Mafia 'struggling' as police fight back: New Italian laws bring rise in arrests as crackdown disables drugs- and arms-running empires

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ITALY'S Mafia has suffered big setbacks over the past 12 months, with the number of members arrested up by 15 per cent and more than twice as many drugs seized as the previous year, according to figures released by the Interior Ministry.

Among the biggest blows, made possible by new laws, has been the seizure of more than 3.5 trillion lire ( pounds 1,476bn) of ill-gotten funds belonging to arrested members of clans in the Sicilian Mafia, the Naples Camorra and the Calabrian 'Ndrangheta, in the hopes of thus crippling their drugs- and arms-running empires.

At the same time it was announced that the number of Mafia pentiti who have agreed to turn informer is 489.

'The Mafia is in difficulties,' said Vincenzo Parisi, Italy's chief of police at the weekend. 'It has suffered extremely severe blows.' Now no single organisation or clan holds absolute power within the Mafia. The Corleone clan, which under the alleged 'boss of bosses' Salvatore 'Toto' Riina had had complete control, is still strong but no longer dominates the others, he told the newspaper Avvenire.

Mr Parisi predicted there would soon be another of the periodic bloody struggles between the clans for dominance. 'The next Mafia war is approaching,' he said. Like the Interior Minister, Nicola Mancino, he believed that the recent car-bomb attacks in Rome, Milan and Florence were a form of backlash by the Mafia against its troubles.

According to the ministry figures, the number of people arrested in connection with organised crime rose by 15.3 per cent from 95,000 to 111,000. Among those who have been detained are some of the biggest Mafia bosses, such as Toto Riina and Carmine Alfieri, the head of the Camorra. About 24,000 people have been arrested for drug-running, while the amount of drugs seized this year has increased by more than 150 per cent from 690,000kg to 1,733,300kg.

Over the same period the police alone have seized around 400 weapons, 238 bombs, 1,535 packets of explosive, and 935 packets of ammunition. The ministry did not give the amounts seized by the carabinieri, the other security force which is equally active against the Mafia.

In another development in the battle against the Mafia, the ministry said that 40 town councils have been dissolved for involvement with the Mafia, the biggest one being that in the Sicilian port of Gela, which has some 75,000 inhabitants. Seven others have been dissolved for 'serious and persistent breaches of the law', the latest and most scandalous case being that of Naples.

A three-day hunger strike by thousands of inmates of Italy's jails against overcrowding and the poor conditions in which they are kept, ended yesterday. The organisers, the Association of Victims of In justice, claimed that between 35,000 and 40,000 out of a total of 51,000 inmates had taken part, while the government said fewer than half that number had participated.

Curiously, the hunger strike had relatively little backing in the older and most notorious prisons, San Vittore in Milan, Regina Coeli in Rome, Poggioreale in Naples and the Ucciardone in Palermo, and more support in the modern ones, such as Rebibbia in Rome.