Wed, Jul 20, 2011 - Page 6 News List

FEATURE: Handicapped community takes on the Italian mafia

AFP, LAMEZIA TERME, ITALY

Father Giacomo Panizza, center, poses with members of Progetto Sud at the offices of the association in Lamezia Terme, Italy, on June 21.

Photo: AFP

A challenge to the mafia’s power in this southern Italian town is coming from an improbable source — a priest and six handicapped people in a building confiscated from a local crime clan.

Father Giacomo Panizza’s placid exterior hides an inner tenacity that has helped him face up to death threats from the powerful ’Ndrangheta crime syndicate and become the face of civil society’s resistance to the mob.

The challenge “comes from weak people, some of them in wheelchairs, from unarmed people who have showed themselves stronger than others,” Panizza said in an interview in a nondescript block in the town of Lamezia Terme.

The four-story building, which used to house a gambling arcade that served as a cover for a drug-trafficking operation, has become a symbol of Panizza’s struggle ever since a handicapped community he helped set up moved in in 2004.

“We told Don Panizza: ‘If you accept this challenge we are behind you,’” said Nunzia Coppede, a paraplegic in a wheelchair who was among the first to move in and is one of six handicapped people now living here.

“At the beginning we were a bit scared,” she said.

Panizza said the building was put up illegally on the main road between the center of Lamezia Terme and the airport, but “no-one noticed” because of the code of silence imposed by its powerful owners — the Torcasio clan.

When he first moved in with his non-governmental organization “Progetto Sud,” he remembers that no builders dared work on the place for fear of reprisals from mafia members — some of whom still live in a building next door.

“No locksmith ever wanted to come round,” Panizza said.

The Italian government began confiscating assets from the mafia 30 years ago in Sicily and around Naples in a bid to cut off financing for organized crime.

That process has been more slow-moving in the southern Italian region of Calabria, where the tight-knit structure of the ’Ndrangheta has proved difficult for police to infiltrate.

Panizza’s building was seized from the Torcasios in 2002 and handed over to the local administration in this town of 70,000 people near the coast.

Since taking over the building, Panizza has received numerous threats — some of them brazenly pronounced in front of police officers.

“They told him that they would blow up the house with the ‘spastics’ inside,” said Coppede, adding that community vans had also been vandalized.

Panizza now has police protection.

Despite having “some bad dreams sometimes at night,” Panizza said he was proud of having scored an important victory against the ’Ndrangheta that he said had revived the concept of civil society in a mafia-ridden region.

However, he warned: “This movement has to be built up and encouraged because many people are still the prisoners of resignation and fear.”

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