Mafia down, but not out

2012-05-21 19:44

Palermo - Twenty years after Italian judge Giovanni Falcone was assassinated by the Sicilian mafia in a bombing that shocked a nation, Cosa Nostra's grip has been weakened but is far from over.

Seventy-five-year-old Vincenzo Agostino, one the many bereaved relatives of Mafia victims, swore he would not cut his hair or beard until police found the killers of his policeman son Nino, shot outside his home on 5 August 1989.

Nino's story is linked to that of Falcone, the most famous anti-Mafia prosecutor, since the 29-year-old agent managed to avert an earlier assassination bid on the judge, who was eventually killed on 23 May 1992.

Nino had found a sack filled with dynamite sticks when he went fishing near a villa that was being rented by Falcone near Palermo.

"The magistrates told me. One day you'll see what a hero your son was," Vincenzo said alongside his wife Augusta, who still dresses in mourning black, standing in front of Palermo's enormous court building.

"After 23 years, nothing. No one wants to talk. I'm still waiting for justice," said Vincenzo, his white hair tumbling to his shoulders, beard covering his chest.

Mysteries remain

On the motorway from the airport to the centre, a tall red monument stands in memory of the 500kg bomb used in the attack on a motorcade which killed Falcone, his wife Francesca Morvillo and three bodyguards.

To the right on a hillside stands the small outbuilding in which mafioso Giovanni Brusca activated the detonator on orders from the then head of the Mafia, Toto Riina. Both men are now serving out life sentences.

The killing of Falcone has not yielded all its mysteries.

"The Mafia was the armed wing but you have to look among the white collars and the palaces of Rome. It's a dragon with many heads," sighed Vincenzo.

Journalists and prosecutors have been investigating for years a possible "state plot" to eliminate Falcone and his colleague Paolo Borsellino - murdered by a Mafia car bomb on 19 July 1992 - because their inquiries were destabilising political power.

The sacrifice of the two judges will not be in vain, said Giuseppe D'Agata, who leads the anti-Mafia force in Palermo, an Italian FBI created by Falcone.

Bolstered sentences

"The figure of an isolated magistrate, of the maverick police investigator, has disappeared. We have created organised structures to co-ordinate judicial activity and police investigations," D'Agata said.

The state has also bolstered sentences for convicted mobsters as well as toughening prison conditions and has adopted laws allowing for the seizure of criminal assets.

There is "permanent control of Cosa Nostra, of the Mafia's dynamics, its structure, its money flows, its effect on the social fabric", said D'Agata.

Crackdowns in the 1990s and 2000s and the arrests of Riina and his successor Bernardo Provenzano have left the Mafia weakened.

"Cosa Nostra is going through an identity crisis. All the equilibriums have gone but we can't rest on our laurels. The Mafia is a human factor that modifies and evolves with time," D'Agata said.

Antonio Catalano, a 46-year-old engineer and the head of a building company, knows something about those changes.

He was twice the victim of attempted extortion - in 2006 and 2011.

No more fear

Each time, thugs came to him directly and asked him to "put things in order" or "send a little present" to their boss.

"The first time I was really scared because of the physical threats against my family. I didn't dare to tell anyone except to a priest friend and a prosecutor," Catalano said.

Luckily he managed to overcome his worries and report the threat to police. To his surprise the people who threatened him were arrested and convicted in just six months.

"Things have changed a lot in the last five or 10 years. Businessmen no longer have to be afraid of indifference or laxitude of state forces," he said.

The engineer said mentalities in Sicily have also changed a lot, as shown by the rise of anti-racket associations like Addio Pizzo or Libera, which was set up by Catholic priest Don Luigi Ciotti to denounce extortion and manage goods confiscated from the Mafia.

On the building that Catalano is renovating, a large sign reads: "Here we're building a free future." He and his colleagues have signed an anti-racket pact, putting the refusal to collaborate with the Mafia in their statutes.

But he added: "The Mafia has not disappeared and it would be naive to think that such a lively organisation can be rooted out from this territory."