Is this the end for Mob rule?

The capture of Sicily's drug king is the latest success for Mafia hunters in Italy and the US
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The Independent Online
FEARED drug king Pasquale Cuntrera is contemplating a bleak future. On Sunday, Cuntrera was arrested on Spain's Costa del Sol, five days after embarrassed authorities in Rome admitted he had been released from prison on a technicality and had fled the country.

With true Mafia panache, Cuntrera had abandoned the wheelchair to which he had long claimed to be confined, and was strolling along the main drag in Fuengirola, arm-in-arm with his wife, when he was picked up in a joint operation by Italian and Spanish police.

The man found guilty of running one of the world's biggest drug trafficking rings will now be brought back to Italy to serve a 21-year prison sentence, joining the growing number of top crime bosses behind bars on Italian soil.

Back across the water, New York is also rejoicing in a headline that has been a long time coming: "The Mob is Dead". From time to time, in Italy and in the Cosa Nostra's New World outpost, New York City, final triumph by prosecutors and politicians over the wise guys has seemed tantalisingly close. Like now. And yet, still we must add: "Long Live the Mob".

The snaring of two men is cause for some hope. In a jail north of New York City sits John Gotti Jr. The son of the John Gotti Sr, one-time leader of the Gambino clan, he awaits trial later this year on charges of racketeering. In the eyes of some, a conviction of the younger Gotti would represent a final death blow against the New York Mafia.

The arrest of Gotti, believed to have been running the Gambino machine on behalf of his father, himself behind bars on murder and racketeering convictions since 1992, is one of a string of knock-out punches against the Mafia in New York. The conviction of Gotti Sr rested on turncoat evidence given by Gotti's former Gambino underboss, Sammy "The Bull" Gravano. And last year, Vincente "The Chin" Gigante, head of the rival Genovese clan, was imprisoned. Moreover, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has claimed success in rooting out Mafia influence from city food markets and the rubbish carting industry.

Italy's Mafia-fighters, in contrast, despite their own recent run of successes, are not happy: the government, they claim, offers little in the way of support for their work; perhaps worse still, the people of the crime-plagued south are showing signs of giving up the uneven struggle against the Mob.

The events of Sunday were emblematic of the paradox: in the space of one day, Cuntrera was brought to heel, another high-ranking boss Pino Guastella was arrested in Palermo, and the people of Palermo went to the polls to elect a new provincial council.

The man who emerged as clear winner in that ballot, centre-right candidate Francesco Musotto, was recently charged with colluding with the Mafia and though he was acquitted, some still harbour doubts about his connections.

The vote came six years and a day after one of Italy's best-loved figures, Judge Giovanni Falcone, was killed by a Mafia bomb. His death prompted the nearest thing to a popular revolt against organised crime. Tough new laws were introduced to ensure that criminals, once caught, could not continue running their crime empires from their prison cells.

For a short while it looked like Cosa Nostra might be on the run. But the spring of 1997, when police picked up Giovanni Brusca, the man who pushed the button to blow up Falcone, and Pietro Aglieri, believed to have stepped into boss `Toto' Riina's shoes, the traditional acceptance among Sicilians of the Mafia as a fact of life in Sicily seemed to have returned.

Attilio Bolzoni, a Palermo-based journalist whose book C'era una volta la lotta alla mafia (Once Upon A Time There Was a Fight Against the Mafia) was published last week, is harsh on Sicilians: "Falcone might have died 100 years ago, not just six," he said. "This is an entirely different era."

According to Bolzoni, the current coalition government made up of centre- left parties "has totally abandoned the fight against the Mafia."

If criticism of Rome's handling of Italy's dramatic crime problem is widespread, praise for the forces of law and order is almost unanimous.

Despite all its successes, the state will not be able to rest on its laurels until the final symbol of Cosa Nostra's legendary ability to get the better of law and order is seized. "They've come a long way. They've put people behind bars, but the biggest mafioso of them all, Bernardo Provenzano, has been out there doing what he pleases for over 30 years," recalled Bolzoni.

Only the arrest of Provenzano, the real capo di tutti i capi, may finally convince disillusioned Sicilians that the fight against the Mafia really can be won.

In New York, however, progress is more convincing. Earlier this month, the FBI announced it was satisfied that the city's "Commission" of Godfathers was essentially defunct. The "Commission" used to be made up of leaders of each of city's five Mafia families and met regularly to adjudicate in disputes and set common strategy.

The families appeared to have been wounded by several convening factors: the success of the FBI and prosecutors in nailing some of their leaders, the hyper-activity of Mayor Giuliani in weakening their grip on city commerce, as well as old-fashioned in-fighting and ineptitude among the new, flashier generation of Mafia captains."You can't say that we've eliminated them, but their control is not as pervasive as it once was," said Louis Schiliro, director of the New York FBI.

Ronald Goldstock, a former director of the New York State Organized Crime Task Force, believes that the authorities have entered the final round of their fight. "For law enforcement, it is the mopping up period."