WORLD

A massive inquiry into the Mafia

BOB LEVIN February 24 1986
WORLD

A massive inquiry into the Mafia

BOB LEVIN February 24 1986

A massive inquiry into the Mafia

ITALY

In the ancient Sicilian city of Palermo, hundreds of heavily armed police stood guard outside a 10-foothigh steel fence. Inside, attached to the 18th-century Ucciardone Prison, squatted a modern, bulletproof cement courthouse known as “the bunker,” specially built for the trial of 468 alleged members of the Sicilian Mafia which began last week. More than 100 of the defendants remain at large. But others, including reputed mob boss Luciano Liggio, sat in green steel cages in the

octagonal courtroom, protected by armored glass. They are charged with everything from drug trafficking to multiple murder in what is widely viewed as the Italian government’s strongest case ever against the Sicilian clan. In a gangland world that features such sobriquets as the boss of bosses, the Palermo proceeding is the trial of trials.

The trial stems from a vicious mob war in the early 1980s to control the heroin trade from the Far East via Sicily to North America. In the midst of that battle one of Italy’s chief anti-Mafia investigators, Gen. Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa, was gunned down on a Palermo street, and the government responded by redoubling its efforts. The ensuing investigation ranged from Thailand and Turkey to the United States and Canada. It yielded a case whose size alone is staggering: 40 volumes of evidence, 8,607 pages of pretrial testimony. And defendants were also charged with simply being members of the Mafia, which, under a new law, is now a crime in itself. In their 8,632-page indictment, the magistrates left no doubt about the scope of their undertaking. “This is the

trial against the Mafia organization known as Cosa Nostra,” it said, “a highly dangerous criminal association that has used violence and intimidation to sow death and terror.”

Crucial to the government’s case are about 30 pentiti—Mafia members who broke the mob’s sacred omerta, or code of silence. Among those informers, the star witness is Tommaso Buscetta, alias Don Masino. A former Mafia chieftain, Buscetta fled to Brazil from Turin on a day pass from prison in 1980. Two years

later eight members of his family, including two sons, were killed in Sicily’s gangland war. He was arrested in Säo Paulo during a triple murder investigation in 1983, and after the Italians extradited him he decided to talk. His testimony provided an unprecedented look into the mob’s activities and structure. And it dealt a potentially devastating blow to the Mafia family that had won the internal power struggle, the Corleones, named after the Sicilian mountain town where they are based—and reputedly headed by Liggio, also the name of the Mafia boss in Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather.

Buscetta’s testimony helped to unearth a Canadian connection as well. That case involves Vito Ciancimino, the former mayor of Palermo who was arrested in December, 1984, on charges of conspiring with the Mafia and illegally exporting Italian currency. He was believed to have made $2.6 million in investments and real estate purchases in Canada—notably in a south-shore suburban Montreal shopping centre and in a Maisonneuve Street apartment building—with money that was partly laun-

dered through a company in the European principality of Liechtenstein.

In January, 1985, Italy’s chief magistrate, Giovanni Falcone, and two other investigators flew to Montreal to gather evidence against Ciancimino. Sitting in a fifth-floor courtroom at the Palais de Justice, they heard three days of testimony from at least 15 witnesses, most of them bankers and notaries who had handled Ciancimino’s investments. Also called was the wife of Ciancimino’s contact in Montreal, Michel Pozza, who was

slain in a still-unsolved murder outside his Laurentian home in September, 1982.

In Italy the government paid dearly for its thorough investigation. Two key Mafia investigators were killed last July, and Falcone now travels with as many as 11 bodyguards at a time. But the government has vowed to press on. If it does not reach a verdict by early November, the legal limits will expire on presentence detention, and roughly 70 defendants would go free. A second batch would be released if the trial is not completed by May, 1987. Some Palermo residents remain skeptical about the entire trial. “There will have to be real change, real help, from the politicians in Rome for people to have real hope,” said Padre Antonio Zito, a young Palmermo parish priest. Said 31-yearold truck driver Angelo Giordano, who lives in the rat-infested Palmero slum Vucciria: “This will all end in a blast of hot air without any real changes in our city.” It is the government’s enormous burden to prove him wrong.

BOB LEVIN

SARI GILBERT