Brancaccio Commissariat

They are the good guys, watching over the evil heart of Palermo. They live where the Mafia live, among broken-down streets, neon-lit bars it is better not to enter. Monitored by Mafia informers who race by on their mopeds. Surrounded by decaying buildings and the odd memorial plaque here and there, the most famous of which can be found on the Piazza Anita Garibaldi, where Padre Pino Puglisi was killed by a shot in the back of the neck. Born here, the prodigal son returned to found a school. He wanted to get the children off the streets, out of the clutches of criminality.

The good ones sit inside a grey building, close to the railway tracks, resembling a rain-worn factory. It may seem deserted, but this is the site of a commissariat. With the state emblems, bulletproof glass, barriers and a gate, amid the lush undergrowth of Palermo’s outlying districts. This particular district goes by the name of Brancaccio. The commissariat is called the “outpost of the lost”. And the young men who are striving for an exit strategy from this misery, for thirteen hundred Euros a month, are christened the “Brancagel”.

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The word “Brancagel” is uttered as contemptuously in these parts as “sbirro” in Sicily (and Campania and Calabria as well), as the cops, the fuzz are known. The name’s etymological roots go back to the ice cream factory once housed in this cement block. “Branca” derives from Brancaccio and “gel” from “gelato”, or ice cream. Previously, the commissariat was situated in a ground floor flat with kitchen tiles and water pipes in the entrance, part of a cheap residential block. The apartment was destroyed one night – by a gas cylinder with a time fuse, not by bulldozers. The present commissariat, previously an ice cream factory, also had a baptism of fire. A bomb planted on the roof was set to explode on the day of its inauguration in 1991, but the danger was averted just in time. Still, authority stepped forward in the form of the Alto Commissario, responsible for matters concerning the Mafia. High Commissioner Emanuele De Francesco raised the flag, announcing “we shall not be intimidated”. And then he was gone. Only the Brancagel remained.

76,000 people live in Brancaccio, their quality of life is extremely poor. No cinemas, no theatres, no sports fields, just overflowing drains, festering puddles, a miserable level of income, record-breaking numbers of convictions. Fifty people work in the commissariat, running the office and leading investigations, as well as – if the need arises – offering psychotherapeutic assistance and social aid. The streets of the district are a labyrinth covering hundreds of miles. Derelict buildings, backyards, cul-de-sacs, piles of rubbish, unlit alleys.

 

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A patrol covers the streets in each six-hour shift, accompanied by their patron saints to keep them from harm.

Leading the team of investigators is Peppino Costantino, 40 years of age, with a thinnish beard, dark glasses and slim hands. The Mafiosi call him Barbuzza (the bearded one), Can ca’ Barba or Muslim, whichever suits the situation best. He wears a sports jacket, carries two handguns and follows three rules to stay alive: “Trust no one. Stay alert at all times. Never get used to it.” The last is the most important of the three, as “the decay and desolation can get you down so much, it can eat away at your heart and make a blind man of you.. if that happens, then they have beaten you.

Never get used to it. Especially when you see children, ten years old, trained in the art of selling drugs. Or Nigerian girls sent naked onto the streets like slaves. Or when you discover that the new clans are using hearses for their drug deals, lining coffins with cocaine. Or when nobody has seen a thing, nobody heard any shooting, everyone held captive by fear, lie, the Omertà, a wall of silence. Or when you want to make an arrest and they are lobbing roof tiles and wash basins out of the windows at you and the women surround your car, crying and screaming and cursing for as long as it takes for the suspect to make his getaway.”

Peppino Costantino has four men and one woman in his team. They work in the commissariat’s largest, neon-lit room, furnished with plastic desks, old iron cabinets, card index boxes, a map of the district on the wall, a photocopier which has run out of toner, computers – but no internet connection.

No internet?

“There isn’t any connection yet.”

And how does that work?

“We manage.”

How?

“With paper, with our memories, with archives from other commissariats.”

