WORLD

The road to Corleone

Italians demand a crackdown on the Mafia

ANDREW PHILLIPS March 29 1993
WORLD

The road to Corleone

Italians demand a crackdown on the Mafia

ANDREW PHILLIPS March 29 1993

The road to Corleone

ITALY

Italians demand a crackdown on the Mafia

ANDREW PHILLIPS

The road to Corleone winds up from the Mediterranean Sea through the jagged hills that point the way to the rugged heart of Sicily. In the pale sun of late winter, a chill grips Corleone—fitting for a town that lives with an unwelcome reputation as the home of the Mafia’s most powerful and deadliest clan. But Sicily is changing fast, and Corleone is no exception. At the symbolic centre of Mafia power, people are speaking out as never before. A grassroots petition against corruption has forced Corleone’s mayor and his entire town council to resign. The fearsome code of silence known as omertà, which once protected Mafiosi from judges and police, has given way to a joyous anarchy. “There is renewal everywhere—and we are part of it,” exults Dino Patemostro, a local newspaper editor and veteran anti-Mafia campaigner. “Corleone is having its own moral and cultural revolution.”

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The revolution sweeping the tiny town in the hills is reverberating throughout Sicily and the rest of Italy. Emboldened citizens are demonstrating publicly where they once just turned away in the face of organized crime. Some 290 ex-Mafiosi have turned informer, making a mockery of the old mies of silence. Police armed with tough new anti-Mafia laws are scoring their greatest successes against the mobs in decades—including bringing to trial the reputed boss of Corleone’s notorious crime family, Salvatore (Totô) Riina. And the wave of public outrage against corruption in Italy’s traditional political parties is cutting support for politicians who once colluded with the Mafia. After living so long and so closely with the crime syndicates, Sicilians are reluctant to claim victory—and many question whether the apparent blows against the Mafia are as serious as the authorities claim. But for the first time, they say, the beginning of the end may be in sight. “It is a long, long fight,” says Roberto Scarpinato, a prosecutor in the island’s capital, Palermo. “But this is truly the starting point.”

The most visible symbol of Italy’s breakthrough against the mob is the short, burly man whose trial in a special high-security courtroom at Palermo’s Ucciardone Prison continued last week. Prosecutors accused Riina of ordering or participating in more than

100 murders, and masterminding the dominance of the Sicilian Mafia, or Cosa Nostra, over the world’s multibillion-dollar cocaine and heroin markets. Elsewhere last week, investigators for the first time began linking their ongoing investigation into political corruption to the organized crime gangs of southern Italy. In the city of Reggio di Calabria, at the toe of the Italian boot, magistrates accused 13 people of setting up a committee of politicians, businessmen and leaders of a Mafia-like mob known as the ’Ndrangheta, meaning the “honored soci-

ety.” Many observers believe it may be just the first step in uncovering extensive links between organized crime and Italy’s political establishment—potentially the most explosive revelation in a nation already reeling from scandal.

Corleone became a worldwide symbol of Mafia power when Mario Puzo traced its bloody history in his 1969 novel The Godfather. The Corleone he portrayed was a remote Mafia fortress where rival gangsters killed each other at the rate of one a week, “and it seemed that death shadowed the town.” Some of that aura still regains; even people from Palermo, just 80 km away on the coast, approach Corleone with trepidation. A tour of the town of 12,000 includes peeks at the ancestral homes of such infamous Cosa Nostra families as the Riinas and the Bagarellas. The mobsters have long outgrown their home town, but their ties to it do bring some benefits. Unlike most Sicilian towns, Corleone is almost free of petty crime; the Mafiosi ensure that no one sullies their backyard. But these days Corleone is

Public outrage at mob violence has lifted the code of silence and triggered an ethical revolution

like most Italian towns: torn between the old forces of corruption and emboldened reformers pressing for change. The Godfather image of Corleone is long out of date.

