Giuseppe Cimarosa has firsthand knowledge of the Sicilian Mafia and its intimidation tactics as the son of a mafioso turned state witness and the cousin of captured Cosa Nostra boss Matteo Messina Denaro.
While many in Messina Denaro's hometown of Castelvetrano remained silent after his arrest last week after 30 years on the run, Cimarosa organised a protest in front of the mobster's ancestral home.
"Now the real battle is cultural. Now you have to change people's mentality," the 40-year-old riding instructor told AFP at his stables in the town in western Sicily, where the mob boss was born and reigned with terror.
"Now the enemy is no longer the Mafia but the Mafia-like behaviour or simply a way of thinking that unfortunately is still rampant.
"We must start with teaching in schools, and then the state has to support those who, like me, rebel."
Cimarosa was disappointed that the turnout at last week's small protest was not higher, but he himself breathed a sigh of relief at Messina Denaro's arrest.
"The Mafia is not as unbeatable as it thought it was," he said, adding that he felt "a little safer".
Wall of omerta
The Cosa Nostra, immortalised in the Godfather films, had already evolved from the ruthless organisation that murdered judges and detonated deadly car bombs in Italy's major cities three decades ago.
The state responded with a years-long crackdown, and experts say the Mafia has now been surpassed by other groups in Italy, most notably the 'Ndrangheta in the southern region of Calabria.
It was, however, powerful enough to keep Messina Denaro safe for 30 years on the run.
Journalists covering the aftermath of his arrest, which occurred while he was visiting a health clinic in Palermo, witnessed the culture of 'omerta,' or the protective silence that surrounds the Mafia.
"The mafia bases all its strength on fear, and so people are scared of exposing themselves.
"They don't want to be mixed up in it, they don't want to risk anything and prefer to turn away -- without realising that this is something that affects everybody," Cimarosa said.
His father Lorenzo had married into the Messina Denaro family, marrying the mob boss's cousin -- Cimarosa's mother -- and "helping" them, including "supporting them financially", Cimarosa said.
But after being arrested, Lorenzo agreed to work with the authorities, and "broke a wall of omerta that until then was very strong".
For Cimarosa, his mother and brother, the betrayal -- as his father's collaboration was seen -- created a "stigma for me, for my family, that has been difficult to shake off".
They declined government protection, with Cimarosa insisting he would not give up his identity "because of a criminal who I neither know or have ever met".
"We never received explicit threats. But some things happened that made me think they could be messages," he said.
"Years ago, I found one of my horses dead... and then shortly after my father's death his tomb was destroyed twice."
He admits to thinking "practically every day" about leaving Sicily.
"However, I stayed because I believe that this is my mission. Because it would have been too easy to say what I said far away," he said.
"My words have more value if I say them from Castelvetrano."
© AFP / Wanted in Rome
PH: Anti-mafia activist Giuseppe Cimarosa, who is related to arrested mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro trough his mother, is pictured at his stud farm in Castelvetrano, Sicily, on January 20, 2023. The fight against the Sicilian mafia involves educating young people to change the "mentalities" governing a society that has lived for decades in the shadow of Cosa Nostra, according to Giuseppe Cimarosa, an anti-mafia activist who has the distinction of being a relative of the boss arrested last January 16, 2023. (Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP)
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