Chronicle of a death foretold by the Mafia

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ROME - Inexorably and with impunity, the Sicilian Mafia is ticking off the names of top crime fighters on its death list, according to experts on the organisation. Its most recent act of murder - the explosion which killed Paolo Borsellino, a senior Sicilian judge, and five of his bodyguards in Palermo on Sunday - was all the more shocking because it was an outrage foretold.

Two months ago this week, another bomb killed one of Mr Borsellino's colleagues, Giovanni Falcone - then Italy's leading anti-Mafia judge - his wife and three bodyguards. Mr Falcone died in Mr Borsellino's arms.

'The Mafia's strategy is to kill one by one, inescapably, all those who have understood what the Mafia is,' said Pino Arlacchi, a sociologist and an expert on the Cosa Nostra. 'This is a strategy which is carried out scientifically and which will make all those who can be seen as threats, like Borsellino and Falcone, disappear within a year,' Mr Arlacchi told the daily newspaper L'Unita.

Antonino Calderone, an informer from Catania, in Sicily, said recently: 'The Mafia has a notebook with many names to erase. For each one, sooner or later, the right time comes.'

With the murder of Mr Borsellino, Italy has lost a leader in the struggle against the Mafia, whose vast empire is based on drug trafficking, extortion and smuggling rackets. Both Mr Borsellino and Mr Falcone had played important roles in persuading many mobsters to turn informer and break the code of omerta, the law of silence imposed by the Mafia.

Mr Falcone was the chief architect of a mass trial which sent 338 Mafiosi to jail in 1987. Mr Borsellino, who assisted at the trial, was the leading candidate, after Mr Falcone's death, for the post of anti-Mafia prosecutor, a newly created job that would have put each man in charge of all investigations against organised crime. But the state on Sunday looked weaker than ever in the eyes of many Italians, not just because yet another dedicated judge had become a martyr to the cause, but because neither escorts nor bullet-proof cars could prevent the Mafia from carrying out a death sentence which had been made public.

Vincenzo Calcara, a confessed killer for a Palermo Mafia clan, is reported to have told Mr Borsellino two weeks before Mr Falcone's murder: 'I was ordered to kill you. We were to hit you with a rifle equipped with a telescopic sight - the job of real professionals.'

Local magistrates said Calcara, who was in Palermo's maximum-security Ucciardone prison, told Mr Borsellino: 'They had chosen me as the killer. They even gave me the weapon. I would only have had to press the trigger . . . If the attempt had failed there were plans for a car bomb.'

And just as predicted, it was a car bomb that killed Mr Borsellino as he rang the doorbell of his mother's home. The explosion also wounded 15 people, some seriously.

Mr Borsellino's death was another nail in the coffin of Italy's flagging fight against organised crime. The success of Messrs Borsellino and Falcone in 'turning' mobsters had turned them into walking databanks on the Mafia. Informers such as Tommaso Buscetta, a senior Mafioso, have paid a heavy price for their violation of omerta. Mafia reprisals claimed the lives of 10 of the Buscetta family. Salvatore Contorno, another informer, lost 30 relatives.

Mr Borsellino himself had bitterly denounced the state's flagging efforts against the Piovra or Octopus, as organised crime is known in Italy. 'The state has lowered its guard in the struggle against the Mafia. Judge Falcone is no longer the main point of reference for investigations,' Mr Borsellino said as early as 1988, when the elite pool of anti-Mafia magistrates was dismantled. 'The police know nothing about what happens in the clans of the Piovra. It's the void, just like 20 years ago.'

Five days after the murder of Mr Falcone, Mr Borsellino told a public meeting: 'I don't hide it, I've said so publicly, I'm afraid . . . Yes, fear, you have understood me. And I don't hide the fact that I lose enthusiasm for my job as magistrate. But despite this I will continue to work as I have always done, with the same commitment.'