ALL THE PRIME MINISTER'S MEN

Did Italy's former prime minister give a kiss of loyalty to the Mafia's boss of bosses? Did he consent to murder? Giulio Andreotti, and post-war Italy, go on trial in Palermo this week

IN 1990, the Italian Prime Minister, Giulio Andreotti, hosted a luncheon for former President Gerald Ford at which he lamented that the United States discarded its leaders too hastily. Andreotti had reason to pity his old friend. Since losing the 1976 election, Ford had been working on his golf game, while Andreotti remained at the centre of power, as he had throughout his nearly 50-year career. Indeed, Andreotti was the symbol of the Christian Democratic Party's seemingly permanent grip on power. He had been in the Cabinet of the first post-war government, in 1947, and had occupied virtually every important post since then: Minister of Finance, Budget, Industry, Defence, Interior, Foreign Affairs, and Prime Minister a record seven times. Commentators called him the Eternal Giulio, or Giulio the God.

Now Andreotti - a man who has dealt on equal terms with world leaders like de Gaulle, Eisenhower, Thatcher, Mitterrand, Reagan and Gorbachev - stands accused of collusion with the Sicilian Mafia. Prosecutors in Palermo and Perugia claim that for more than 20 years Andreotti used his power to fix organised-crime cases and met with Mafia bosses, and that he commissioned - or, at least, consented to - two murders. Andreotti insists that the charges are absurd - that they are the Mafia's vendetta for his government's firm stand against crime. Rather than dismissing them, however, a Palermo judge has ruled that Andreotti must stand trial, in a case set to begin this week.

Perhaps no peacetime Western leader has fallen so low from such a height. Indeed, by prosecuting Andreotti the Sicilian magistrates are effectively placing Italy's entire post-war political order on trial. "Given the length and centrality of his career, the Italian Republic itself is in the dock," says Giuliano Ferrara, who is a member of Parliament and was a minister in the recent centre-right government. "The trial of Andreotti is the trial of our own history."

WHEN I arranged to interview Andreotti earlier this year, I was warned by several people that I would find him greatly altered - a shadow of his former self. But when I saw him, in his frescoed Senate offices in Rome's Palazzo Giustiniani (Andreotti still holds an honorary post as a Senator for Life), he seemed remarkably unchanged. His hair is still almost raven black, in stark contrast to the white and waxen skin of his face. His physique is frail, with narrow, stooped shoulders that have led many to think of him as a hunchback; his pointy, almost triangular ears stick straight out, like a bat's. His sober dark suit, thick black- framed glasses, and grave, formal manner have always given him the look of a priest or an undertaker. Those who knew him at school say that as a teenager he looked exactly the way he does now: back then, he appeared prematurely middle-aged, and now, at 76, he seems much younger than he is. His distinctive appearance has made him a favourite figure of Italian political cartoonists, who have often depicted him as a kind of Prince of Darkness. Unlike many Italian politicians, who make irate phone calls to newspaper editors or file libel suits with regularity, Andreotti has always accepted satire and criticism with Olympian calm and good humour.

His mind appeared razor-sharp, and his manner was cool and unflappable as he patiently answered (or ably dodged) question after question for three straight hours, on subjects ranging from Italian history and politics to the gravest charges in the current Mafia case. His manners are simple; he has little of the pomposity and arrogance of some of his colleagues. He freely admitted, however, that he had regained his current equilibrium only after a deep personal crisis, which began when the Mafia charges first surfaced, two years ago. In fact, when I saw him around that time, he had seemed disoriented and off-balance. "I suffered a kind of nervous exhaustion, and I was really afraid I might go insane," he said. "Then I found a new doctor, who helped me a great deal, making it easier to sleep. And my religion is of great comfort. Everything considered, I have been very fortunate in life. I've experienced glory and red carpets - and I think that in order to merit the next life one must undergo a severe trial. I would rather have had a trial of a different nature. But I believe in the justice of the afterlife and not just on earth, and that gives me a lot of serenity."

Anglo-Saxons admire politicians who appear to stand for something and stick to it: for instance, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher; the one American politician who would have fitted into Italian life, Richard Nixon, was hounded out of office. But Andreotti comes from a profoundly different political culture - a world of murky compromise and intentional obscurantism, a bizarre mixture of holy water and ruthless realpolitik, closer in spirit to Cesare Borgia and Cardinal Mazarin than to the moralistic world of British or American politics.

