The Italian Mafia: Wounded, Still Deadly


The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic

By Alexander Stille

Pantheon 467pp $27.50

Journalists in Italy sooner or later run into the Mafia. For me, it happened in late 1991, when one Libero Grassi, owner of a small business in the Sicilian capital of Palermo, published an open letter denouncing the Mafia clan that was extorting money from him. Such payments of protection money--called the pizzo--total billions of dollars a year. A few days after the letter appeared in Palermo's main newspaper, Grassi was gunned down on the sidewalk. I traveled to Sicily to find out more and spent a sad afternoon with the slain man's son, Davide, who said he held out little hope for justice since only 2 out of every 10 homicides in Sicily result in a conviction. I asked when he thought things would change in Sicily. "Maybe in 20 years," said Davide. "If we're lucky."

In fact, as Alexander Stille writes in Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic, his masterful study of the Sicilian Mafia and its stranglehold on Italy, Grassi's violent death was one of the events that helped galvanize the struggle against the Mafia. Less than two weeks after Grassi's murder, the Italian government approved desperately needed anticrime measures, from the creation of an Italian version of the FBI to tough, new antiracketeering laws. Omerta, the fearsome Mafia code of silence, was broken as dozens of witnesses came forward to testify. In that tormented summer of 1992, the tide began to turn against the Mafia. Over the next two years, arrests in Southern Italy increased by almost 50%, while the murder rate in the entire country declined by a stunning 42%.

It was no coincidence that the old regime that had governed Italy since World War II--providing the petri dish in which the Mafia virus could grow so wildly--was also collapsing. Popular disgust with the corruption and inefficiency of the Christian Democrat-dominated political system helped the Clean Hands political-corruption investigation take off after the initial arrest--that of a small-time politician--in Milan in early 1992. Within months, the game was up for "a political class that accepted a culture of illegality and knowingly used the Mafia's strength in Southern Italy for its own political advantage," as Stille writes.

Stille, a young journalist who won a Los Angeles Times Book Award for his 1992 study of Italian Jewish families under fascism, here delivers a stiletto-sharp portrait of the bloodthirsty Sicilian Mafia. American wiseguys seem positively pacifist compared with such Sicilian cousins as Pino "the Shoe" Greco, a sadistic hit man thought to have killed at least 80 people before a rival rubbed him out. Then there's Palermo boss Filippo Marchese, who personally strangled his victims in a stifling, central-city apartment known locally as the "room of death." Meanwhile, the political Establishment looked the other way.

Not everyone else did, though. Italy's two most prominent anti-Mafia investigators, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, both from solid professional Sicilian families, represented the best of an honest, hardworking, and patriotic southern Italian culture that neither the Mafia nor corruption has yet annihilated.

These and other investigators fought an uphill battle against the Mafia--whose regular murders of law-enforcement officials resulted in the cadaveri eccelenti, or prominent corpses, referred to in the book's title. They also had to contend with Italy's political barons and their lackeys. A top Supreme Court judge, Corrado Carnevale--known as l'ammazza-sentenze, or "the sentence-killer"--regularly and blatantly overturned the many convictions that Borsellino and Falcone obtained against Mafia dons. And how could an effective fight be waged against organized crime if, as is now alleged, Antonio Gava, the powerful onetime Interior Minister in charge of the police and secret services, was closely linked to the most powerful bosses of the Camorra, the Neopolitan crime organization? At the apex of that murky juncture where politics meets criminality was Giulio Andreotti, the six-time Prime Minister who had been Italy's main political kingmaker from 1946 until 1992.

Falcone, his wife, and three bodyguards were killed by a massive bomb in May, 1992. Two months later, Borsellino and five policemen were blown apart by a car bomb. But the spectacular killings revealed the Mafia to be wounded, enraged, and very much on the defensive--a stance that would continue over the next two years. However, Stille worries that the "golden period" between 1992 and 1994, when it looked as if the state was winning the war against the Mafia, may have ended.

Some recent events seem to support this view. The political ascendancy of media-tycoon-turned-politician Silvio Berlusconi has put crusaders on the defensive. Berlusconi, himself the subject of several continuing anticorruption probes, moved to tame prosecutors after becoming Prime Minister in 1994. While it may be difficult for the Mafia to ever regain all its vast powers, there are indications that it is clawing its way back. Mafia murders are once more on the upswing in the south. In mid-April, one of the government's key Mafia witnesses, Francesco Marino Mannoia, announced that he would not continue to cooperate. The government, says Mannoia, is no longer serious about fighting the Mafia. That is surely a bad sign.

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