Mafia gangs linked to building projects for America's Cup races

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The Independent Online

Sicilian magistrates are investigating allegations that lucrative construction projects in preparation for America's Cup yacht races were awarded to members of the island's Cosa Nostra, prompting one Italian magazine to call the world's most prestigious yachting competition the "Mafia's Cup".

The competition's organisers were not involved in awarding the contracts.

The reports have surfaced amid accusations that the Interior Ministry under-secretary Antonio D'Ali sacked a local prefect known for his fight to prevent the underworld controlling the building industry.

The Sicilian port of Trapani boasted the strong winds and open sea views that made it an ideal host for the qualifying races held from 28 September to 9 October, organisers believed. The historic port was spruced up for the event.Last month officers from the local police flying squad arrested Ciccio Pace, the reputed Cosa Nostra kingpin of Trapani, and five local building entrepreneurs on charges of membership of a mob aimed at using extortion to obtain control of business linked to the competition.

Mr Pace had been engaged in a battle with the prefect of Trapani, Fulvio Sodano, an earnest anti-Mafia crusader, L'Espresso magazine quoted police and judicial sources as saying. In 2001 Mr Pace was intercepted by a police surveillance tap telling his right-hand man that "the Prefect Sodano is bad and must leave".

Mr Sodano, law and order representative of the central government in Rome, had evidently refused to play by unwritten rules in the city, where, as Marco Lillo, a reporter for L'Espresso, commented: "Institutions, businessmen and the Mafia sniff each other and mix".

Mr Lillo cited the influential role played in the city in the past by the family of Senator D'Ali, of Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, currently under-secretary at the Interior Ministry, the institution responsible for fighting organised crime. In 1993 the under-secretary's family unwittingly hired to the family firm Matteo Messina Denaro, reputed number two to Bernardo Provenzano, the Mafia's boss of bosses on the run for 25 years, the magazine said.

"Years later Antonio D'Ali ... took the wrong side in the difficult cement industry battle between the Mafia and the anti-Mafia," L'Espresso said.

The battle concerned the fate of the Ericina cement company, which authorities confiscated in 2000 from Vincenzo Virga, one of the oldest mafia dons in the city. After Mr Virga's arrest, Ericina's turnover fell by 50 per cent as the Cosa Nostra urged its affiliates to deprive the now state-controlled business of trade.

In 2001 the prefect appealed publicly to entrepreneurs of Assindustria, the Sicilian industrialists' association, asking them to buy their cement from Ericina. Soon afterwards he was transferred suddenly from his post to Rome, an interior ministry decision he believed was taken by Senator D'Ali.

Senator D'Ali strongly denies involvement.

Whatever the case, the inquiry appears to be another sign of the battle against organised crime reviving in Sicily as the Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right government in Rome looks set for defeat in the forthcoming general election.

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