Indeed, until recently, Andreotti's sinister reputation was actually part of his popular appeal. Over the years, I can recall Italians saying with a mixture of horror and pride, "He's behind everything, but he's so smart he never gets caught!" There was even a song that went: "Who stole the cake? Andreotti. Who made the stockmarket drop? Andreotti. Who's behind the Mafia? Andreotti." Andreotti reacted to this kind of jab with a shrug. "Aside from the Punic Wars, which I was too young for, I have been blamed for everything," he would joke. He even appeared to cultivate his tenebrous image, through clever expressions of world-weary cynicism: "Power is a disease one has no desire to be cured of," he once said. Andreotti's irony evidently made a poor impression on Margaret Thatcher, who wrote, "He seemed to have a positive aversion to principle, even a conviction that a man of principle was doomed to be a figure of fun." But Thatcher's dismissive remarks may overlook the possibility that Andreotti's cynicism is actually part of his very different religious world view. Andreotti "belongs to a certain Jesuitical, clerical tradition in which you accept that in a fallen world you have to work with the material at hand," Gerardo Bianco, an old parliamentary colleague of Andreotti's, told me a few years ago. "He is a genuinely religious and even charitable man, but he has a pessimistic view of human nature and of original sin that allows him to tolerate the presence of people of dubious reputation."

GIULIO ANDREOTTI was born in Rome in 1919, the youngest of three children. He lost his father at the age of two and was raised by his mother and her family. Growing up in Rome, which has seen the greatest glories, follies, and depravities of man come and go, shaped his vision of life. "The history of the city makes it difficult to shock or surprise a Roman," Andreotti says. An aunt taught him what he has described as "the old Catholic wisdom of the Roman people: never overdramatise things; everything, over time, can be fixed; keep a certain detachment from everything; the important things in life are very few."

His cold, distant attitude may be due in part to the austerity of his childhood. His mother squeezed by on a small pension in an unheated apartment, and Andreotti once admitted that he could not recall her ever having kissed him.

He got his start in political life as the protege of Alcide De Gasperi, an old Catholic politician who had waited out the 20-year reign of Fascism by working in the Vatican library. As a university student, Andreotti went to look for a book on the history of the Papal Navy. "Haven't you got anything better to do?" he was asked by the old librarian - De Gasperi, who was busy preparing the new Christian Democratic Party, which would govern Italy after the war. Andreotti became De Gasperi's right-hand man.

In the new, Catholic party, whose many leaders had vague and confused ideas and little practical experience, Andreotti rose rapidly to the top. De Gasperi was made prime minister in the provisional post-war government in 1945, and Andreotti became his chief of staff in 1947, a Cabinet member at the age of 28. (Andreotti wept at his good fortune, one of only three times he can recall having cried in his entire life. The others were when De Gasperi died, in 1954, and at his own mother's death, in 1976.)

To understand Andreotti and the Christian Democrats (CD), it is essential to remember that the party was born out of the ashes of the Second World War. The country was literally in ruins, and Fascists and Communists, on the verge of civil war for many years, kept their guns well oiled beneath their beds. "De Gasperi was against exacerbating conflict," Andreotti says. "He taught us to search for compromise, to mediate." To keep any one party from growing too strong, De Gasperi favoured a system of proportional representation, which led to the creation of at least a dozen parties. While this system did prevent the return of dictatorship, it led to the kind of revolving-door administrations that have characterised Italian life ever since. In this world of constant compromise, politics was not so much a matter of formulating and executing programmes as an endless process of horse-trading, patching together alliances, and dividing up the spoils of government.

Perhaps more than any other figure, Andreotti was the symbol of the protean nature of the CD; he has changed colours numerous times. He started out as the leader of the right wing of the Party and, in the Fifties, bitterly opposed any rapprochement with the Socialist Party. But in the mid-Sixties he served, along with his former adversaries, in the first centre-left coalition government. Then, in the Seventies, it was Andreotti who was called on to manage the so-called Historic Compromise government alliance with the arch-enemy itself, the Italian Communist Party. In the end, the move proved a shrewd gamble for the CD. The Communists failed to change the Christian Democratic system of power; rather, they involuntarily lent their legitimacy to it, and lost much of their own popularity. When Andreotti was asked by a critic whether its many years in power had "worn out" the CD, he replied, "Power wears out those who don't have it."

Power, however, has its costs. Graft and illegal campaign contributions have been the lifeblood of Italy's political system. All the governing parties - and the major factions within each party - accepted under-the- table payments. But while each of the principal party leaders had his bagmen, most of them also surrounded themselves with figures of some intellectual and political stature. "Andreotti's people, on the other hand, were always the dregs," says one former Christian Democratic MP.

Indeed, Andreotti's personal faction was a veritable Foreign Legion of political adventurers, indulging former Fascists, and several people who had run foul of the law. For a number of years, the Rome machine of the Andreotti faction was run by a former Fascist bully-boy named Vittorio Sbardella, more commonly known as the Shark; Andreotti's man in Naples is facing numerous charges of corruption, bribery, and ties to the Camorra, the Neapolitan version of the Mafia; one of Andreotti's biggest financial backers, Giuseppe Ciarrapico, is a self-confessed Fascist, who has said that he skimmed money from public contracts with Andreotti's permission, a charge Andreotti denies.

"We always asked ourselves, `Why does he always pick the worst people around?' " Andreotti's longtime secretary, Vincenza Gamboge Enea, said in an interview. "Always the worst. I think it was almost a habit with him."

