For over a century the criminal syndicate in Sicily, Italy named the “Cosa Nostra” has been forcefully controlling the region. The federation of Mafia families maintain control through voter fraud, racketeering, smuggling, loan sharking, imposing wage controls, and using violence and killings to limit competition and intimidate. Over the decades the power of the Mafia waxed and waned. Internal strife led to the killing of hundreds in rival families during the Mafia wars in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Their penchant for violence did not limit itself to internal conflict. Frequently those who opposed the mafia, citizen reformers, police officers, and elected officials, had been killed for trying to hold the crime lords accountable for their actions.
Many citizens of Sicily, learned to live under the limitations and conditions the Mafia created. Shopkeepers, farmers and land owners would pay protection money to continue their livelihoods without violence or fear of theft.
Luigi Ciotti was born far from the Sicilian Mafia, in the town of Pieve di Cadore in Northern Italy on September 10, 1945. Later his family would move to Turin, Italy. Like many large cities, Turin faced diverse social problems, including drug and alcohol addiction, poverty, AIDS, prostitution, and human trafficking. To make matters worse, the Mafia had recently gained influence in Turin.
Determined to make a difference, the 19 year old Luigi Ciotti founded the Gruppo Abele, a non-profit organization seeking to “give voice to the voiceless.” Luigi envisioned Gruppo Abele to connect with troubled youth in juvenile detention centers and struggling drug addicts to help build a network of legal and financial support around them so they can begin a process of change. As Gruppo Abele began to get involved in the lives of the youth, their services expanded to meet many of the causes that led to their current situations. Gruppo Abele soon began offering education and information services, community housing for the homeless, preventative health care, alternatives for imprisoned teens, and services specifically tailored to the needs of women victims of trafficking and violence.
“I’m just a citizen who feels within himself the overwhelming need for justice.” – Luigi Ciotti
By 1972, Luigi had completed his studies at a seminary in Rivoli and became an ordained priest. He was assigned the streets of Turin as his “parish.” Now that he was officially responsible for adults as well as the youth he had already been serving, Luigi began looking at the broader causes of the social problems his community faced. First he helped the community launch a much wanted community center. Later he would help bring together public and private institutions and citizens to establish and lead the CNCA (to specifically meet the needs of drug addicts), and be a founding member of LILA (an organization to address the growing AIDS epidemic).
Even with these organizations and community efforts in full swing, unemployment, drug use, and prostitution rings continued. The Mafia was controlling wages, working conditions and employment opportunities. High unemployment and low wages helped maintain the Mafia’s control on a region and supply them with “soldiers” to join their ranks.
Those who stood up, like Peppino Impastato, who openly opposed the Mafia and challenged them politically were threatened or assassinated. In 1992, anti-Mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were targeted and killed by the Mafia. In 1993, a priest named Pino Puglisi and a year later in 1994 a priest named Guiseppe Diana were killed for speaking against illegal drug trafficking, kickbacks and the wealth and development drain the Mafia had imposed on their regions. In light of these recent murders and attacks, one would expect that the charismatic Luigi Ciotti and his allies would lay low and avoid attention. Instead, they chose to found Libera. Libera meaning “free” is a network with the goal of coordinating locally and nationally to promote lawfulness and justice.
From 1995 onward, Libera has been connecting and empowering organizations, school groups, businesses and communities to commit to being free from Mafia control and “taxes.” Commitments include maintaining financial transparency and providing a Mafia-free workplace, Mafia-free housing, Mafia-free shops.
“I want to clarify that the movement is not ‘mine,’ but that it belongs to all those who have and continue to contribute their ideas, energy, and passion. Only ‘we’ counts in social causes, not ‘I.’” – Luigi Ciotti
As recently as 2005, researchers found that over 70 percent of shopkeepers in Sicily still pay a form of extortion to the Mafia for “protection.” Meaning even those who wish not to participate in the Mafia are indirectly supporting it, simply by buying food or frequenting a local shop connected to the illegal economy. Following an increase in student organizing and leaders such as Francesco Galante, Libera has begun to expand its influence. One prime example is Libera Terra (Free Land). Libera Terra has worked to gain legal control of Sicilian land confiscated from Mafia bosses and turn it into cooperative organic farming. These farms provide food and wine that will no longer transfer profit or power to the Mafia. Their products are slowly becoming available throughout Italy.
Servant leaders like Luigi Ciotti and the communities that are standing together are slowly turning the tides of corruption and oppression in Italy. His simple commitment to listening to the needs of his community and his willingness to risk his safety and sacrifice his time and energy to meet those needs are why Luigi Ciotti has been recognized as a Moral Hero. Luigi continues to lead in various organizations and writes as a columnist and editor for the Nacomafie, a monthly magazine that has been documenting the aggression of organized crime since he began it in 1993.