The Mafia Reporter With a Police Escort (and the 200 Journalists Like Him)
Posted May 20, 2018 7:37 p.m. EDT
Updated May 20, 2018 7:41 p.m. EDT
ROME — For many of his days over the past four years, Paolo Borrometi has lived in isolation, though he is barely ever alone. He has not walked through a park or by the beach in his native Sicily for years. He cannot go to a restaurant freely, or to a concert or the movies. He can’t drive a car alone, go shopping alone, or go out for dinner by himself.
Before heading to work as a reporter covering the Mafia, he starts each morning with an espresso, a cigarette — and his police escort.
Angering the Mafia as a journalist in Italy makes for a lonely life. And yet Borrometi, 35, is in good company. Almost 200 reporters in Italy live under police protection, making it unique among industrialized Western countries, advocacy groups say.
“None of us wants to be a hero or a model,” Borrometi told an assembly of high school students on a recent morning in Rome, where he now lives. “We just want to do our job and our duty, to tell stories.”
Yet murders connected to organized crime are rising in Italy, authorities say, and international observers consider criminal networks the principal threat to journalists in Europe.
“Don’t stop writing, Paolo,” read an email Borrometi received two days after he was assaulted in 2014 outside his family’s country home in Sicily by two men wearing balaclavas. “Our countries need free and investigative journalism. You have my respect.”
The note came from Daphne Caruana Galizia, the Maltese investigative journalist who was killed in a car-bomb attack last year, after exposing her island nation’s links to offshore tax havens and reporting on local politicians’ crimes for decades. When she died at 53, she had 47 lawsuits pending against her, including one from the country’s economy minister.
In addition to Caruana Galizia, who was killed in October, a 27-year-old reporter, Jan Kuciak, was killed along with his fiancee in Slovakia in February. He had also been investigating corruption with suspected ties to Italian mobsters.
“There have already been two journalists killed by the Mafia inside the European Union, both investigating Mafia stories and stories that domestic governments were not looking into,” said Pauline Adès-Mével, who is responsible for the European desk at Reporters Without Borders, an advocacy group for press freedom.
“Italy is historically the country that has felt the Mafia the most, and has a dozen of journalists under 24-hour police protection,” Adès-Mével said. “That doesn’t happen in other countries.” Among those journalists is Lirio Abbate, a Mafia expert with the magazine L’Espresso, who has been under protection for 11 years, since police thwarted a bomb attack in front of his house in Palermo. Federica Angeli, a reporter with La Repubblica, and her family have been under police escort for five years. And Roberto Saviano, the author of “Gomorrah,” a best-selling book, movie and TV series about the Neapolitan crime syndicate, has been under escort since 2006.
For Borrometi, it took just a year of reporting on the secret businesses and clandestine political ties of the Mafia in southeastern Sicily for his independent news website, La Spia (The Spy), before criminals menaced him. In five years, he got hundreds of death threats from local mobsters. Borrometi, who trained as a lawyer, started writing for local papers when he was 17, inspired by a Sicilian investigative reporter, Giovanni Spampinato, who was killed by the Mafia in the 1970s.
He started his own website five years ago. His first investigation, on Mafia infiltrations among top officials in the town of Scicli, contributed to the government’s decision to dissolve City Hall.
His articles pull no punches. They detail the connections between political powers and the mob, naming names, and accompanied by photographs. “People need to know who they are when they meet them at the bar,” he said.
At first, his articles prompted vandalism against him and late night phone calls. But things got physical after he began writing a series of stories that showed how Sicily’s largest fruit and vegetable market was controlled by mobsters.
He was feeding his dog outside his country home, when two men jumped him, grabbed his right arm, and twisted it behind his back until his shoulder muscles tore in three places.
“The only words the attackers told me that day were, ‘Mind your own business,’ or ‘This is only the first warning,’ or a Sicilian, less polite, version of it,” Borrometi recalled.
Almost five years later, he still can’t move his shoulder properly.
That didn’t stop him from continuing to report on the Mafia and taking a number of the Mafiosi who threatened him to court. One night, after a fire attack almost burned down his apartment, police decided to put him under full-time protection.
The Mafia wasn’t cowed.
“We’ll cut your head off, even inside a police station,” the local Mafia boss said in a public post on social media.
His reporting — and police investigations — have by now exposed a wider network of Mafia affiliates who move produce from the fruit and vegetable market in Vittoria, Sicily, to the rest of Italy and Europe, in affiliation with other criminal groups.
He found out that one of the companies growing the famed Pachino tomato, a special cherry tomato certified by Italy’s Agriculture Ministry, was owned by the sons of two prominent mobsters. One of them had spent more than two decades in jail for Mafia ties, and was now working for his son’s company.
The news spread, and the ministry took notice and cut the company off from the list of businesses that can sell Pachino tomatoes. Not only did the mobsters feel under attack by a reporter, they were out millions of euros in lost revenue.
Last month, the mobsters decided to scale up their threats. Police say they intercepted a Sicilian mobster while he was discussing a plot with his sons to kill Borrometi with a car bomb.
“We need a ‘firework’ like those in the 1990s, when one couldn’t even walk on the streets,” said the man, who was caught on a police wiretap. “A death every once in a while is useful, so that all the whippersnappers calm down a little.”
The reference was to the tense years when two Palermo prosecutors, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, were brutally murdered alongside their bodyguards, and car bombs exploded around Italy, killing bystanders and damaging historic buildings.
In the wiretapped conversation, the man was advocating for a return to that bloody time of overt intimidation of authorities and citizens alike. There hasn’t been a Mafia car bomb in Italy since then.
“This shows how much investigative journalism angers the Mafia, which thrives with its business in silence,” Nino Di Matteo — a prominent Mafia prosecutor, hence also a prime target — said on national television a few days after police arrested those said to be planning the attack against Borrometi.
“Journalism has a fundamental role in the fight against the Mafia, especially in a moment like this,” said Di Matteo, who also travels with bodyguards. “I believe we are underestimating a bit of the danger that the Mafia represents to the country and to our democracy.” Borrometi is thankful, of course, that police intervened before the plot against him could be put into action.
“I owe my life to my state, to those policemen and magistrates,” Borrometi said during an interview at his home this month.
And he owes his life to the men who protect him constantly, though once the armored door closes on his apartment in Rome’s city center, he is alone.
“I am without my family and my loved ones,” he said smiling, surrounded by framed anti-Mafia recognitions. “But I have my wonderful job.”