WHEN I was in Palermo recently, I went to see Giuseppe Alessi, a 91- year-old Sicilian lawyer who is uniquely qualified to describe the obscure origins of the relations between the Mafia and politics. He was one of the founding members of the Christian Democratic Party in Sicily and one of the first presidents of the regional Sicilian parliament created after the war. He has come to the defence of Andreotti, out of disgust for what he regards as the infamy of the charges against the former prime minister. This move is of considerable interest, because over the years Alessi and Andreotti were often at odds politically. Alessi was a member of the reform wing of the CD, which felt that the Party was betraying its Catholic ideals in making the kind of compromises for which Andreotti was famous. Although Alessi defends Andreotti with great passion, he would make a useful prosecution witness in testifying about the CD's decision to turn a blind eye to the obvious Mafia infiltration of the party in the late Forties. The Mafia, which had been brutally suppressed during Fascism, initially backed the cause of Sicilian separatism, then shifted to the CD.

"It happened this way. Some people in the Christian Democratic Party approached the separatists, whose backbone were these capi [Mafia bosses] and invited them to join the national parties," Alessi told me. "The Mafiosi were looking for the road to power, to secure the support they needed for their economic affairs. If the mayor was Republican, they became Republican, if he was Socialist, they were Socialist, if he was Christian Democrat they became Christian Democrat." Although at that time Alessi was an outspoken opponent of these local pacts with the Devil, he now defends them as a necessary evil of the Cold War period. "The Christian Democrats subordinated their ideals for a supreme interest of national importance: saving the democratic state. The victory of Communism would have meant Italy ended up behind the Iron Curtain."

Alessi's justification of his party's dealings with the Mafia is based on a Robin Hood view of the Mafia of the Forties and Fifties. "They weren't criminals," he said. "They were local potentates, neighbourhood bosses, proud men of prestige. Their crimes were basically economic - fraud, forgery, illegal appropriation of property - but they disliked real crime." It may perhaps have been possible to think of the Mafia in the Fifties in such folklorist terms, as a form of primitive justice in remote rural areas. But by the late Sixties, when Andreotti's faction expanded to Sicily, the Mafia had shown itself to be a much more dynamic form of modern gangsterism. There were at least 88 Mafia killings in Sicily between 1960 and 1963, during the property boom known as the Sack of Palermo. This bonanza destroyed Palermo's urban fabric and enriched the city's Mafia clans, which began to fight for control of the lucrative building trade. But protests over the killings fell on deaf ears in Rome, where many Christian Democrats still maintained that the Mafia did not exist. Then, in the summer of 1963, seven carabinieri were killed by a car bomb apparently meant for a Mafia boss, provoking a scandal and a major crackdown.

The mayor of Palermo during this period, Salvatore Lima, was to become Andreotti's man in Sicily. In an investigation in 1964, Lima was forced to acknowledge that he knew Angelo La Barbera, the boss of one of Palermo's main Mafia families. And a local businessman testified that in order to obtain planning permission he had paid a substantial bribe to Lima, which was administered through the Mafia boss Tommaso Buscetta. In its final report, the Italian Parliament's anti-Mafia commission mentioned Lima 149 times and described him as one of the pillars of Mafia power in Palermo.

None of this jeopardised Lima's standing within the CD. On the contrary, in 1968 he was triumphantly elected to parliament, suddenly surpassing established politicians as the top vote-getter in Sicily. The curious thing is that Lima, who was a man of few words, hardly ever spoke in public. The votes just materialised at election time, as if by magic. An Italian politician from Rome who saw Lima in Palermo was astonished by the relationship between a Sicilian potentate and his electorate. When Lima walked into a local cafe, people would stand up immediately, in an automatic reflex of respect to a man of power.

Upon arriving in Rome in 1968, Lima decided to switch factions within the CD, just as a star footballer might decide to change teams. His decision to leave the left wing for Andreotti's conservative faction was not based on a political affinity; it was a pure power alliance. Andreotti, for his part, chose to overlook the rumours about Lima's ties to the Mafia in Palermo. "There are always polemics in Sicily - this person is a mafioso, that one is not a mafioso," Andreotti told me. "I've always been very cautious about all this." His caution may have been influenced by Lima's evident value as a political asset, for although Andreotti had a strong electoral base in and around Rome, his faction accounted for only a few percentage points of party members throughout Italy. Lima, at the height of his power, controlled 25 per cent of all party members in Sicily - one of the most populous regions in Italy. While Andreotti had been an important government minister before his alliance with Lima, his ability to reach the very highest levels of power was related to the transformation of the Andreotti faction into a truly national group.

The deal between Andreotti and Lima worked for both men. Andreotti became prime minister for the first time in 1972, and Lima, for a time, held a Cabinet post. Like Andreotti himself, Lima was skilled in brushing off accusations of Mafia ties with witty and learned remarks. "Dante wrote, `In church with saints and in the tavern with sinners,' " he told reporters once. But he could not shake off his reputation.

