Don and dusted: mob hubs in Colombia and Sicily say no to ‘crime tourists’
Magnets for fans of 'Narcos' and 'The Godfather', Medellin and Palermo are revamping their reputations
Cities made famous for their dark criminal underbellies are working together to turn around their reputations – and turn away hordes of crime tourists.
Medellín and Palermo, made famous by television series and films such as Narcos and The Godfather, have joined forces to shake their reputations as underworld hubs harbouring drug cartels and Mafia dons.
Medellín has long been know for its drug kingpins like Pablo Escobar, who murdered police by the hundreds, while in Sicily’s Palermo, mob bosses like Toto “The Beast” Riina assassinated rivals and dissolved their relatives in acid.
But last week the two mayors met in Colombia to witness the demolition of Escobar’s former home, the Monaco Building, where tourists flocked for selfies.
“What is fantastic is the positive connection between our cities today is the exact opposite of the historical connection when they were the capitals of mafia and narco-trafficking,” Leoluca Orlando, the Palermo mayor, said after meeting Federico Gutiérrez.
Orlando, 71, was personally invited to Medellín to witness the demolition. “It was a moment of tremendous emotion. The building just disappeared. When the dust arrived 20 seconds later, the message was clear: change is possible,” he said. “You know, there is an old Sicilian saying: ‘Who is born round cannot die square’. But it is wrong. It is possible to change.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, Medellín was considered the world’s murder capital. Today, violent crime has plummeted and the city is a poster child for urban renewal. The Sicilian capital, Palermo, traditional home of the Cosa Nostra, just celebrated a year as the Italian cultural capital and is now a popular stop for cruise ship passengers who stroll through the streets and markets of the historical centre once controlled by the mob. New crime statistics released last month by the Italian National Institute of Statistics ranked Palermo the safest city in Italy.
But despite this progress, popular TV dramas like Narcos still inspire crime tourists. In Medellín, $50 (R710) buys a “narcotour” of Pablo Escobar’s grave, the roof where he was killed and, until last week, his residence now turned to rubble. But these tours often gloss over decades of murderous brutality toward those who defied the criminal groups.
Now a memorial park honouring Medellín’s more than 46,000 narco-trafficking victims is planned for where Escobar’s home stood.
In Sicily, they trek to locations where real and fictional mob bosses lived and died. In Palermo, guides offer tours to popular locations, like Teatro Massimo where scenes from The Godfather were shot, but also alternative tours to memorials honouring those who died fighting organised crime. They also encourage shopping at the 1,000 businesses that refuse to pay protection money.
It is a far cry from the days when the Cosa Nostra hand-picked mayors and shipped drugs to New York from Punta Raisi Airport, since renamed Falcone Borsellino Airport after the two prosecuting magistrates assassinated by the Mafia in 1992.
“You have to consider how far they’ve come since the 1980s, when Sicily was on its way to becoming to a narco state,” said Mafia expert John Dickie, a professor of Italian Studies at University College London. “Now, in Palermo there is an entire part of the city where ‘anti-Mafia’ is a civic religion.”
Though organised crime has not been defeated, community associations have nurtured an anti-Mafia culture that has inspired businesses to stand up to mob extortion.
Respect for human rights has also flourished in the two decades since the UN adopted transnational organised crime protocols hammered out in Palermo. Much credit is due to Orlando, who has built what observers call “an extraordinary anti-Mafia pedigree”.
– © The Sunday Telegraph