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Mafia-Fighting in Italy

Since the old Italian political order shattered in 1992, prosecutors have scored major gains against the Mafia. Salvatore (Toto) Riina, the Mafia’s reputed “boss of bosses,” is now serving nine life sentences. From 1992 to 1994, Italy’s homicide rate fell more than 40 percent.

The investigative trail has pointed toward top politicians accused of protecting Mafia associates. The most prominent, Giulio Andreotti, seven times Prime Minister, goes on trial in September. But prosecutors now fear the anti-Mafia drive may be threatened by faltering political will in Rome. To restrain the prosecutors when they are so effective would be a disservice to Italy and the world.

The intensity of Mafia-fighting has fluctuated over the years as the political balance has shifted. In the early 1980’s, the revelations to law-enforcement officials of a Mafia don, Tommaso Buscetta, broke the famous Sicilian code of silence, the omerta. In 1986, Rudolph Giuliani and Louis Freeh, both then in the United States Attorney’s office in New York, used Mr. Buscetta’s information and the cooperation of two Italian prosecutors, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, to convict 22 members of the “Pizza Connection” heroin trafficking network. The next year saw the conviction of 300 Mafia defendants in a single trial in Palermo.

But then the political balance in Rome shifted, eventually bringing Mr. Andreotti back to power. According to a new book, “Excellent Cadavers” by Alexander Stille, Italian prosecutors became notably less aggressive in combatting the Mafia. In 1992, Mr. Falcone and Mr. Borsellino were assassinated.

According to Mr. Stille, what really made the most recent wave of prosecutions possible was the collapse of the Christian Democratic-Socialist political order that controlled Italy for most of the cold-war era. Beginning in 1991, investigations of financial corruption in Northern Italian cities discredited the Socialists. Then the Christian Democrats were hit with evidence of links to the Mafia. As politicians who had traditionally restrained aggressive prosecutors fell from power, magistrates rushed to take advantage of the opportunity.

The political winds began to shift again last spring with the election of Silvio Berlusconi as Prime Minister. Mr. Berlusconi has no known ties to organized crime. But as his personal financial empire became ensnared in the corruption investigations, Mr. Berlusconi tried to curb all investigating magistrates. Public opinion forced him to retreat, but the magistrates remain wary. Mr. Berlusconi lost power last December, though new elections later this year may bring him back.

Italy’s war against the Mafia now stands at a critical juncture. The outcome of the Andreotti trial and the coming elections could determine the relationship between politicians, prosecutors and organized crime for many years to come. The Mafia, indifferent to ideology, has for centuries tried to buy protection from whoever holds governmental power. All of Italy’s new political class must guard against succumbing to temptations that cost their predecessors and their country so dearly.

– May 1, 1995

As published in The New York Times

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