In 1974, Andreotti took Lima with him to the Ministry of the Budget, whereupon a distinguished economist, Paolo Sylos Labini, resigned in protest. "Before taking such a drastic step, I attempted to resolve the question through other channels," Professor Labini told prosecutors recently. But when he went to the party headquarters to see whether the Lima nomination could be withdrawn he was told by the highest authority that "Lima was `too powerful and dangerous.' " When he tried to raise the Lima issue with Andreotti himself, the Eternal Giulio cut him off, saying that they would discuss it some other time. Andreotti accepted Professor Labini's resignation rather than deprive Lima of his Cabinet post.

Andreotti was not doing anything different from what other Christian Democrat leaders had done before him. By his own admission, he didn't know much about the Mafia and greatly underestimated its power. "I think Andreotti probably saw things this way: the Mafia has always been around, will probably always be around, why shouldn't their votes go to a good cause rather than a bad one?" said one former Christian Democrat. Andreotti denies making any such calculation, but admits that he may have ignored the Mafia problem in that period "to avoid trouble, to make life easier". His decision was consistent with one of the principal tenets of his political philosophy: "See all, tolerate much, correct one thing at a time."

ALTHOUGH Andreotti's relationship with Sicily is important, one must not see it in isolation. Throughout his career, Andreotti, like a chess grandmaster, has played games on several boards simultaneously. But as the Mafia grew in strength and wealth through the heroin trade, it increasingly invaded and polluted other spheres of life. Nowhere was this clearer than in the case of the Sicilian banker Michele Sindona, who had been a financier of both the Vatican and the Christian Democrats, and at the same time had been laundering money for the Mafia.

In 1974, around the time that Andreotti appointed Lima as Under-Secretary of the Budget, Sindona gave a leading Christian Democrat politician, Amintare Fanfani, a $2.5m "loan." Later that year, his international banking empire went bankrupt amid revelations of widespread fraud. Under indictment in both Italy and the United States, Sindona tried to use political influence, blackmail, and even threats of violence to force his friends in the Italian government to bail out his failed empire with public money. Then, in 1979, he commissioned an American Mafioso to kill Giorgio Ambrosoli, the Milan lawyer who was overseeing the liquidation of the Sindona banks.

Before he was killed, Ambrosoli received a series of threatening phone calls, and he dutifully recorded them. One included a chilling reference to Andreotti:

KILLER: They're pointing the finger at you. I'm in Rome and they're pointing the finger, because you're not co-operating. The Big Boss and the little boss, everyone is blaming you... The Big One, you understand? Yes or no.

AMBROSOLI: I imagine the Big One is Sindona.

KILLER: No, it's Andreotti!

AMBROSOLI: Who? Andreotti!

KILLER: Right. He called and said he had everything taken care of, but it's all your fault...

While these claims may have been invented to frighten Ambrosoli, Sindona and his entourage had reason to believe that Prime Minister Andreotti was in their corner. The prosecutors who indicted Sindona for the murder in 1984 wrote, "Without Andreotti and the protection he gave to Sindona between 1974 and 1979, the Ambrosoli murder would never have taken place." In 1986, after having been convicted of the murder of Ambrosoli, Sindona drank a cup of poisoned coffee in his jail cell. It remains unclear whether his death was murder or suicide.

The Sindona affair showed clearly how porous the boundary had become between the legal and the illegal worlds, and Mafia business was booming as never before. Palermo had replaced the French Connection of Marseilles as the principal channel of heroin into the US. In 1974, there were only eight deaths by drug overdose in all of Italy. A decade later, there were some 250,000 heroin addicts in the country, and the deaths had reached almost 400 a year. As investigators in Sicily turned up more and more data on the drug trade, Cosa Nostra responded by killing police officers, prosecutors, and even politicians. In 1981, Palermo witnessed the outbreak of the most vicious Mafia war in its history. A new dominant group within the Mafia, headed by Salvatore (Tot) Riina, of Corleone, killed off the traditional bosses of Palermo and hunted and exterminated hundreds of their associates, friends, and relations.

The explosion of drugs and violence suddenly made the Mafia a major national issue again. Virtually all public figures who dared to stand up to the Mafia were assassinated, one after another. There was a growing public outcry for the CD to clean up its house in Sicily. The mayor of Palermo, one of Lima's proteges, was forced to resign, and Andreotti's Sicilian faction was badly on the defensive. Andreotti declares that the emergence of the drug trade in the Eighties "opened my eyes" to the gravity of the Mafia problem. But he did not use the bloodbath in Palermo as an opportunity to rethink his strategy in Sicily. On the contrary, in 1982, in the middle of the Mafia war of Palermo, Andreotti arrived in the city to lend moral support to his beleaguered troops. "You Sicilian Christian Democrats are strong, that's why everyone speaks ill of you," he said, to the obvious delight of the crowd. "We reject the false moralism of these critics who foam at the mouth while you get stronger and stronger with each election."