Half of the team is out in the field. The other half is here with him: Fabrizio Di Mazio, his right-hand man, sports jacket, blue eyes, a soft smile on his lips, and Giuseppe Aru, an excellent police officer, a cheerful character, standing firm with his hands in his pockets. The families of all three live outside the district. In places they prefer not to mention. Far away. They also go shopping elsewhere, if needs be. Keeping their distance. Giving away as little as possible about themselves, their wives and children, if indeed they have any. Who can say if they have a home, a wife and children, a weakness of any kind?

Costantino says: “It’s a job you do, if you believe in it.”

Believe in it – what do you mean by that?

“Irregular working hours. Permanent stress. Taking the occasional day off from holidays you didn’t use last year.”

And what do you get out of it?

“That’s a good question.”

Do you ask yourself sometimes?

“Every single day.”

And?

“Let’s take a ride, maybe I’ll come up with a good answer.”

Let’s do just that. Their own two cars are parked outside in the dusty yard, a Fiat Brava and a Fiat Punto, both of which have seen better days, when their paintwork sparkled in the sunlight and the engines started up instantaneously, without coughing out black clouds of smoke. Before the doors squeaked and pedestrians did not stop to watch them bounce over holes in the road, as they do today, spitting on the pavement as they see them driving by. Maybe they will use their mobile phones to report back on the officers’ movements. Just like the guy on the opposite side of the street at this very moment, a picture of equanimity as he speaks: “They are on the move now. Where the fuck are these Brancagel off to?” As one might imagine, this warning message is all part of the day’s routine.
The district of Brancaccio is not marked on the pretty maps of the town which can be found in the hotels at Palermo’s centre. Indeed, why should it be? There are no restaurants, no tourist trails, no sights to be seen here. With the possible exception of the Giardino della Memoria, the memorial garden on the road to Ciaculli – two and a half acres of greenery close to a deconsecrated church and the former villa of Mafia boss Michele Greco, known as the pope. Each of the trees here bears the name of a Mafia victim. School groups or official parties sometimes visit the garden, but at other times the wind blowing through the trees is the only sign of activity. The scent of orange blossom and the stench of smog fill the air.

Brancaccio is a district of some importance. In the 1950s, lemon and orange groves stretched out here as far as the eye could see. Beautiful villas, flowers, swallows and the splendour of Palermo’s Conca d’oro. Then the Sacco di Palermo came along, the great investment scandal which put paid to all that. The era of Vito Ciancimino, Mayor and Andreottiano (associate of Andreotti), transformed this paradise into a miserable hell with a speculative programme of cheap apartment blocks. Good for the drug trade, the conscription of soldiers and the “pizzo” (protection money) demanded of the factories in the so-called industrial zone. In those days, even the dogs had to pay protection money in Brancaccio, so they say. The Graviano brothers, Giuseppe and Filippo, allies of Totò Riina’s Corleone Mafiosi, took charge of the empire as absolute rulers over every soul. Including those who marched past the brothers’ windows during their patron saint processions as a demonstration of their respect and honour. Up until 29 September 1990, when Padre Puglisi was summoned to say Mass at the church of San Gaetano. The son of a cobbler and dressmaker, he had the heart of a lion. His lesson to the congregation was to pray only to God, not to the Mafiosi. He strove to establish the first school between the pitiful dwellings on the Via Hazon, to get the children off the streets. On the evening of his sixty-fifth birthday, the 15 September 1993, he came home to find himself staring down the barrel of a 7.65 silencer. He smiled as he recognised his executioner, Mafia hit man Salvatore Grigoli, 13 murders on his conscience. “Just what I expected” he said, before he died.

He is survived by two things, in addition to the tree in the Giardino della Memoria. His smile, which moved Grigoli to undergo a conversion (“I will never forget the light in his eyes”), turning principal witness after receiving a visit from Karol Wojtyla in jail. And the plaque at the school, named after Puglisi, keeping his memory alive like a posthumous dream, a promise kept.