Even before the latest offensive against organized crime, a few anti-Mafia campaigners were active in the town. Patemostro, a 41-year-old independent town councillor, started a monthly newspaper there called Citta Nuove (New Cities) in 1989, and called on local people to get rid of politicians with links to Cosa Nostra. ‘The world knows Corleone as a symbol of the Mafia,” he says, “but it doesn’t know we are also leading the fight against the Mafia. If you can do it here, you can do it anywhere.” For years, Patemostro had only a few fellow campaigners. That changed dramatically last summer when Mafia assassins in Sicily blew up two crusading judges, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, within eight weeks of each other. The killings sent shock waves throughout Italy— and into Corleone. After Borsellino’s murder on July 19, about 800 teachers and schoolchildren demonstrated in the town’s steep, narrow streets. And in December, pupils at local schools staged an exhibit of posters and open letters calling on the Mafiosi to change their ways.

Riina’s arrest in January was another blow to the Cosa Nostra’s tattered prestige. During a vicious war among Mafia factions in 1980-1981, Riina’s Corleonese clan established its dominance over the Sicilian mob—finally achieving the kind of power that Puzo imagined in his novel. Riina eluded authorities for 23 years after fleeing from house arrest in 1969, but was captured on Jan. 15 by police, who stopped his car during Palermo’s morning rush hour. The arrest of the legendary capo dei capi (boss of all bosses), Corleone’s real-life Godfather, was quickly followed by an unprecedented revolt among the townsfolk. Two thousand of them signed a petition against corruption and Mafia influence organized by Patemostro and other reformers. It created such an uproar that the mayor and his council all resigned—forcing the re-

gional government to send in a temporary mayor to run the town. “Before there was silence,” says Paternostro. “Now we can’t stop talking.”

One man who has found it easy not to talk is Riina himself. In his court appearances, the 62-year-old reputed Mafia chieftain adopts the classic Cosa Nostra defence: deny everything. He is, he has told his accusers, “just a poor farmer ... all home, work, family and church.” He does not even know what Cosa Nostra is, he insists, and the scores of informers who have identified him as the head of the Mafia’s so-called cupola (dome, or ruling committee) do not know what they are talking about. Palermo’s magistrates tell a very different story. Riina, they charge, is the most vicious Mafia leader in decades, who earned his nickname, the Beast, by ordering the deaths of as many as 600 people. Among the most recent victims of his organization, they say, were Falcone and Borsellino, the anti-Mafia judges whose assassinations turned them into Sicily’s newest martyr-heroes. Throughout Palermo, their portraits are plastered on walls and hung in official offices.

In Palermo, almost everyone has a theory about why Riina was finally arrested after almost a quarter of a century at liberty. During the anti-Mafia “maxi-trial” of 19861987, Riina was convicted of murder in absentia, but continued to live in a spacious villa on the outskirts of Palermo and registered his children’s births under his own name. Among those involved in fighting Cosa Nostra, speculation and paranoia abound. Riina may have decided to turn himself in because he is old and sick, say some people; others suggest he was betrayed by fellow mobsters outraged at his dictatorial style. Still others maintain that the greyhaired, stocky man staring out from behind bullet-proof glass in the Palermo courtroom still runs his crime syndicate through lieutenants on the outside. The struggle for control among Cosa Nostra clans that was predicted after his arrest has not taken place, at least so far. “I don’t think there will be a war,” says Palermo magistrate Agostino Gristina. “I think Riina is still the boss.”

But if Riina is still the boss, he

is boss of a weakened organization that for the first time in half a century is under sustained attack from the police and courts. Italy’s wider political crisis has weakened the old parties, especially the Christian Democrats who were traditionally regarded as the Mafia’s protectors in the south. Early last year, a Mafia hit man assassinated an Italian member of the European parliament, Salvatore Lima, who Mafia informers claim was the link between Cosa Nostra and the highest levels of Italy’s political establishment. Lima was killed, they say, because he could no longer guarantee protection for Mafiosi brought before the courts. Then, the murders of Falcone and Borsellino forced the government to finally pass long-promised anti-Mafia laws that permit wider use of phone taps, seizure of the property of convicted mobsters and guarantees of protection for gang members who defect and testify against their former bosses. Italians call them pentiti, the repentant ones, and there are now 290 of them giving detailed evidence of Mafia activity.