The case against Andreotti would never have gone beyond the level of political denunciation without the arrival on the scene of witnesses from within the Mafia - a phenomenon unknown in Italy before 1983. And although the trials of the Eighties concentrated on the military and economic dimensions of the Mafia, a consistent body of evidence about the relationship between the Mafia and politics began to accumulate. More than half a dozen witnesses testified about Cosa Nostra's ties to the CD, and, in particular, to Lima and the leading figures in the Andreotti faction in Sicily. Two of Lima's closest friends and biggest supporters - the cousins Nino and Ignazio Salvo, Sicilian businessmen - were convicted of being Mafia members. And it came out at their trial that when Lima was in Sicily he was chauffeured around in their bullet-proof car.

Even so, Lima himself never became the target of criminal investigation, because of reluctance on the part of both witnesses and prosecutors. The attitude was epitomised by a statement that the star witness, the former Mafia boss Tommaso Buscetta, made to the prosecutor Giovanni Falcone: "I have told you repeatedly that I would not discuss it until and if the time is ripe. It would be extremely foolish to discuss this subject - which is the crucial knot of the Mafia problem - while the very people whom we would be discussing remain fully active on the political scene." With his American handlers, Buscetta was more explicit. In 1985, the Assistant United States Attorney Richard Martin, together with the current FBI director, Louis J Freeh, questioned Buscetta extensively in preparation for the New York Mafia case known as the Pizza Connection. When Martin tried to press the issue of the Mafia's political protection, Buscetta explained that the enormity of the problem could be summed up in one word: Andreotti.

THE CASE against Andreotti really began to break open in 1992 - the year Italian politics turned upside down. In January, the Italian Supreme Court upheld the conviction of more than 300 Mafiosi in the so-called maxi-trial of Palermo, the largest and arguably the most important Mafia trial in history. Based on the testimony of the first witnesses from within the Mafia itself, the case had established that Cosa Nostra was an hierarchical organisation governed by a "commission", which decided on the most important actions of the group. This finding allowed the Italian state to hold the top bosses responsible for the most heinous crimes of the organisation. Many of them were condemned to life in prison.

Cosa Nostra reacted with unprecedented fury. In March, Mafia killers assassinated Lima. In May, they blew up the prosecutor Giovanni Falcone, his wife, and three bodyguards. In July, a second car bomb killed Falcone's colleague and close friend Paolo Borsellino, along with five bodyguards. And in September the Mafia murdered Ignazio Salvo, the prominent Mafia businessman who had been close to Lima.

The killings occurred against a backdrop of profound political change. During those same months, hundreds of major politicians came under investigation in a national bribery scandal that started in Milan. After elections that spring, Andreotti began his semi-retirement as a Senator for Life, his reputation badly damaged by the questions surrounding the Lima assassination. (Since Lima had long been regarded as a friend of the Mafia, his death seemed to suggest the breaking of some secret pact, possibly between the Andreotti faction and Lima's Sicilian protectors.) Within a few months, Andreotti had ceased to be the most powerful politician in the country and had become a political liability. At the same time, the government of the new Socialist prime minister, Giuliano Amato, enacted a series of long-overdue laws which established Italy's first witness-protection programme and placed the most dangerous Mafia bosses in remote island prisons where they could not easily communicate with their organisations. The number of Mafia witnesses went from about two dozen in early 1992 to over 200 by the end of the year.

Buscetta, moved by the deaths of Falcone and Borsellino, decided to break his long silence on the politics of Cosa Nostra. He acknowledged that he had had extensive contacts with Lima between the late Fifties, when Lima became mayor of Palermo, and 1980, when Buscetta moved from Sicily to Brazil. "Salvo Lima was, in fact, the politician to whom Cosa Nostra tumed most often to resolve problems for the organisation whose solution lay in Rome," he testified. Several different witnesses also testified that Lima had been specifically ordered to "fix' the appeal of the maxi- trial with Italy's Supreme Court and had been murdered because he failed to do so. These witnesses opened a window on the world of the Italian Supreme Court, which had, to put it mildly, taken an extremely indulgent attitude toward Cosa Nostra. "When the trial began, it was obvious to all `men of honour' that it was a political trial," one of the new Mafia witnesses, Gaspare Mutolo, explained. "We all unanimously believed that the trial verdict would be a conviction, because the government had to demonstrate to public opinion within Italy and abroad... that it could strike a hard blow to Cosa Nostra." The Mafia placed its hopes in the final appeal before the Italian Supreme Court, where one judge, Corrado Camevale, known as l'Ammazzasentenze (the Sentence Killer), had for several years overturned Mafia conviction after Mafia conviction, throwing out years of trial work on the slenderest of technicalities. But ultimately Camevale, giving in to pressure from the public and from Giovanni Falcone, withdrew from the maxi-trial.

"Carnevale... was a guarantee for us, and certainly not only because of his ideas of jurisprudence: the word was that he was `malleable,' " another new witness, Leonardo Messina, said. "As for the killings... A reaction was absolutely necessary... against the magistrates who had handled the case and against the politicians who had failed to guarantee the positive outcome of the trial and had allowed Carnevale to be removed from the case."

