Lessons in non-violence from an unlikely place: Sicily

Several US schools are copying an ex-Palermo mayor's program for teaching values, citizenship.

A Sicilian politician's approach to fighting the Mafia is being used in several US schools to counter violence.

In New York City and San Diego County, several schools are introducing good-citizenship and values-education programs inspired by Mafia-busting former Palermo Mayor Leoluca Orlando.

Over the weekend, Orlando visited New York, where he told city officials and teachers that educating children about crime in general is an integral part of restraining future corruption.

New York City Council speaker Peter Vallone applauds Orlando's efforts to reach children at an early age. "Respect, responsibility, honesty, kindness, freedom and nonviolence - these are the values that we think are important," Mr. Vallone says. "The whole point is to get children to understand not just what the values mean, but how you act them out. Orlando sets a fine example of how you can wage a war against crime."

Education is just one of the ways Orlando has loosened the Mafia's grip on his city.

In three terms as mayor which began in 1985, Orlando was at the forefront of what has been dubbed the "Palermo Spring." Hundreds of Mafiosi have been arrested in recent years, and Palermo, once tainted as the epicenter of Mafia violence and corruption, has earned one of the highest ratings on its bonds from Moody's Investors Service, putting it above New York City and on a par with Stockholm and San Francisco.

Orlando, author of the book "Fighting the Mafia and Renewing Sicilian Culture" and currently the minority leader of the Sicilian parliament, brought such dramatic change in Palermo that the United Nations chose to meet there last December to draft a treaty against international organized crime.

But while lauding Orlando's successes, Pino Arlacchi, United Nations executive director for drug enforcement and crime prevention, cautions that it's too soon to say that Palermo has wiped out the Mafia. "It is alive and strong in Palermo," he says.

Orlando agrees in part. "The Mafia has three sides," he says. "The military, the cultural mind, and the financial heart. Ten years ago, we had a very strong military end to the Mafia, a very strong cultural mind, a very strong financial heart. Now we can say the military has become very weak and the Mafia does not control the normal population." As for the financial heart, he says: "We're only at the beginning."

Mr. Arlacchi says the UN treaty, currently being drafted by UN officials, aims to create witness protection programs and to dispel bank secrecy so that money laundering and illegal activity can be tracked. "The convention is the first international agreement in an effort against organized crime," he says.

Orlando's weekend visit to New York, during which he met with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and superintendents across the city, was hosted by the National Strategy Information Center in Washington, which studies trends and solutions in global crime and corruption. Additional meetings were set in Washington.

Among the various anti-Mafia education programs in Palermo is a column in the local newspaper Giornale di Sicilia, which publishes letters written by students who report on crimes they witness in their own neighborhoods. Orlando responds to their messages to keep an open forum between children and the community.

National Strategy Information Center president Roy Godson says Orlando "really listens to them because what they are seeing is real."

He adds, "You can't rely just on the police to handle endemic crime and corruption. It must be stopped early."

In his book, Orlando says that rejuvenation of faith in human decency is key in any fight against the Mafia.

"No less than other tyrannies, the Mafia destroys liberty, mortifies democracy, makes economic development impossible, and kills the very concept of citizenship. Yet, as we here in Palermo know, when such tyrannies are finally broken, the human spirit blossoms."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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