Tentacles that tie down the Italian state: The government seems unable - or unwilling - to inflict real damage on the Mafia 'octopus'. Fiona Leney reports from Palermo

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The cemetery where Paolo Borsellino is buried lies at the foot of a raw limestone mountain that dwarfs the funerary chapels and avenues of cypresses below. The judge's body lies in a modern family tomb among the baroque stone monuments to the city's patrician families.

In the heavy afternoon heat, three soldiers lounge in the shade of a nearby chapel, arms resting on the sub-machine-guns slung across their chests. They are guarding the tomb, one says - against what is far from clear. Their presence, and that of the other 7,000 troops drafted to Sicily after Borsellino's murder two weeks ago, is largely an empty show of force. Italy's struggling coalition government is desperate to prove that it can act decisively, after Borsellino followed his close friend and colleague, Giovanni Falcone, into the annals of Italy's 'illustrious corpses'.

If anything, the presence of troops has reinforced a belief deeply engrained among Sicilians that the Italian state has merely stepped into the shoes of the Arab, Norman and Spanish overlords that have occupied the island through its history.

'Of course, it won't do any good. The Mafia is not going to confront the troops. It has nothing against the state, on the contrary . . . it was Falcone and Borsellino that it wanted, and it got them,' said Antonio Cimino of the Co- ordinamento Anti-Mafia, a group of private citizens that includes relatives of Mafia victims.

Falcone's car was blown up as he drove into Palermo from its airport on 23 May. His wife and three bodyguards died with him. Borsellino was killed, with five bodyguards, by a massive car bomb as he arrived outside his mother's flat on 19 July.

A flurry of parliamentary activity followed the attacks. New anti- Mafia laws, which give the police extra powers of arrest and detention, were adopted by parliament on Tuesday. Falcone's brainchild, a centralised anti-Mafia task force of investigating magistrates, is to be set up after years of delay. Too late, says Nicola Lombardozzi, of the daily La Repubblica: 'It doesn't matter what laws they bring in now - the Mafia is safe in the knowledge that the men who would have really made those laws bite are dead.'

Falcone and Borsellino had acquired almost cult status among ordinary Italians for proving that it was possible to inflict damage on the multi-tentacled Mafia 'octopus'. Anger and grief over their deaths is adding weight to calls for a complete overhaul of a political system already groaning under the weight of a stricken economy and corruption scandals.

The inquiry into the killings has only added to evidence of the state's incompetence and the lack of political will where Cosa Nostra is concerned. It has emerged that the helicopter which normally flew ahead of Falcone's convoy to check the route was taken off the duty as an economy measure shortly before he was killed. Borsellino's escort included a novice policewoman who had been given no training as a bodyguard. His killers learnt of his movements by tapping his mother's telephone.

Inevitably, there have been accusations of Mafia influence in the corridors of power. 'It is useless bringing in emergency legislation when the nerve centres of Mafia power lie at the heart of the state,' Alfredo Galasso, an MP in the anti-Mafia party La Rete, declared in parliament this week.

While it is simplistic to say that certain politicians control the Mafia, there is evidence that links between the parties and Cosa Nostra exist. A former Christian Democrat mayor of Palermo, Vito Ciancimino, is appealing against a 10-year jail sentence for corruption and Mafia activities. Another Sicilian party official, Salvo Lima, with well-documented links to the local clans, was shot dead in what was thought to be an internal dispute just before the April general election.

The Christian Democrats, as the biggest party and the most entrenched in power, has traditionally been seen as the most closely entangled with 'the octopus', but all the established parties are implicated. It is an inbuilt weakness in the system of proportional representation, where every vote counts. 'The trade-off is: 'You deliver the votes, and we'll protect your interests',' says Mr Cimino.

Even in a country where conspiracy theories are a national obsession, questions are increasingly being asked about the collusion - even if only through inertia - of the state in these deaths. Eight of the judges' colleagues in Palermo resigned after the murders in protest at the lack of protection from the state. 'Why should we put our lives on the line when the state abandons us?' said one of them, Giuseppe Di Lello.

An inquiry into the working of the Palermo judiciary revealed that both Falcone and Borsellino had complained bitterly of obstruction by their immediate boss, and the head of the investigating magistrates, Pietro Giammanco. It is still unclear whether he will remain in his job.

The Mafia debate has split Italy, as so often in crisis, into opposing northern and southern camps. In the north, the political leagues that swept up about 10 per cent of the vote in April's elections on an anti-southern platform, place the blame squarely on the Sicilian people. 'It's the product of centuries of history. The Mafia is a mentality, a way of life. The only solution would be to cut all Sicilians' heads off and change the mentality inside them,' said Simone Zoccoli, a league supporter from Turin. In Sicily, the constant refrain is 'the real mafiosi are in the government'. Extreme theories have corrupt politicians using the clans as a front, or at most as pawns in games of power and patronage. The truth probably lies in the middle, in the convergence of interests of a lazy and corrupt bureaucracy, of self- serving politicians and of a criminal network eager to increase its power and wealth.

Disturbing parallels between the deaths of Falcone and Borsellino and another potentially dangerous adversary of the Mafia - General Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa - do exist. Dalla Chiesa was appointed prefect of Palermo in May 1982 with a mission to tackle Cosa Nostra. He had masterminded the defeat of the Red Brigades, and set about his new job with the same efficiency. Within weeks he complained Rome was denying him the resources he needed. One hundred days after taking office, he was dead, shot with his wife on their way home from a restaurant. Their bodyguard had consisted of a single policeman in a separate car.

Unlike Dalla Chiesa, Falcone and Borsellino were local men, born in the same district of Palermo. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of their 'Sicilianness' in a country where all aspects of daily life - including the workings of the Mafia - are governed by relations between individuals.

'The Mafia hated them because they shattered the myth that 'men of honour' don't talk. They do - but only to men they respect,' says a Palermo colleague who knew Falcone and Borsellino. 'Because Falcone 'invented' the Mafia informer, he was a threat . . . So they removed him. His natural successor was Borsellino, so they set about removing him too. They don't need to do much else for now.'

Indeed, the network of contacts and informers that the judges built up will probably collapse. Informers will calculate that if the state is unable - or unwilling - to protect its top investigators, their chances of survival are even poorer. Besides, both judges acted very much alone. 'It will take at least two years for another investigating magistrate to untangle their lines of inquiry; even if one can be found with the genuine desire to do so,' Mr Cimino says.

(Photograph omitted)