“They broke in here one night last week, turned the place over and made off with a few old computers”, Costantino and Di Mazio explain as we drive ever so slowly through a crowd who follow our progress or disappear behind their doors. A Piaggio three-wheeler (Apecar) drives alongside us, a little boy standing on the truck bed, trying to keep his balance amongst crates of sea anemones. “I have arrested that driver seven times already. He wants to show he isn’t afraid of us.” At which point he overtakes us with a smile, only to pull up a moment later in front of a bar with darkened blue windows. “The bar owner has gone into hiding.” Immediately alongside is a car mechanic’s, closed down on account of drug dealing. The row continues with a series of empty shops, now used by prostitutes. As far as the gate where somebody was killed a few months ago.

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Costantino lights a cigarette, inhales and tells his partner: “Take a right, so he can see it.” He points out imaginary corpses along the wide road: “We’d pick up at least one every day when things came to a head in the late Eighties, early Nineties. They dropped us off here, in the Via Conte Federico, which runs into the Via Brancaccio. We’d be out on patrol until dawn. First, we’d collect the dead and then we’d go for breakfast.”
Arrested and charged with the 1993 bombings, the Graviano brothers were succeeded by the Guttadauro family. Guiseppe was the boss, a doctor, ruling in the name of Mafia chief Bernardo Provenzano. Giuseppe Guttadauro specialized in hospitals and made life uncomfortable for Sicily’s regional minister, Totò Cuffaro, during his reelection campaign and the Sicilian minister for health, Mimmo Miceli. In this, the penultimate era of the Mafia, private clinics were the new treasure chests waiting to be emptied, receiving government subvention amounting to millions. Much of which passed through Brancaccio.

In Brancaccio, a dose of stepped on cocaine costs between 15-20 Euros. “You can get it around the clock, easier than in the supermarket.” The boys with their mobiles spring into action. They hide their stash in the most unlikely places, even in children’s chocolate surprise eggs for a while, concealed within withered palm leaves. In Brancaccio you can get hold of weapons, explosives and contacts to buy stolen cars, motorbikes, scooters, furniture, televisions or other electronic goods and clothes. “You can find yourself talking to a fifteen year old kid or a seventy year old man. Whatever.”
Brancaccio has experts in weapons-free robberies: they drive to a different part of town, pay a visit to some guy, tell him: we know who you are, we know where you live, we know your children’s timetable. Bring us twenty thousand Euros tomorrow and nobody has to die this time. “This town is like one big cash machine to these characters. Push the button, take the money and go.”

Brancaccio is also home to blowtorch specialists. They break into shops, apartments, offices, fill entire delivery trucks with stolen goods. The vans are unloaded directly into the cellars of the district, into the belly of cheap apartment blocks.

“There is a spot in Brancaccio”, Costantino says, “where there is a particular thing I would really like to do.” He brings the car to a halt up on the Ponte dei Mille bridge, beside the railway station. He gets out and motions to the road before us which leads to the town centre. “You see this road? If I could, I’d cast a net at sunset, just like the fishermen. I would wait until daybreak and catch the sharks of Brancaccio as they race out of town, back from the hunt.” He smiles at the thought. Motorbikes, jeeps, sports cars, shimmering like fish scales. All caught in a big net. “How good would that be?” Knowing full well that his dream will remain just that, he turns his attention  to a half-finished building, remarkably attractive, which they have confiscated from the Mafia. This is earmarked for the new commissariat. Standing for three years already, they are waiting for the final paperwork, the first delivery of bulletproof windows and funding  – equal to the annual salaries of a couple of parliamentarians. Everyone from the commissariat drives by here each day to remind themselves that it really does exist. “There will be central heating and an internet connection as well.” And a bar with decent coffee. And people who don’t growl whenever the Brancagel appear. “Even Brancaccio can get back on its feet”, Costantino tells me. “You asked me why we do this here. I still owe you an answer. Partly out of a sense of responsibility. Partly a sense that all is not lost. There are things we can do every day. Offer our help to those who want to remain upright and to those who have had enough of cowering.” Until the day when there is no need to cast a net for the sharks and the outpost of the lost has served its time.

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