Giorgio Scimeca was only 19 years old when the Sicilian mafia gunned down his cousin.
More than 25 years later, Scimeca says he will always remember the smell of blood.
“He was running for mayor of our town. I heard the sound of the ambulance but when I arrived on the scene he was already dead,” Scimeca told CNN.
Back then, even the ambition of running for public office in a small town like Caccamo, 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Sicilian capital Palermo, was risky business, as the mob would go to extreme lengths to assert its control over the Italian island, killing judges, policemen and even businesspeople who couldn’t be bought.
Now, Scimeca is among thousands of Sicilians fighting back by refusing to pay the “pizzo” – protection money upon which the Cosa Nostra’s empire was traditionally built.
“It all started when I opened a bar with my sister and brother,” Scimeca remembers.
“This guy I knew came in asking to borrow money. Then he would ask to borrow my car – perhaps to move drugs around – and before you know it he’s knocking at your door in the middle of the night with stolen goods.”
“They pretend they are a friend. Then they try and trap you and make you complicit,” he adds.
Scimeca refused to pay. Instead he called the police – a risky strategy that nearly cost him his livelihood.
At first, locals shunned his bar, fearing the mob’s revenge. Then an organization called Addiopizzo stepped in.
Taking a stand
Addiopizzo, which means “Goodbye to the racket,” is a grassroots movement founded by a group of friends who were keen to start their own businesses – but not so keen on sharing their spoils.
“Until recently, talking about the pizzo used to be taboo,” says Addiopizzo’s co-founder, 40-year-old lawyer Salvatore Caradonna. “But now people are openly questioning such extortion.”
Based in a property seized from a mafia don, Addiopizzo provides legal, moral and social support to those brave enough to report extortionists to the police – a move that previously could have seen a shop burned down and its owner shunned or even physically harmed.
With the help of a million euros (about $1.18 million) from the European Union, the group has been able to invest in rebuilding deprived communities with high unemployment rates, previously a fertile recruitment ground for the mafia.
Addiopizzo’s network now includes over 1,000 of Palermo’s 80,000 businesses as members, each proudly displaying a logo reading: “I pay those who don’t pay” in their windows.
With around 13,000 customers, those shops have found that courage can offer the bonus of attracting a loyal, socially-conscious clientele.
Since signing up to the Addiopizzo network, many stores have reported a rise in sales and a drop in mob visits – a trend confirmed by Palermo’s Chief Prosecutor Francesco Lo Voi.
“When Cosa Nostra members are aware of the possibility that one of their victims can report them to the police, it keeps them away from even asking for the pizzo,” Lo Voi told CNN.
“It’s a help for us because the fight against the mafia can’t be done only by judicial or law enforcement agencies – it must come from the whole population too,” he said.
Such resistance hasn’t gone unnoticed among the mob’s higher echelons.
The head of one of Palermo’s most feared clans was heard complaining about Addiopizzo on a wiretap set up while he was in jail, saying that the organization was ruining the prospects for young recruits, while mafia wives and girlfriends have had to take pay cuts, according to authorities.
The mafia has diversified into alternative sources of income – from drug running to money laundering – but the drop in protection money is making a dent in Italian organized crime’s financial empire, which is estimated to generate around 100 billion euros ($118 billion) in profits per year, according to a 2012 report by the Italian business association Confesercenti.
And it’s not just the mafia’s business model that the people of Palermo are turning on its head.
In his 50 years as an entrepreneur in Palermo, Guido Agnello has never paid the mafia, despite repeated demands and threats. Yet, ironically, he now makes his money from selling one of their iconic symbols – the coppola, or flat cap.
“I called my business ‘La coppola storta’ – or the crooked cap – to shine a light on their crooked ways,” he says. “After all, they have been threatening my family since before I was born.”
Agnello’s uncle was kidnapped by Salvatore Giuliano – one of the fiercest mobsters of his time – and was only released several months after his family handed over substantial land holdings, jewels and cash.
“One day you would arrive at work and notice the padlock on your shop has been glued shut. That would be a first sign,” he explains. “Then the threatening letters come through the door,” including one that his uncle received – a poisoned note signed with a skull and cross.
“I even had a mobster come all the way from America when I wouldn’t pay locally. He strong-armed me all around town, publicly,” Agnello says.
Although nowadays the mafia gives people like Agnello and Scimeca more room to breathe, some still feel they are never really safe.
“The mafia never forgets,” Scimeca said. “But for Sicilians like me, if more of us continue to speak out and take a stand against their ways, the safer we will be.”
CNN’s Milena Veselinovic contributed to this article.