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The world’s capital of mobsters is making way for … startups?

Italy’s deep south has long been known for illegal waste dumps and money-laundering schemes. After all, this land — Sicily — is where the Mafia was born. While doing business here can be tough, Enrica Arena, 29, and her friend Adriana Santanocito, 37, have refused to leave their homeland in search of a better future in the richer north.

Instead, they’ve found a way to recycle the agricultural leftovers of cultivated oranges — mainly peels — by making a high-quality, flexible and “vitamin-rich” clothing fiber for the country’s famous fashion industry. “We are tired that our land is depicted only as the lair of the Mafia,” says Arena, co-founder of Orange Fiber, which is based in the picturesque city of Catania at the foot of volcanic Mount Etna. “There’s desire for redemption.”

Frustration with the mafiosi is boiling over in Italy’s southern region, and individuals like Arena and Santanocito are becoming symbols for a local anti-Mafia movement in which younger entrepreneurs are dreaming of a better future. In the largest city within the south — Naples, aka the kingdom of pickpockets and fiscal evasion two scientists, a computer engineer and an economics prof have created a software product called Texplora that helps track tax dodgers by checking bank accounts and financial transactions. And not many know that in Molise, another region in the south, sits the headquarters of the car producer DR Motor, along with companies involved in the oil-extraction industry. Indeed, there’s a rising Silicon Valley here, funded largely by the government, but where innovative startups are being launched by feisty folks who are fighting to create a better tomorrow.

Ten years ago it would have been unimaginable for young people to become self-made entrepreneurs …

Enrica Arenas, co-founder of Orange Fiber

Sure, the overall economic outlook in the deep south — where Arena’s Orange Fiber is based — is far from peachy. The jobless rate is at 20 percent versus 13 percent in the rest of the country, according to Italy’s National Institute for Statistics, while GDP per capita can be as much as 30 percent lower than in other Italian regions. There’s also a high rate of school dropouts, and the near certainty of not finding a decent job pushes many youth to local criminal clans. That, in turn, adds menacing pressure on business owners, and especially on public tenders.

Yet a business revival is also quietly underway, and it’s being matched by a stronger, more fruitful fight against the Mafia. In recent years, authorities have been cracking down on crime here. Prosecutor Pier Paolo Bruni, for one, is involved in a series of investigations into the powerful ’ndrangheta clans of Catanzaro, a city in the Calabria region. Over the last 15 years, he has put thousands of mafiosi behind bars, as well as seized properties and land belonging to organized crime syndicates that are worth millions of euros. “We’re still in an initial phase but people are starting to react,” Bruni says.

Locals just need to switch on the TV or travel across Italy’s boot to notice a changing landscape. True, the Mafia’s victims are still many, but today the dichotomy between the “good” and the “bad” is more visible than in the past. Young people are taking to the streets to rebel against the power of padrinos (godfathers), something which would never have happened 30 years ago, and some of them even party when a mob boss is arrested. Some of this is being pushed by anti-Mafia groups, which have formed to unite not only victims of mobsters and their loved ones, but also anyone who’s calling for change.

The changes being born from rising tensions between criminal groups and civil society is playing out elsewhere too. In Mexico, farmers and entrepreneurs have united in a civilian militia and have rebelled against drug traffickers, successfully returning land grabbed by cartels to villagers for rural use, such as cultivating avocado and lemon orchards. Meanwhile, in Ukraine, a group of brave firms are tackling the power of local criminal groups with links to the former political establishment.

Over time, the climate of fear and helplessness that can rule a wide region — like the south in Italy — can slowly dissipate. “Ten years ago it would have been unimaginable for young people to become self-made entrepreneurs, to think of their future, let alone plan it,” says Arena. Others agree and are trying to take advantage of whatever opportunities they can find here. The makers of Texplora, for instance, plans to sell their software to public administrations and the city halls of several towns near Naples. Antonio Russo, one of the software’s creators, hopes to make “a social contribution to the development of our territory.”

MafiaMaps: A group of students have created an app to reveal the inner workings of the Mafia. Will it help take down Italy’s most notorious bosses?

    • Its purpose: The app reveals crimes and areas of influence under the mafiosi, based on police or prosecution reports and news articles. It also shows where most Mafia-related crimes have taken place and buildings once owned by the Mafia that have been confiscated by the state.
    • How it works: Small red letter M’s appear on a virtual map, indicating where criminals reportedly house their headquarters or branches. Different colors denote different groups, such as purple for Sicilian Cosa Nostra and blue for Calabrian ’ndrangheta. Icons like handcuffs or buildings help pinpoint specific clans, crimes or investigations.
    • Who Started It: Students in Italy’s northern industrial city of Milan developed the app. They’re also behind WikiMafia, an online encyclopedia of around 500 keywords (plus another 700 in progress) that details Mafia organizations, their historical development and their business divisions.
    • Track record: The app recently started securing financing through crowdfunding.
- Constanze Reuscher
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