Together, the pentiti have given prosecutors a detailed portrait of the biggest crime syndicates: Sicily’s Cosa Nostra, the Camorra of Naples and the ’Ndrangheta of Calabria. In Sicily, repentant mobsters have told how Riina imposed his personal dictatorship on an organization that once ran on semi-democratic lines with regional bosses controlling

their own territory. As the stakes in the international drug market and profits from construction rackets grew ever larger, they say, the Corleonese threw off all inhibitions about violence. One prominent informer, Gaspare Mutolo, told investigators that his loyalty to Cosa Nostra evaporated once Riina began ordering the deaths of other Mafia members. ‘To stay inside Cosa Nostra all you had to do was know how to kill,” said Mutolo. “Honor has nothing to do with this Cosa Nostra, which is by now in the hands of men who want all the power at any price.”

Cosa Nostra may be weakened, but those most deeply involved in fighting it have few illusions that its power has been broken. When Italian experts talk about the Mafia, they refer not just to the strong-arm men of Cosa Nostra but to the intricate web of financial power and political influence that they call “the third level.” For them, Riina may be just the boss of the Mafia’s military arm; its financial experts and political network remain largely intact. Roberto Scarpinato, the Palermo prosecutor, compares the Mafia to a state with its own leaders, hierarchy, laws and culture. “If you want to defeat a state,” he says, “you don’t just capture the leader. You have to defeat all its elements.” For Scarpinato and his fellow prosecutors, fighting Cosa Nostra carries a heavy personal g price. He is virtually a prisoner in his elegant 8 Palermo apartment, with two soldiers guard-

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ing the building’s entrance and a third outside his own door. He goes everywhere with bodyguards, and during four years in Palermo has been out shopping just six times. “It’s mad,” he says. “It’s no way to live.” Scarpinato is far from the only Italian official forced to live under round-the-clock guard. Scores of prosecutors, politicians and priests involved in fighting organized crime endure similar conditions. Among them is Leoluca Orlando, a onetime mayor of Palermo who, in the mid-1980s, initiated a reformist movement in the city known as the “Palermo Spring,” and has now taken his anti-Mafia crusade onto the national stage by founding a new party called La Rete (The Network). In its first electoral outing last April, La Rete won 15 seats in parliament and gave Orlando a platform to campaign against what he diagnoses as a corrupt system in which political power has become inextricably linked to the crime syndicates. His crusade, too, carries a high price: after Falcone’s murder last May, police told Orlando that the Mafia had issued an assassination order against him. His home now is in a police barracks in Rome, and he

travels everywhere in a bullet-proof car surrounded by half a dozen machine-gun-toting guards. In Italy’s colorful parlance, Orlando is known as a “walking corpse.”

Orlando attributes his young party’s success to what he calls the “ethical explosion” now engulfing Italy. In the north, investigators are uncovering extensive political corruption in the so-called Clean Hands inquiry: in the south, prosecutors are attacking the Mafia with more success than ever before. La Rete attempts to bring the two movements together—winning support both in Sicily and around Milan, focus of the corruption scandals. Orlando pulls no punches: he publicly accuses top Christian Democratic politicians like 74-year-old Giulio Andreotti, Italy’s prime

minister no fewer than seven times, of colluding with Cosa Nostra. “The links between the Mafia and the political powers are being uncovered,” he says. “It shows we are really something like a banana republic.” Those links are still far from proven. Many Italians maintain that the moment of truth will come when anti-corruption investigators take their inquiries south into the heartland of organized crime. Eventually, they predict, high-level informers will provide hard evidence of what many Italians already believe: that their leaders collaborated with the mob, and that the Mafia has penetrated deeply into the state structures. “The climate has changed,” says Orlando. “Police and judges now know they can look into things they could not touch before.” What they find may yet shock an Italian public that has become accustomed to scandal—everywhere from bustling Milan to tiny Corleone.

ANDREW PHILLIPS in Corleone