State handouts for Mafia men of honour

IN 1991, an agricultural labourer, Vito Vitale, met with an accident on a Sicilian farm and was awarded a disability allowance by the state pension fund. On 14 April, seven years and many monthly payments later, the reclusive "invalid" was arrested.

For when Vitale was not arranging for relations to nip down to the post office to pick up his $200 (pounds 120) cheque for him, he was, so investigators believe, busy being deputy chairman of a multi-national company with an estimated annual turnover of 250 trillion lire: the Mafia (Sicily) Inc.

Needless to say, he was not hampered by an obvious physical handicap. Vitale, reputed to have been the deadliest of Cosa Nostra hitmen, is not the only Italian mobster who has supplemented his income with a little something from the state, according to an unpublished report by the parliamentary Anti-Mafia committee which was leaked in the weekly Il Mondo.

Dozens of recipients of state money are named in the report, which suggests that being amongst Italy's 3.5 million invalids on allowances, or the 700,000 people on minimum pensions or income support, is a point of honour for the Mafia's uomini d'onore (men of honour).

Mafiosi are by tradition from country stock. The organisation is still strongly rooted in Sicily's impoverished agricultural hinterland. And like their law-abiding fellow citizens, even the highest-earning hitmen, explosives experts, drug refiners and arms traffickers have an innate conviction that the state is there to be fleeced. In the case of boss of bosses, Salvatore Riina, being seen to be fiddling the state like any local bumpkin was a vital part of his defence: his fury when he was refused an agricultural labourer's pension to see him through his 12 life sentences after his arrest in 1993 knew no bounds.

Others have been more skillful than their one-time chief, managing to juggle prison and hand-outs. Three of the mafiosi charged with planting a bomb which killed five people and destroyed a wing of Florence's Uffizi Gallery in 1993 are on the pension fund payroll, and two of them are classed as serious invalids.

Still others - like Vitale until two weeks ago - find being on the run from the law no barrier to picking up their cheques.

Conspicuous by his absence from the Anti-Mafia committee report is Bernardo Provenzano, the legendary Mafia chief who dropped out of sight over 30 years ago and is now Italy's most-wanted pensioner. Further investigation may reveal which queue in which Sicilian post office he can be picked up in.