. The time it takes for you to file a complaint at the police station and then appear in court months later at the car parker's trial hardly seems justified if the magistrates cannot fine or arrest the scoundrel, who shows up with his sobbing wife claiming that he was simply trying to earn a living. Most car parkers come from an ignorant, closed, suspicious, illiterate, depraved Sicilian social stratum that fails to distinguish right from wrong. It's the lowest caste of Italian society, easily influenced by organised crime. They're not the kind of people that anybody well-educated enough to be reading this article would likely want to associate with in any way. And that's one reason why few middle class Sicilians want to get involved by filing formal complaints against car parkers and people like them. Here in Sicily, socio-economic class distinctions are enormous, with a social chasm wider than anything you'll find elsewhere in the European Union (European Community).

My own experience was that by the time the police arrived in response to my telephone call, the offending car parker had fled, perhaps inferring from my defiant attitude that he was about to have an unplanned encounter with the law. His wife, a dirty, unkempt woman of about sixty who could barely speak standard Italian, soon arrived on the scene cursing at me in the Sicilian dialect and telling the police that she had seen everything (in fact she had not been present when her husband demanded payment) and that her husband, who just minutes earlier had tried to extort money from me, was the victim. His cowardice in fleeing the scene didn't seem to bother her. It was a pathetic episode, complete with blatant lies, and something that more civilised people obviously seek to avoid. Tragically, this car parker and his wife represent the very worst stereotype that foreigners and northern Italians entertain of lower-class Sicilians as dirty, ignorant, cowardly and dishonest. This is certainly not the kind of image I want my fellow Sicilians to represent to you or to anybody visiting Palermo! That's far beyond doubt. For over eighty years, the Italian state has made every attempt to improve the education and social responsibility of southern Italians and eradicate the roots of organised crime. Northern Italians (whose cities are not plagued by car parkers and Mafia clans) have coined the cruel term terrune (literally "dirt people") to describe Sicilians such as this car parker. (In fact, many natives of Milan, Turin and Bologna zealously apply this word to any Sicilian who lives in their cities, even if he or she is a respectable citizen. Though Milan and Turin are full of Sicilians, you rarely encounter a Milanese or Torinese in Palermo.)

The car parker incident was ugly, but the local police were exemplary, and that's encouraging. They did their duty and investigated immediately. Though they didn't find the hiding car parker, they were most cooperative and very professional, and I'm proud of them. I heartily commend their dedication. It's unfortunate that the courts and penal code are not more supportive of their efforts. Law enforcement officers certainly deserve Sicilians' full support if things are ever to change for the better, and if the Mafia and its petty collaborators are ever to be defeated.

You and I can't solve the car parker problem overnight, but I want to offer a solution of sorts. Even under the best of circumstances, I don't encourage anybody to drive through the chaos of traffic in Sicily's larger cities (though Catania is less chaotic than Palermo). And I certainly don't encourage you to drive over a posteggiatore, though I'll admit it's a tempting thought! Let's look at the car parker situation pragmatically. Every euro ends up in somebody's hand, but in this case cutting off a Mafia tentacle has never been easier. Just take the bus or walk instead of driving in the center of Sicilian cities. You'll help to alleviate the smog problem and get the added satisfaction that Mafiosi are raking in just a little bit less. At least from you.

I don't wish to encourage confrontation, but here's another approach for those who insist on driving in Palermo, Sicily's largest city, and are harassed by a car parker. Pay him but take his picture (as a "tourist" you probably carry a camera) and send it, accompanied by a brief explanatory letter mentioning the time, place and date where the posteggiatore solicited payment, perhaps enclosing a copy of this article, to the office of the Questore (police chief) of Palermo at:

Il Signor Questore
Questura di Palermo
Piazza della Vittoria
90134 Palermo PA

Have your letter translated into Italian if possible, but rest assured that the Questore's staff includes translators.

About the Author: Palermo native Vincenzo Salerno has written biographies of several famous Sicilians, including Frederick II and Giuseppe di Lampedusa. He has also written about anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone.

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© 2002 Vincenzo Salerno