Peter Popham: Magistrates' murders backfired on Mob

Analysis

The killing of the fearless Sicilian magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino is the great watershed in relations between the Italian state and Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian Mob.

Before those killings, accommodation was the rule. The Mafia was Italy's secret vice: it kept Sicily in order, doled out rough justice and provided safe Sicilian seats to politicians cunning and ruthless enough to do deals with them. Falcone and Borsellino were given the task of bringing the Mafia to book and ending Mob rule in the island, and unlike their predecessors they went about it vigorously.

They organised the first mass trials of Mafiosi, and cajoled the government into giving convicted gangsters uniquely tough conditions in jail to prevent them continuing to run the gangs from inside. The Mafia had a beginning, Falcone argued, so it must also have an end.

Infuriated by the challenge, the Mafia began turning on its former friends in the political world. First to die was the former mayor of Palermo, Salvo Lima, Giulio Andreotti's key contact in the Mob. Falcone and Borsellino were murdered months later.

But now the man who killed Falcone has testified in court in Rome that, even after Lima's death, the politicians had not given up hope of sweet-talking the Mafia into another cosy arrangement.

The testimony of supergrasses is often suspect, but if an authority as important as Antonio Ingroia, a top anti-Mafia magistrate in Palermo, gives credit to what he says, it is to be taken seriously. In their last months, both Falcone and Borsellino felt that the political establishment had hung them out to dry. "In Sicily," Falcone said, "the Mafia kills the servants of the state that the state has not been able to protect." He saw it coming. Now we know chillingly that he was right, and that he had been abandoned. The survival of the political establishment was considered to be far more important than the breaking of the Mafia.

Months later both men were dead and for the first time the ordinary people of Palermo took to the streets in furious protest. This was partly out of sympathy for the dead men and their families, and partly because the autostrada bombing could easily have wiped out innocent Sicilians along with the magistrates (one reason the Mafia had been tolerated up to that point was because they only killed their own kind). With a start, the Italian state woke up: finally it saw that its very existence was at stake. A new age was under way.

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