He was blown up – no one was held accountable

MAFIA / A collection of anecdotal testimonies about a self-destructive societal machinery with the mafia as its cornerstone.

Peppino Impastato. La memoria difficile
Author: Pino Manzella
Publisher: Guerini e Associati, Italy

Two brothers sit on the steps outside their childhood home in Cinisi, a small town on the outskirts of Palermo. They have been arguing. Older brother Peppino is upset and asks Giovanni if he can count. He can. «Can you also count while you walk?» Peppino continues. Giovanni confirms. Then Peppino takes his brother along, and they count their steps. They stop at one hundred. There, they stand in front of the house of Gaetano Badalamenti, don Tano, the boss of the Sicilian Mafia network Cosa Nostra and one of the main masterminds behind the heroin trade between the Middle East and the# USA from 1975 to 1984, known as the pizza connection, with a profit of 1.65 billion US dollars.

Not far away is the man who, many years later, will be convicted for the murder of Peppino Impastato.

This scene appears in the movie I cento passi (The Hundred Steps), which made Peppino known in Italy and beyond. He was born on January 5, 1948. He was killed on May 9, 1978.

Peppino Impastato

Peppino Impastato

Peppino, a journalist and activist, was the son of Luigi, a local mafioso. The young man started his career as an activist within the confines of his home, in conflict with his father. He was thrown out onto the street as a teenager, despite his mother’s attempts to mediate. He joined a communist movement, organised rallies and demonstrations, and supported the Socialist Party for Proletarian Unity (Psiup). He founded the newspaper «L’idea socialista» (The Socialist Idea).

He established the club «Circolo Musica e Cultura» with his comrades and like-minded individuals, which served as a forum for open debates on social and political issues. By establishing the radio station «Radio Aut», he reached a wider audience. Even after his assassination, his family and friends continued to work to raise awareness of the issues, leading to the conviction and extradition of don Tano for imprisonment in the USA.

What particularly captivates in this story is how a young man caught between good and evil finds inspiration and courage for an entire community. This spirit is vividly described in the book Peppino Impastato. La memoria difficile, primarily through the personal development of his mother, Felicia. She was married into a mafia family with strict rules that everyone who valued their life knew to follow. Even the word «mafia» was laden with secrecy. Everyone knew, but no one spoke. The ideal of omertà, the code of silence, was paramount.

Furthermore, the society was so permeated by the mafia’s power structure that alternatives were self-excluded. And the mafia protects its loyal subjects. They accepted the construction of a third runway for Palermo’s airport in Cinisi, where there should have been agricultural land. The mafia’s drug trade took priority. The protests came only from a few rebellious youths led by Peppino Impastato.

«One does not fight the mafia with guns but with culture»

Felicia, the mother

Felicia stands between her husband and her son. When Luigi is away, she opens the door for Peppino, who lives in an empty garage. When Luigi returns home, Peppino has to leave. But Luigi is also a victim of the rules. His bosses reprimand him for not being strict enough with his son. One day in 1977, Luigi died in a car accident under unclear circumstances. The following year, the day before Peppino was to be admitted to the left-wing party Democrazia Proletaria, the family was hit by tragedy again. Peppino is assaulted and placed on the railway tracks with a load of dynamite, causing his body to be blown to pieces. Thus, Felicia’s silence comes to an end. Until now, she has lived like most Sicilian women of that time – in a secluded social environment, confined to the home and oppressed by an archaic societal pattern.

With Peppino’s death, she begins to speak. Her daughter-in-law recounts: «She carried this enormous pain with dignity. I was struck by the fact that she did not cry. It was a difficult time for both the family and friends. We had lost our driving force and felt lost. Friends often visited Felicia, and we had meetings where she admonished us: ‘Now you must not fall apart. You must prove that even though Peppino is gone, you have the strength to carry on.’ To the young people seeking her advice, she had a simple message: ‘One does not fight the mafia with guns but with culture.’»

Peppino is assaulted and placed on the railway tracks with a load of dynamite, causing his body to be blown to pieces.

Satire and testimony

This was precisely the essence of Peppino’s work. His cultural club was the centre for friendship, literature, and music. It dealt with the Vietnam War, Palestinian rights, environmental protection, class society, legal abortion, and women’s liberation. They presented books by authors like Roberto Saviano. They gave publicity to Giovanni Impostato’s first book, Resistere a Mafiopoli (Resisting Mafiopoli, 2009). Peppino effectively used satire as a weapon. He spoke on Radio Aut (radio was the only available platform at the time, without social media) and openly criticised Gaetano Badalamenti’s clan rule, which he dubbed «Mafiopoli.» The mafia is known for many things, but self-irony is not one of them. They set the clubhouse on fire and sent anonymous messages with threats like, «We have killed your boss. Beware.» But the friends continued their meetings.

The book dedicated to Peppino’s memory is a collection of anecdotal testimonies by friends and family. They describe self-destructive societal machinery with the mafia as its cornerstone. Those who challenged this order knew the risks. Through 39 stories, the image of Peppino emerges as a charismatic speaker, uncompromising, a friend to his friends, but also reserved and withdrawn. Did he consider his possible liquidation as a sacrifice that could lead to societal change?

On this matter, the testimonies remain silent. Initially, after the assassination, family and friends were in shock, but little else happened. The police tried to dismiss the troublemaker as a terrorist. The Red Brigades had recently assassinated politician Aldo Moro, and his body was found in Rome on the same day Peppino died – a welcome distraction for the mafia and their supporters in Cinisi. Some tried to promote the theory of suicide, but the arguments quickly fell silent. Evidence showed that the murder occurred many meters from the railway tracks where he was blown up. No one was held accountable. The case was closed and reopened several times over many years. The movie I cento passi was one of the reasons for reopening it. The work of the anti-mafia organisation was another, as well as Felicia Impastato’s testimony in court. In 2002, 24 years later, don Tano was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of Peppino. Two years later, at 80, he died of heart failure in a cell in Massachusetts, USA.

Peppino receives this epitaph from his friends: «Our group was like a large solar system with Peppino as the sun.»

Ranveig Eckhoff
Ranveig Eckhoff
Norwegian journalist and regular critic at Modern Times Review.

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