Mafia's Sicily HQ is safer than Glasgow

Knives, drink and poverty make the Scottish city more dangerous than murderous Palermo.
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The Independent Online

He was being stabbed while we were sitting in an unmarked police car, a mile away in the dark. A domestic row had turned nasty. "Male unconscious, knife wound to the head," said a voice over the radio, but the two detectives did not move. "Probably just a jakey with a steakie."

He was being stabbed while we were sitting in an unmarked police car, a mile away in the dark. A domestic row had turned nasty. "Male unconscious, knife wound to the head," said a voice over the radio, but the two detectives did not move. "Probably just a jakey with a steakie."

Overheated drunks attack each other with steak knives frequently in Glasgow, and have made it one of the most murderous cities in Europe. The latest "murder league table" shows it second only to Copenhagen.

The paramilitary gangs of Belfast killed less often than the drunks of Glasgow, according to the recently released figures, which were for 1997. And the homicide rate was almost two-thirds more than that of Italy - including Palermo in Sicily, the heartland of the Mafia.

These chilling findings were backed up last month when the Scottish Executive published research showing that a man was twice as likely to meet a violent death in Glasgow than in London.

"The real problem is one of drink, young men and knives," said Scotland's Justice Minister Jim Wallace. "We need to educate young people away from the 'hard man' approach to life."

The image of the "wee, hard creature with a propensity for fisticuffs" is a hangover from the industrial past, says Chief Superintendent Tom Buchan, the deputy commander of a division that covers some of the city's most notorious areas such as Govan and the Gorbals. "That was a hard-working, hard-drinking culture of heavy, manual jobs. Some men still think they've got to prove that they're hard, and if they haven't got a hard job like their father or grandfather had then they'll do it through violence."

More than 40,000 jobs have been lost in the last decade or so, as the shipyards and heavy engineering firms have closed down or moved away. Glasgow has reinvented itself, first as a City of Culture with a cleaned-up centre, and then as a site for new industries, including computers and call centres.

"Ach, they're not real jobs," says the detective at the steering wheel as we pass a huge concrete shed with no windows. It is a pub. "Young guy bled to death just here," says the detective, pointing to a patch of littered grass. The victim's friends took their revenge soon after. "It's only thanks to the skill of the surgeons that there aren't more people dying."

Despite all this, the police are confident. The Strathclyde force has carried out a series of intensive campaigns against house-breaking, knives and drug-dealing. It has enforced a total ban on drinking on the streets, and introduced fluorescent jackets for more visible policing. Detectives expect the murder rate to have fallen when figures are next released: "We are still in control."

That claim could not be made by the Carabinieri, the police force that patrols the streets of Palermo with machine guns. Theirs is the land of the Godfather, with a terrifying reputation for violence.

To get there you fly through airspace in which an Alitalia jet was once blown out of the sky by an unidentified missile, at the height of a Mafia killing frenzy. The taxi from the airport follows the coastal road on which the anti-mob magistrate Giovanni Falcone was murdered in May 1992 by explosives packed into a drainage pipe under the tarmac.

There have been thousands of other murders over the decades, each carried out in accordance with the amount of respect - that all-important Sicilian value - that the Mafia had for the victims. The pentiti, those who had informed, were served poisoned coffee in prison and died in agony and humiliation. Bodies were left at the railway station, headless, burned in public, dumped outside the police headquarters, or dissolved in acid. This was precise, ritualistic homicide - the sloppy, drunken, almost accidental killings of Glasgow would be anathema to such accom- plished assassins.

"In this town the Mafia has a monopoly on crime, including murder," says Carmelo Rapisardi, who was born in Palermo and has been writing about its underworld for more than 20 years. He cannot remember a tourist being killed. "There is no reason to be afraid to come here. If you are not connected to the Mob you do not run a risk."

Level with the coast of Africa, Palermo is warm and dry most of the time. If it rained, as it does in Glasgow, the rubbish on the streets would block all the drains and the dust would turn to mud. The traffic is crazy, but road rage hardly ever happens. "From very young we learn that violence is reserved for the Mafia," says Mr Rapisardi.

Shopkeepers routinely pay protection money, building contractors win tenders if they promise to employ "men of honour". "It is something like the sunshine or the air - you live with it."

After the murder of Falcone, who is now seen as a martyr, even Mafia men began to turn on their bosses, seeing the huge bloodshed as a betrayal of older, less conspicuous methods of control. Arrests for Mafia-related crimes increased to a peak of 372 in 1997, and the murder rate has since dropped dramatically.

"We have the Mafia themselves to thank for the change," says Leoluca Orlando, the current Mayor of Palermo and the first-ever to admit that the Cosa Nostra even existed. "They killed too much. Judges were killed in a spectacular and dramatic way that nobody could ignore. Everybody had to see it. The disease became acute. The people had had enough." The change of heart can be seen on the Via Brancaccio, where a Mafia mural of a rabbit with a machine gun has been scratched away, and someone has written: " Chi usa la violenza non e un uomo": he who uses violence is not a man.

It is a grave accusation in a culture that equates style with machismo. To Sicilians, getting blind drunk on a can of McEwans would be brutta sigura, a vulgar display. Half the world's heroin may be trafficked through Palermo but even the junkies are under the Mafia's firm control.

There is one other thing the two cities have in common, besides drugs. In Palermo they call it omerta, the code of silence, but the Glaswegian police chief Tom Buchan offers his own definition: "You know he knows who did it, but he's not saying. Perhaps because there is this culture of not informing, or because he intends to sort it out himself, his own way. It is difficult to fight that." Violate it and you might end up with a cut throat rather than a concrete suit, but the end effect is just the same.