'Tough Guy' Farmers Stand Up To Italian Mafia — And Win

Imagine a tough guy who stands up to organized crime and wins. Who comes to mind? A cop? A crusading prosecutor? In the Calabria region of southern Italy, the tough guys who've neutralized the local mafia aren't the sort that you might expect. Christopher Livesay has that story.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY, BYLINE: Daniele Pacicca makes organic olive oil in the region of Calabria, the toe of Italy's boot. He rides a tractor through his grove of over a thousand trees. One morning this summer, he was shocked to find 13 of them had been hacked to the ground.

DANIELE PACICCA: (Through interpreter) It was like a kick in the stomach. Look at them. I don't think it was an accident that they chose the most visible ones closest to the road. Maybe someone was trying to teach me a lesson.

LIVESAY: Pacicca is pretty sure who that was - the 'Ndrangheta, the region's organized crime group. Typically, when they attack a farmer, they'll do it again and again until the farmer pays protection money and vows loyalty. But that's not what Pacicca did.

PACICCA: (Through interpreter) We cried out, enough. This can't go on any longer with this mafia system. That's the idea behind GOEL.

LIVESAY: That's GOEL Bio, a consortium of organic farmers just like Pacicca. Here's the deal. If the 'Ndrangheta strikes, members pitch in to help out the victim. In Pacicca's case, that meant replacing his 13 trees. And then...

PACICCA: (Through interpreter) They chopped down 13 trees. So we planted twice as many, 26.

LIVESAY: Vincenzo Linarello is the founder of GOEL Bio.

VINCENZO LINARELLO: (Through interpreter) The idea is to send a message right away that they can't stop us. And we'll get up stronger every time they strike. They work by sending signals. So we need to send a signal.

LIVESAY: The 'Ndrangheta has become Italy's biggest organized crime group, reaping tens of billions of euros annually. According to one think tank, it's more profitable than McDonald's and Deutsche Bank combined.

ANNA SERGI: I would say that is actually a conservative estimate.

LIVESAY: Anna Sergi is an expert on the 'Ndrangheta at the University of Essex. She says the crime syndicate gets most of its money from international drug trafficking.

SERGI: And the only way to do it is, essentially, to control everything that happens in Calabria. So they engage in extortion rackets, intimidation and violence. If you want to establish your own commercial activity, you have to essentially pay something to someone to get things done.

LIVESAY: Calabria is Italy's poorest region. With local unemployment at 23 percent, many Calabrians face a choice. Do business with the mafia or don't work at all. The founder of GOEL Bio, Vincenzo Linarello, gives locals a third option, like what he's done for orange farmers.

LINARELLO: (Through interpreter) Farmers around here typically earn 5 cents per kilo of oranges. That's exploitative. Our members earn 40 cents per kilo.

LIVESAY: They get this because they sell to the high-end organic market in Europe. And GOEL Bio has developed its own local supply chain that stretches from the fields...

LIVESAY: ...To the packaging centers...

LIVESAY: ...All the way to restaurants...

LIVESAY: ...Each a vetted part of the GOEL network. Perhaps surprisingly, the 'Ndrangheta has not physically attacked anyone from GOEL. Bad publicity from mob hits is one reason the infamous Cosa Nostra in Sicily is in decline. So professor Sergi says the 'Ndrangheta avoids them.

SERGI: It is bad for business because it attracts attention. And definitely, the 'Ndrangheta is not like Cosa Nostra. They don't like being looked at. They don't have the big houses. They don't have the big cars.

LIVESAY: But they're still known to kill. A lawyer who was investigating the 'Ndrangheta was recently gunned down in his driveway. But GOEL Bio keeps resisting, helping locals like Annalisa Fiorenza, who runs a farm and inn. The protection racketeers attacked her place seven times in the past seven years. Last October, someone burned down her barn just before the citrus harvest.

ANNALISA FIORENZA: (Speaking Italian).

LIVESAY: "I felt like giving up," she says. As she opens the new barn door, she explains that GOEL Bio helped her rebuild and get up and running in less than two months.

FIORENZA: (Through interpreter) I thought, no, this is crazy. There's still the smell of smoke in the air. But it was the best way to respond, to confront them together.

LIVESAY: And this, says Fiorenza, is the only way things will change. For NPR News, I'm Christopher Livesay in Calabria.

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