The Mafia is back

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A new generation of mafiosi is tightening its grip once more around Italy.

After a euphoric period of high-profile arrests, mass trials and a veritable flurry of informers who have shed light on the darkest corners of post- war Italian history, the struggle to defeat Cosa Nostra is crumbling.

That is the conclusion of magistrates working in Sicily, and confirmed by an investigation by The Independent.

"People have a great desire to convince themselves that the war against the Mafia has been won," said Antonio Ingroia, one of the brightest young prosecutors in Palermo. "But our impression today is less optimistic ... There is a sense of isolation and abandonment by the state. People are once again feeling the presence of the bosses, both big and small."

The new Mafia may be less violent than the variety that held sway in the late 1980s and early 1990s - there have been no magistrates or politicians shot dead in the streets - but organised crime groups have nevertheless taken advantage of political instability, recession and a weakening magistrature to spread their businesses abroad and extend their climate of fear.

They have capitalised on their considerable financial strength to spread into northern Italy, Europe and establish links in the east, notably in Albania, Turkey and Russia. In addition to drugs, they now trade in arms, nuclear materials and toxic waste.

In Italy towns and villages are beset by extortion rackets and random violence. In the backwaters of southern Sicily, gangsters are shooting each other in public squares and torturing shopowners who refuse to pay protection. With unemploy- ment rising, recruitment is easy and the state is either too weak or too scared to stop the rot.

The fight against the Mafia was invigorated after the murder of Giovanni Falcone, the groundbreaking Sicilian magistrate, five years ago this month. His killers were rapidly tried and their their evidence in turn led to further arrests. That momentum, however, has now gone.

The main reason is a desire by the political class to put an end to the many judicial scandals that felled the old Christian Democrat-led order. The priority in Rome is no longer to strengthen the judiciary, but rather to crack down on the magistrates to prevent further assaults on the status quo.

Most striking is a campaign to discredit Mafia informers, known as pentiti, whose testimony has been the foundation of judicial investigations and trials in the past 15 years. Having blown the lid on the secretive workings of Cosa Nostra, the pentiti have begun talking in detail about Mafia links with politicians, terrorist groups and shady masonic lodges.

A new draft law on Mafia informers tightens the rules on their collaboration and magistrates fear they will cease to come forward, or retract sworn testimony. Moreover, a law on specially tough prison regimes for Mafia bosses is being relaxed, and two high-security prisons particularly feared by Cosa Nostra are being closed.

Mafia off the chain, page 18