Andreotti insists that Lima, Falcone and Borsellino were killed in retaliation for his government's vigorous war on crime. It is true that Andreotti's seventh government (1991-92) - thanks especially to the presence of Falcone at the Ministry of Justice - took a number of decisive steps against Cosa Nostra. "When he says that he took extremely harsh measures against the Mafia, he isn't lying," Eugenio Scalfari, the editor of the Rome newspaper La Repubblica, says. "I think at a certain point in the late Eighties he realised that the Mafia could not be controlled. He awoke from his perennial distraction... and the Mafia, which realised that it could no longer count on his protection or tolerance, assassinated his man in Sicily."

This conjecture does not conflict with the testimony of the witnesses who say that Andreotti double-crossed the Mafia after decades of collusion. Mutolo, for example, testified that "Lima was killed because he was the greatest symbol of that part of the political world which, after doing favours for Cosa Nostra in exchange for its votes, was no longer able to protect the interests of the organisation at the time of its most important trial."

The untying of the knot of complicity between the Mafia and politics was accompanied by further successes against the military arm of Cosa Nostra. Mafia bosses who had eluded arrest for decades, including Tot Riina, the boss of bosses - he'd been a fugitive for 23 years - were suddenly captured. In early 1993, prosecutors began to investigate Andreotti's possible connections with the Mafia. The arrest of Riina, in particular, appears to have strengthened the resolve of several witnesses. "I have realised," Mutolo testified, "that I must put aside... any fears that have kept me from revealing everything I know on this subject, starting with the most important problem... Cosa Nostra's most powerful political ally: Senator Giulio Andreotti... The `normal circuit' for all problems that needed attention in Rome was: Ignazio Salvo, Onorevole [the Honourable] Salvo Lima, and Senator Giulio Andreotti."

In the next few months, several other co-operating witnesses came forward with allegations about Andreotti. Some of them said that within the organisation Andreotti was known as lo Zio Giulio (Uncle Giulio), or simply the Uncle. And Buscetta made the most disturbing accusation of all: that the Mafia had murdered a journalist who was threatening Andreotti. The victim was Mino Pecorelli, who had been shot to death in Rome in March of 1979. "The Pecorelli murder was a political crime commissioned by the Salvo cousins, at the request of Onorevole Andreotti," Buscetta told the chief prosecutor of Palermo. Buscetta's sources were two powerful Mafia bosses who indicated that they themselves had helped plan the killing. Virtually all Andreotti's accusers were repeating things they had been told by other Mafia members - insisting, however, that "men of honour" would not lie about such serious matters. Two witnesses, both questioned in April of 1993, claimed to have seen Andreotti at Mafia summit meetings, one in 1980 and the other in 1987. One of them testified that at the second encounter Riina met Ignazio Salvo, Lima, and Andreotti in Salvo's Palermo apartment, greeting each of them with a kiss. Most people who know Andreotti find this scene extremely difficult to believe. "Nonsense!" Father Mario Canciani, Andreotti's personal confessor, said in a recent interview. "Andreotti doesn't even kiss his own children." And Scalfari, of La Repubblica, says, "It's not like him. He's a very prudent man." But if people in Rome find the story of the kiss absurd, in Palermo it is treated with much less incredulity. When Ciccio Ingrassia, a Sicilian comedian, was asked about it during a television interview, he gave a highly Sicilian reply: "I don't know if Riina and Andreotti met or not, but if they met they certainly kissed each other." A Palermo prosecutor explained this view: "Since Riina would have automatically kissed Ignazio Salvo and Salvatore Lima, he would have to have greeted Andreotti in the same manner, in order to show that they were all on the same level - that the head of Cosa Nostra was not inferior to the head of the legal Italian state."

The charges against Andreotti cannot be dismissed out of hand. Even the most incredible accusation of all - that Andreotti commissioned the murder of the journalist Mino Pecorelli - is not wholly implausible. Pecorelli, the editor of a scandal sheet called OP, was part muckraker, part blackmailer. His articles lambasted Italy's corrupt ruling elite and hinted tantalisingly at explosive information to come in future issues. In early 1979, Pecorelli had prepared a cover story on Andreotti's apparent involvement in what promised to be a major bribery scandal, entitled "All the President's Cheques". (Pecorelli had information that the Andreotti faction had received sizeable illegal contributions from two companies that went bankrupt and had received hundreds of millions of pounds from state-owned banks because of their friendship with the Prime Minister. Pecorelli knew the names and the numbers on cheques totalling more than pounds 1m that had been placed at Andreotti's disposal: many were made out to non-existent people but had been cashed by some of Andreotti's closest aides.)

Just two months before his death, Pecorelli met with Andreotti's "legal adviser," Claudio Vitalone, at a Rome restaurant, and the cover story on Andreotti was held back. At the time, Vitalone was a magistrate in the Rome prosecutor's office - the office that was supposed to investigate political corruption in Rome and would later be assigned to investigate the Pecorelli killing itself. Not surprisingly, the investigation went nowhere. But the official story began to fall apart in the spring of 1993, when Franco Evangelisti, Andreotti's lifelong right-hand man, who was sick and about to die, confessed under oath that he had personally paid Pecorelli 30 million lire (about pounds 28,000 at the time) to get him to suppress the cover story on Andreotti. Pecorelli was murdered on the day after the pay-off.

