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Changing Times in Sicily: Mafia's Grip Being Broken--by Sicilian Reformers

February 16, 1988|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | Times Staff Writer

PALERMO, Sicily — Gunfire punctuates changing times in Sicily today as a historically immovable object, the Mafia, meets an increasingly irresistible force, the Italian state. For the first time, the world's most infamous criminal family is being seriously combatted by Sicilians on its own turf.

The Mafia is not dead--far from it. But it is bleeding. Gritty Sicilian reformers challenging death and tradition say they have at last cracked the Mafia's mantle of impregnability. Now, they are appealing for more help from Rome to wage a grinding, long-term war with organized crime in which classrooms may prove as telling as courtrooms.

"For the first time we have demonstrated that the Mafia exists, that it is an evil which damages our society and that the state is capable of bringing it to justice," said Leoluca Orlando, Palermo's first anti-Mafia mayor. "Even people who used to say that there was no Mafia have to acknowledge it today."

He added: "Now we need a qualitatively different kind of help from the government, not just more police and magistrates. It is like a two-wheeled cart. One wheel is repression and the other political, economic and social change. The wheels must turn at the same speed or we'll go in circles."

'Boss of Bosses' Jailed

An unprecedented two-year mass trial of 452 defendants ended here in December with the conviction of many of the Mafia's top bosses. Nineteen of them, including 64-year-old Michele (The Pope) Greco, the so-called "boss of bosses"--got life sentences for crimes that included murder, drug smuggling, racketeering and money laundering. A second trial, with 120 defendants, is under way. A third trial of 98 defendants, will follow.

"What is fundamentally important is this is taking place for the first time in a Palermo courtroom with Sicilian judges, prosecutors and juries," said prosecutor Giuseppe Ayala, who prepared three years for the big trial and climaxed it with a 38-hour closing argument. "It is not so long since we were forced to transfer important Mafia cases outside Sicily for trial."

Supporting Ayala's 8,636-page indictment was damning testimony from so-called pentiti , gang members who turned coat, thereby breaking omerta , the Mafia's code of silence. They described a Greco-led Mafia high commission that routinely ordered executions to protect the heroin trade and other businesses.

There have already been half a dozen post-trial Mafia murders, one of them of former Palermo Mayor Giuseppe Insalaco, killed while awaiting trial on corruption charges.

"The trial at least temporarily upset the Mafia's balance. We expected such murders; maneuvers of adjustment," said Ayala, who, like other Mafia hunters, restively dwells in a protective cocoon of steel--"It has been three years since I have been able to go round the corner to buy a newspaper."

Historically a rural substitute for an absent state and a poor man's defense against rapacious land owners, the Sicilian Mafia went to town amid the rapid urban development that followed World War II. Once-backwater Palermo is today a traffic-choked provincial capital of 1 million people.

By the late 1970s, heroin had replaced extortion, public-works corruption and construction as the principal source of income for a Mafia whose tentacles reach into virtually every level of Sicilian life. According to U.S. investigators, the Palermo-U.S. heroin traffic was worth $600 million a year between 1977 and 1982.

Heroin brought vastly greater profits, but it also increased exposure by inciting violence between rival Mafia clans and forcing greater contact beyond the family circle. For the first time, the Mafia began killing prominent outsiders who threatened it: the president of Sicily's regional government, a Communist Party leader, the police general sent by Rome to hunt the Mafia, judges, local officials, policemen, newsmen.

In 1982, there were 150 Mafia murders in Sicily. As many people disappeared. Sicily watched in silence.

"Two years ago, when the trial started, we had pro-Mafia demonstrations by people complaining our efforts were costing them their jobs. Today, people ask me for my autograph," Orlando said. Anti-Mafia protest marches are now as much a part of Palermo's civic life as the anti-Mafia posters the city government plasters on walls all over town.

The need for change is manifest: Sicily, with a population of 5 million, is one of Italy's poorest regions, yet Palermo street lights cost taxpayers five times more than those in wealthy Turin. Amid a growing scandal over city contracts, another former Palermo mayor with many friends in the lighting business awaits trial.

One of Orlando's innovations has been to open city contracts to competitive bidding. To the fury of comfortable local firms, many have been awarded to mainland companies.

"Palermo contractors don't love me," Orlando bragged.

Intellectual Missionary

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