On his desk sit piles of documents in impenetrable language, full of the stamps, statements, references to laws, clauses and sub- clauses which are the arsenal of Italian justice. They are treacherous weapons: one slip can be used by the other side to undo the work of years. But Agostino Cordova, 56, deploys his arms with precision and skill as he tries to do what no prosecutor has dared before: investigate electoral collusion between Mafia gangs and politicians from ruling parties.
Once, Dr Cordova was the strongest candidate to become Italy's first super-prosecutor. But his independence has upset the Italian establishment. He and his office have been subjected to repeated inspections from the ministry in Rome. Claudio Martelli, the Justice Minister, has, astoundingly, accused him of 'laxity' and favouring Mafia bosses.
The judge's territory is small, beautiful - and steeped in savagery. Palmi, heartland of the ruthless Calabrian 'Ndrangheta, dilapidated and provincial, is lodged on a mountainside that falls steeply to the sea and dominates the fertile plain of Gioia Tauro to the north. It embraces only 300,000 inhabitants, spread in some 33 communities among the olive and citrus groves, but among these he counts no less than 57 Mafia clans. In 1987, the year he arrived, there were 64 murders and 48 attempted murders, but the Mafia problem had been almost completely ignored. Since then he has arrested and brought to trial 'untouchable' bosses, killers, henchmen, lawyers, corrupt officials. At present between 300 and 400 people are awaiting justice in three separate trials.
According to the judge, the Mafia began as a rural bully, changed into 'clean shoes' as it siphoned huge pay-offs from big contracts to develop the South, and became immeasurably rich through drug and arms trafficking. Now it is exploiting the political parties' desperate thirst for votes to gain further favours - and power. 'If it goes on like this, these will have their representatives at the highest level,' he says.
His dogged pursuit of the Mafia's freshest tracks led him to ask parliament to waive the immunity from prosecution of two Socialists, a senator and a junior minister. It started his fall from grace. In April, the homes and offices of 300 mafiosi were searched. Campaign material for various politicians and devices to make voters' ballot papers identifiable afterwards were found.
The raids took place two days before the general election in which the established parties were to be roundly thrashed for years of compromise and corruption. The fury of the endangered politicians at the prosecutor's indifference towards their interests, can be imagined.
Links between the Mafia and certain southern politicians had always been suspected, even taken for granted. But never before had a prosecutor dared to produce evidence - and to act on it. Until now the judiciary - including Judge Cordova's illustrious colleagues Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, both murdered this year - had regarded such connections, unless money was involved, as not punishable.
But Dr Cordova thinks differently. 'The Mafia has no ideology,' he says. 'It wants money and power. And it goes with whoever can give it them.'
It is unrealistic, he says, to believe that electoral support is not given in exchange for future favours, whether of contracts, protection from the law, or influence in Rome.
His views cost him the top anti- Mafia job and left the Palmi prosecutors feeling outraged, bruised and discouraged. 'They are not exactly obstructing us but they are isolating us and diminishing our prestige,' says Dr Francesco Neri, Dr Cordova's deputy. 'Above all they are keeping us short of staff and means.'
The eight prosecutors have only two typists, five instead of 11 assistants, two drivers instead of six for the office's bullet-proof cars. 'We even lack paper,' Dr Neri says.
Aged 35, Dr Neri shares Dr Cordova's addiction to the cause. Both are Calabrians: Cordova the son of a railwayman, Neri the son and grandson of judges, southerners who sought not money but social prestige in the judiciary, committed servants of a state that is less than committed to them. What drives Cordova in his thankless quest? 'It is a sense of mission,' Dr Neri says. 'He feels he can do something for society.'
Many wonder what it is like to live in constant danger of assassination by the Mafia, but for the Palmi prosecutors, and others like them, it is the least of their worries. 'The danger is there, but it is part of the job,' says Dr Cordova. 'I don't think about it any more. Of course, not ever being able to go out, even take a walk, without a guard is not pleasant. But you get used to it.'
But then come hints of danger from another quarter. 'The risk has become greater since my candidacy for the super-prosecutor went in,' says Dr Cordova. And in case the point is missed, Dr Neri adds: 'I fear the institutions more than the Mafia.'
'Tainted institutions,' Dr Cordova corrects him. Then he adds: 'I doubt whether the assassination of Borsellino was exclusively a Mafia job.'
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