Exclusive: Piera Aiello, who had to run for office anonymously due to mafia threats, poses for pictures for first time since 1993
Lorenzo Tondo in Palermo
Italy’s “ghost” politician – who was forced to run for office anonymously due to threats from the mafia – has finally revealed her face to the public after winning her parliamentary seat.
“After all these years spent behind the scenes, today I can finally look at the world in the face without fear of showing mine,” Piera Aiello, 51, told the Guardian, while posing for pictures for the first time since 1993.
“It’s like coming back to life,” she said, smiling at the camera lens. “At this precise moment, I feel completely free.”
Aiello’s life has been in danger since she witnessed two mafia hitmen kill her husband in 1991, forcing her to enter witness protection two years later.
In March, she stood as an anti-mafia candidate for the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) in Sicily, and won her seat despite having to campaign anonymously, and under security escort.
As an anti-mafia witness, Aiello could not show her face in public, could not be photographed, or freely hold campaign events in city squares. She often wore a veil to cover her face, and became known as the “faceless candidate”.
Aiello was born in Partanna, in western Sicily. At the age of 14, she was forced to marry the son of Sicilian mafia boss Vito Atria.
In 1991 a rival mafia clan decided to kill her husband. “We had a pizzeria,” says Aiello. “One evening, two men entered the room. They looked at my husband and fired. He fell before me, covered in blood.”
After deciding to testify against the assailants, she became a mafia informant, with her testimony leading to the arrest of several mobsters.
But while other mafiosi remained free, she said she was forced to live like a prisoner while in witness protection. She had to change her name and leave Sicily.
Last year, she said she decided to take back control of her life and run for office in the election as a candidate for the anti-establishment M5S.
“I had a goal: bring to the parliament the dramatic conditions in which those who decide to testify against the mafia are forced to live,” she said.
Despite successful campaigns to curtail the influence of Cosa Nostra in Sicily and the Camorra in Naples, organised crime remains a serious problem in Italy and abroad. The Calabrian mafia, known as the ‘Ndrangheta, is believed to be the leading cocaine trafficker in Europe.
As a member of parliament, Aiello said it had become too complicated to avoid photographers and cameras in Rome, and she now felt ready to show her face in public.
But she will continue to live under police escort. She is still regarded as a mafia target, especially since she became a prominent anti-mafia campaigner in parliament, encouraging witnesses to speak out.
On Wednesday, Piera was back in Sicily to meet other witnesses who rebelled against the mafia, who also live in fear.
One was Alessandro Marsicano, 48, a pastry chef from Palermo and victim of mafia extortion. Since becoming an informant, his testimony had led to arrests, but he said his life had become a nightmare.
“I had decided to leave Sicily and move to London, where I opened a pastry shop near Soho,” he says. “But the bosses reached me there too, and one evening they beat me up in the streets of Tottenham. Since I met Piera, I can see a brighter future for my family.”
Several state witnesses have celebrated her victory in parliament, and some have even called for her to be appointed deputy minister of the interior in Italy’s new coalition government.
“I have decided to stand so those who rebel against mafia are not marginalised,” she said. “I decided to become a candidate because I, Piera Aiello, wanted my face back. And I have got it.”