Mafia bosses 'not hiding in Britain': Prosecutors cast doubt on 'safe haven' claim but warn that money-launderers may infiltrate London financial centre

Click to follow
LEADING SICILIAN anti-Mafia magistrates yesterday cast doubt on a British newspaper report that three top Mafiosi were hiding in this country.

Guido Lo Forte and Gioacchino Natoli were commenting on a report in the Sunday Times which quoted a detective of the National Criminal Intelligence Service as saying 'the Mafia increasingly sees (Britain) as its safe haven for fugitives'.

The report named the three as Leoluca Bagarella, brother-in-law of the 'boss of all the bosses' Salvatore 'Toto' Riina, Bernardo Provenzano, Riina's right-hand man and possible successor as Godfather, and Giovanni Brusca, believed to have triggered the bomb that killed the anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone in 1992.

But Lo Forte, Palermo's associate public prosecutor, said 'a boss outside his territory is like a fish out of water. I think it improbable that the present leadership of Cosa Nostra, to which Bagarella, Provenzano and Brusca belong, have abandoned Sicily for Britain. It would be as if the Mafia had suddenly conceded defeat - which I don't think is the case at present . . . We have never come across a case of a Mafia boss abandoning the territory he controls.' When such people have gone abroad in the past - whether to Britain, Germany or Canada, he said, it has been for 'tactical' purposes rather than long-term stays.

In fact, the really powerful Mafia bosses - and the three appear to belong to this category - rarely leave their area for long, even when in hiding, for fear of losing their power to other clan members, or to rival clans. 'Toto' Riina, who was in hiding for nearly 25 years, had been living mainly in Palermo, protected by a conspiracy of silence. Bagarella is suspected of hiding recently on land belonging to the archbishopric of Monreale near Palermo and of using one of their mobile phones. The offices of a priest there were searched by police.

Nevertheless, partly because the Sicilian Mafia has lost the political protection which enabled it to flourish for years, and partly because of its increasingly international interests, many Mafiosi close to the top clearly travel abroad on business. The Mafia, experts here say, is moving in a big way into Russia and other former Communist countries that welcome its money and are ill-equipped to combat crime. But it is also active in Germany, France and other European countries as well as Britain.

If the three are in Britain, and an Interior Ministry spokesman could not confirm or deny this ('it is a matter between the police forces'), they could have gone temporarily on business, to recycle dirty money.

More than a year ago Liliana Ferraro, Falcone's successor as head of the Italian Justice Ministry's penal affairs department, warned Britain through an interview with the Independent to guard against Mafia money filtering into the country. London was a natural target for its drug profits, she said.

Yesterday Carmine Valente, the Interior Ministry spokesman, said: 'The Mafia goes wherever it can do business. We are telling everyone: 'Beware, don't think that we have the Mafia and you don't' . . . There are Englishmen who are Mafiosi - not by birth but because they become Mafiosi.'

The immense sums involved and the extreme sophistication of Mafia methods 'make it a danger to the state, to democracy' Mr Valente warned. With the increased freedom of movement for European Community citizens it is extremely easy for an Italian Mafia boss to enter Britain.

'Once he is there it is not so easy to find him,' Mr Valente said. 'If the British police could catch Brusca, for instance, it would be a tremendous coup.'