Italian judge breaks state's code of silence: Patricia Clough meets a new breed of anti-Mafia prosecutor

Shielded from menacing eyes by ever-drawn curtains and from attack by bullet-proof windows, locked doors and guards with submachine guns, Judge Agostino Cordova sits behind his huge desk in the bunker-like law courts in Palmi's main square. He is the physical embodiment of his reputation as Italy's fiercest anti-Mafia fighter: brush-cut grey hair, huge black eyebrows and an obstinate jaw. A bull mastiff, one writer has called him.

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.'

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Polish Speaking Buying Assistant

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Superb opportunity for a BUYING...

Recruitment Genius: Support Worker

£14560 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company offers personalise...

Recruitment Genius: Key Account Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A really exciting opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Multi Trade Operative

£22000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An established, family owned de...

Day In a Page

Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project