Several participants in the showdown between Pecorelli and Vitalone, after denying that they had ever discussed anything to do with Andreotti, have now admitted that they lied for nearly 15 years, covering up important evidence in a homicide investigation. One of them, Carlo Testi, who was one of the most important magistrates in the country, was asked to explain his illegal behaviour. He replied, "I repressed it... It was like opening a door and witnessing some embarrassing scene, and closing the door and saying, `I didn't see anything.' "

In typical fashion, Andreotti tried to brush off his relations with Pecorelli when he appeared before prosecutors in the case, by recounting a humorous anecdote, which revealed, nonetheless, that he was fully aware of Pecorelli's threats. "Onorevole Evangelisti told me that Pecorelli intended to publish an article against me about certain cheques," Andreotti testified. "I gave no weight to the matter, because of the reputation of the magazine. Evangelisti told me that he had found Pecorelli devastated by terrible headaches, from which he suffered periodically, and which - perhaps jokingly - he attributed to the toughness of some of his journalistic attacks. Because I, too, have suffered from migraine for many years, I sent him a medicine I have found to be very helpful, with a note wishing him every relief." While Andreotti has claimed he was much too busy with important affairs of state to be bothered with the financing of his faction, this anecdote shows him to be intimately involved with its most minute aspects. Moreover, the money trail of the cheque scandal leads back to the Mafia. Some of the cheques were cashed by a company that was controlled by a notorious gangster, the head of a Roman organised crime group known as the Magliana Gang. The group was a Mafia satellite that sold heroin - provided by the Sicilians - in Rome. Another of the cheques turned up in the pocket of a known Mafia boss when he was killed in the streets of Palermo in 1978.

Pecorelli had stumbled on to something much bigger than illegal campaign financing - a scandal that revealed ties between Andreotti's financial backers and organised crime. Ballistic evidence linked the bullets that killed Pecorelli to a gun that was confiscated when an arsenal of the Magliana Gang was recovered, and several former members of the gang have now admitted that the gang agreed to kill Pecorelli as a favour to Vitalone and the Sicilian Mafia. In short, many of the elements of Buscetta's initial allegations have been borne out. The boss of the Magliana Gang, who is believed to have organised the killing, was murdered in 1982, but his former girlfriend has testified that she met Vitalone at least three times. And the wife of an alleged kidnapper associated with the Magliana Gang testified that when, one day, an image of Andreotti and Vitalone came on television, her husband said, "Nobody would think, seeing them dressed in coat and tie, that they commissioned the killing of that journalist."

When I asked a prosecutor who has focused specifically on the Pecorelli killing whether he could actually imagine Andreotti commissioning a murder, he said no. There is, of course, a third and more ambiguous possibility: that someone in Andreotti's entourage commissioned the murder, in the belief that he was doing his master's bidding - rather as Henry II's "Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?" is said to have inspired the murder of Thomas a Becket. Is it possible, I asked Andreotti, that something similar might have happened in the Pecorelli case? "I understand your question," Andreotti said, pausing to reflect. "I never considered Pecorelli such a potentially damaging element. I genuinely hope they find the solution to this mystery."

ANDREOTTI and many of his chief supporters insist that he is the victim of a carefully orchestrated conspiracy. They find it suspicious that more serious accusations seem to emerge with each round of depositions, and that witnesses who never mentioned Andreotti's name in the past have suddenly stepped forward with devastating charges.

The most popular theory is that Cosa Nostra has planted false witnesses in order to punish Andreotti for his stalwart efforts against the Mafia. But a Mafia conspiracy to get Andreotti would be a near-impossibility in practical terms. Many of the Mafia witnesses accusing Andreotti are held in different secret locations - some in different countries - and have little or no opportunity to contact one another. Many of them do not know one another and are from different generations and different parts of Sicily. Above all, why would the older witnesses - who broke with the Mafia years ago, whose families have been hunted down and killed - suddenly lend themselves to a Mafia plot to destroy Andreotti?

A conspiracy against Andreotti would require the participation of at least three different branches of the Italian police, not to mention agents of the United States Marshals' Service, the FBI, and the Drug Enforcement Agency, who were watching over Buscetta and another witness, Francesco Marino Mannoia, in the US. Andreotti seems convinced that someone in the US is directing the "conspiracy" against him, although this, too, makes little sense: the Mafiosi in the US witness-protection programme were the last to accuse him, after the investigation was well under way.

The gradual escalation of accusations can be explained simply by the witnesses' candidly articulated fear of tackling the problem of the Mafia and politics. The absence of an organised conspiracy against Andreotti, however, does not necessarily make the accusations true. While many important witnesses, like Tommaso Buscetta, have excellent records for reliability, they are often repeating things told to them by others. They assert that "men of honour" never lie when discussing Mafia business, but one would not want to convict a former prime minister on blind faith in the inviolability of the Mafia's code of honour. It is possible that their sources - other Mafia bosses - wanted to exaggerate their political influence in order to increase their prestige within Cosa Nostra. And these bosses may have simply assumed that Andreotti was involved, given Lima's extensive contacts with the Mafia.

