March 29, 2006

Sicily Mafia watches and waits for Italy to vote

By Philip Pullella

PALERMO, Sicily -- Years ago, when the Mafia wanted to influence elections in Sicily, it did not think twice about setting off a bomb or leaving a headless goat on a doorstep as a not-so-subtle message about whom to vote for.

Now, as Italy approaches April's general election, the Sicilian Mafia has kept a low profile, a wait-and-see attitude aimed at not drawing attention to itself.

"The Mafia is paying attention. It is watching," said Antonio Ingroia, a top anti-Mafia magistrate in Sicily.

"It realizes that this is a delicate moment which could lead to some changes that might affect it," Ingroia said in an interview in Palermo's heavily protected main court building.

Magistrates and other anti-Mafia experts say the Mob is doing just fine these days. It is making money hand over fist without getting its hands bloody.

A new "Pax Mafiosa" has settled over the island.

The Mafia, realizing that the spotlight is not good for business, has stopped killing its enemies -- police officers, magistrates and politicians -- and even its own members.

"The Mafia is continuing in its strategy of keeping a low profile, a truce: weapons are out, business is in," Ingroia said.

The Mafia makes its money from ensuring that companies it controls directly or indirectly get a share of services and construction contracts, especially public works contracts.

To counteract this, the Interior Ministry announced last month that it would start a new data bank on public works contracts to prevent Mafia-tainted companies from getting a piece of the pie.

Mafia money also comes from the illegal drugs trade, human trafficking and that old, ubiquitous cash flow booster -- extortion and protection, which investigators say most businesses in Sicily pay.

"The Mafia has returned to dominate the landscape and become more of an economic presence instead of an armed presence. It has returned to make its presence known in the social circles that count," Ingroia said.


Ingroia chooses his words carefully. He realizes he is speaking in a pre-electoral period in which the center left has accused the center-right government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of being too soft on the Mafia.

In the 2001 general election, all of Sicily's 61 seats in the national parliament went to Berlusconi's supporters.

Ingroia and others say that central government has reacted to the Mafia's low-profile, non-violent strategy by becoming less vigilant and less committed.

"We used to say that the struggle against the Mafia had slid to the bottom of the political agenda. Today, we can say that it has totally disappeared from the political agenda," he said.

Interior Ministry officials contest this view. They point to a government report that says that, while it is true that the Mafia "continues to incisively condition the criminal scenario in Sicily," police have not been sitting on their hands.

Between June 2001 and June 2005, 81 fugitive Mafiosi were arrested, including five on the 30 most-wanted list.

The report adds that more than 4,500 pieces of property or other possessions were seized and 18 city councils with suspected Mafia ties were dismissed by the government.

The anti-Mafia movement in Italy reached its nadir in the early 1990s. The Mafia, then run by "boss of bosses" Toto "the beast" Riina, killed top magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in two bombings several months apart in 1992.

Outrage over the killings galvanized the nation as hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in protests.

The state then reeled in a series of big fish. Riina was arrested in 1993 and his deputy, Leoluca Bagarella, in 1995. Giovanni Brusca, whose specialties were making bombs and dissolving his enemies in acid, was netted in 1996.

Then, it went eerily quiet.


Rita Borsellino, sister of the magistrate killed in 1993 and a center-left candidate for regional governor, accuses the center right of taking a position of non-aggression with the Mafia and "abandoning the fight" -- charges the center right rejects as electoral propaganda.

The regional elections will be held in May and the results of the April 9-10 national vote will affect their outcome.

Borsellino, a softly spoken 60-year-old with grandmotherly eyes, has become the new icon of the anti-Mafia movement. "Rita For Governor" committees have sprung up all over Sicily and even on the mainland.

Her campaign headquarters are in an apartment donated by a friend in a run-down area near the port. Most of her staff are young volunteers, lending a Kennedy-esque atmosphere buzzing with activity, hope and optimism.

"There have been signs that the Mafia is already intimidating people (on how to vote in April), not high profile people but others," she said. "They are sending a message that says: 'We are here and we are in control of the territory'."

Asked if she is afraid, she takes a moment to reflect.

"I know that this is a difficult path, I know that the Mafia surely is following my campaign closely and it is clear that they don't like it," she said.

"They don't like it when family members of Mafia victims do anything more than cry in public...this is one step beyond that and I think it's clear that they don't like it," she said.

Borsellino's center-right opponent for governor is Salvatore Cuffaro, an incumbent who is on trial on charges of aiding and abetting the Mafia. He denies all charges and says he has fought the Mafia, not helped it.

Borsellino says it is the spirit of her dead brother that drives her on.

"If I did not feel his presence I would not do this. I feel him all the time. I feel closer to him now that before. Now he no longer has his life and so he lives it inside me. I am who I am now precisely because he is no longer with us," she said.