Because of these potential difficulties, the case against Andreotti may hinge on the testimony of just two people - the only eye-witnesses directly tying him to the bosses of the Mafia. While one of them, Baldassare Di Maggio, is the man who has told the seemingly incredible story of the kiss between Andreotti and Riina, he is also the man who helped the police capture Riina - thereby proving in the most eloquent manner possible that he was a member of the Mafia's inner circle. The other witness, Francesco Marino Mannoia, who claims to have seen Andreotti at a Mafia summit, has also greatly impressed investigators with his reliability.

Andreotti's credibility under oath, on the other hand, has been badly eroded. He was forced in depositions to retract previous testimony, in which he had denied distributing some of the cheques Pecorelli had learnt about and had denied asking one of the witnesses not to implicate him in the scandal. Moreover, it appears he was not telling the truth when he vehemently declared that he had never met the Salvo cousins of Palermo. Last year, investigators turned up an old news photograph showing Andreotti with Nino Salvo at a Christian Democratic rally held in the Salvos' Zagarella Hotel complex. It is highly unlikely that a man who remembered 14 years after the fact that he had sent migraine medicine to Mino Pecorelli - someone he had never met - could forget having been the guest of one of the richest men in Sicily and one of the CD's largest donors.

In the court of public opinion the Andreotti case is likely to be reduced to the question of whether or not Tot Riina kissed Andreotti. The decision to convict or acquit may come down to whether one chooses to believe the word of a former prime minister or that of two self-confessed killers. And if those two witnesses are discredited many people will conclude that all the other witnesses are lying, and that Andreotti is the victim of a witch-hunt.

But the emphasis on whether or not Andreotti met with bosses of the Mafia distracts attention from a larger and more important question about his role in a political system badly tainted by Mafia ties. The prosecutors have presented convincing evidence that Andreotti cynically chose to accept the support of people who were clearly tied to organised crime, and that he ignored overwhelming signs that many people in his entourage were in bed with the Mafia. The court will have to decide whether Andreotti's role in this system of Mafia power was purely passive or crossed the line into active complicity.

A crucial part of the prosecution's case is the allegation that Andreotti intervened with the Italian Supreme Court to fix organised crime cases. The prosecution has produced evidence strongly suggesting that Justice Carnevale, the infamous Sentence Killer, was taking bribes and fixing cases, and Carnevale is himself under indictment. "That's his problem," Andreotti said when I asked him about it.

It may also become Andreotti's problem. Andreotti and Carnevale have both denied knowing each other - statements that, to put it politely, have subsequently been shown to be less than true. Andreotti testified that they had met at a few public functions; instead, it turns out, the two men met regularly for years. Carnevale and Vitalone also claimed to be no more than superficial acquaintances, but were later forced to admit that Carnevale had been a frequent guest at Vitalone's dinner parties.

Most important of all, investigators have come up with a crucial piece of testimony suggesting that Andreotti intervened to help save Carnevale's career. In the mid-Eighties, it appears, Carnevale acted improperly to protect a Sicilian magistrate who was under indictment for collusion with the Mafia. Another magistrate, Mario Almerighi, brought the case to the attention of the Ministry of Justice and tried to initiate an internal investigation of Carnevale. The Justice Minister agreed, but then nothing happened. Eventually, Almerighi said, an official close to the Minister explained "that Andreotti intervened personally, saying something like `No one touches Carnevale.' "

WHILE SOME Italians have complained that the Andreotti case is a waste of resources - an exercise in criminal archaeology that diverts energy from current cases - others feel that it is a necessary exorcism, which will finally allow Italy to move into a different future.

But others believe that it is a mistake to reduce the Andreotti case to a criminal matter. "A purely moralistic position reduces us to this paradox: if Andreotti has been one of the heads of the Mafia, then the Mafia has governed Italy for the last 40 years," says Giuliano Ferrara, the spokesman for the former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. "My compliments to the Mafia for how well it has governed."

History may yet assign a high place to the Christian Democrats for maintaining democracy and peace in Italy and presiding over a period of unprecedented prosperity, and it is certainly true that one cannot entirely separate the Andreotti case from the history of the Christian Democrats. The Andreotti trial may yet provide the public with an education about the dark side of recent Italian history.

But Andreotti himself remains the mystery at the heart of the trial. The criminal case may come down to what the court makes of this enigmatic and contradictory figure. Without a smoking gun, it will be difficult to move most Italians from their preconceived positions. And how much of the prosecution's case one believes will depend on what one thinks of Andreotti and what kind of compromises this great compromiser was capable of.

! Alexander Stille's book, `Excellent Cadavers: the Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic', is published by Jonathan Cape (pounds 20).

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