Italy's men of violence throw off the state's chains

THE NEW MAFIA

It was the defining moment of the Cold War in Italy, the moment when the Christian Democrat establishment made its unholy alliance with the world of organised crime and sealed it with blood. Fifty years ago today, a crowd of peasants celebrating May Day in the rugged hills of the Palermo hinterland were mown down by machine-gunners determined to deter them once and for all from voting for the Communists.

The massacre at Portella della Ginestra, coming just a few days after an unexpected victory for the left in Sicily's first ever regional elections, claimed 11 dead and 55 wounded. It was a remarkably low casualty toll given the narrowness of the pass where they were gathered and the appalling wounds inflicted by bullets ricocheting off the rocks.

As intended, though, it shocked the Sicilian peasantry back into the arms of the establishment, an establishment in which the interests of the big landowners, the Christian Democrats, the Church and the Mafia all converged with the full approval and even encouragement of the US government.

The exact chain of responsibility for the massacre has never been established, although it almost certainly won the tacit approval of all the big power- brokers and attracted no more than a murmur of disquiet from the Christian Democrats' notoriously repressive Interior Minister Mario Scelba. The man who organised the attack, the charismatic bandit Salvatore Giuliano, was no more than a tool of the larger forces but he nevertheless enjoyed their protection for a long time afterwards.

While ceaseless attempts were theoretically being made to capture Giuliano, he was in fact holding court to a never-ending stream of journalists and admirers at his home town of Montelepre just over the hills from Portella della Ginestra. "The only people unable to find Giuliano were the police," a court sentence concluded years later, by which time Giuliano had been betrayed and killed, and the pax mafiosa in Sicily had become so normal it had lost much of its power to shock public opinion.

The Mafia thus re-established itself as a bulwark against Communism. It remained on intimate, if occasionally ambivalent, terms with the Christian Democrats throughout the Cold War as Italy's political system became increasingly bogged down and Cosa Nostra built up a vast international empire in drugs smuggling and other rackets.

Some of the lessons of Portella della Ginestra are still valid today, notably that the fortunes of any mafia crime organisation - whether in Sicily, Calabria, Naples, northern Italy or elsewhere - depend largely on the complicity, or at least the weakness, of the state structure with which it must compete for control of territory.

Of course, the big change has been the end of the Cold War. In Italy's case it occurred not so much in 1989 as in 1992, when the Christian Democrat- led order collapsed under an intolerable burden of corruption scandals and the Mafia, taking advantage of the political chaos, launched a full- scale war on the establishment. It was in 1992 that Giovanni Falcone, the magistrate who did more than anyone before or since to penetrate the secrets of Cosa Nostra and dismantle its leadership, was blown up along with his wife and police escort on the way into Palermo from the airport. Within two months, Falcone's closest colleague Paolo Borsellino was also eliminated in a massive car bomb that exploded outside his house.

The result of these murders, the most shocking of a long string of so- called cadaveri eccellenti or "illustrious corpses", was to galvanise popular opinion, the politicians, the police, the magistrature and horrified members of Cosa Nostra itself into an unprecedented counter-attack on the Mafia. Over the next three years, with the help of new legislation and a witness protection programme, hundreds of new informers came forward and one high-profile arrest after another was made, particularly in the upper echelons of the Corleonesi, the clan that ran Cosa Nostra in the 1980s and early 90s and was responsible for its strategy of terror against the state.

Trials for the murders of Falcone and Borsellino were put together in record time, based on the kind of detailed evidence of which most prosecutors can usually only dream.

Meanwhile, all sorts of dirty linen started coming out. It led, most spectacularly, to the arrest and trial of Giulio Andreotti, the grand old man of the Christian Democrat party, on charges of mafia collusion and murder. But there were also precious new insights into such mysteries as the kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro, the Christian Democrat leader, in 1978 and the death of Roberto Calvi, the banker with connections in both the Mafia and the Vatican, in London in 1982.

Then something happened. Part of it was no doubt a loss of momentum - these things have always gone in waves - but mostly it was due to an attempted political counter-revolution bent on rolling back the extraordinary achievements of the judges. When Silvio Berlusconi, a man himself under investigation for gross malpractice in his media empire, became prime minister in 1994, he all but stopped the magistrates dead in their tracks and the work of the parliamentary anti-Mafia commission ground to a near standstill.

Mr Berlusconi's downfall at the end of 1994 was followed by a year and half of political stagnation, and then the arrival of the present centre- left government led by Romano Prodi. Despite the presence of several prominent anti-Mafia campaigners in the ruling coalition, however, yet more ground is being lost. Why?

Partly it is because of the weakness of the Prodi government, which relies on a fringe left-wing party to make up its majority in parliament and has concentrated its limited strength on getting Italy into the single currency. Partly it is because of a calculated risk taken in the name of lasting constitutional reform. An extraordinary cross-party commission is currently examining changes to the electoral system, the balance of power between the president, the government and parliament, and also the judicial system.

The problem is that in order to get Mr Berlusconi to agree to a decent electoral system, he is being effectively bought off with judicial reforms that risk unravelling much of the anti-Mafia magistrates' good work. Instead of helping the magistrates by bolstering their presence in crime-ridden cities like Reggio Calabria and increasing the efficiency of the appallingly slow Italian court system, the emphasis is all on reining-in the judges and subjecting them to greater legislative and political control.

The Mafia is taking full advantage of the signals emanating from Rome, and Sicily in particular has slumped back into a state of despondency. The positive results of the mid-1990s are still being felt, notably in Calabria where a slew of recent arrests has weakened some of the most powerful groups operating their world-wide rackets from there.

But the risk, as the magistrates closest to the coal face can attest, is that life is going to get a lot worse again very quickly. "The Mafia is beginning to build up resistance to the tools we have devised to combat its influence," said the Palermo prosecutor Antonio Ingroia. "If we do not update our weapons then the next round will be lost."

News
The Edge and his wife, Morleigh Steinberg, at the Academy Awards in 2014
peopleGuitarist faces protests over plan to build mansions in Malibu
Sport
Cristiano Ronaldo in action for Real Madrid
football
Voices
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
voicesNigel Farage: Where is the Left’s outrage over the sexual abuse of girls in the North of England?
News
In other news ... Jon Snow performed at last year's Newsroom's Got Talent charity event
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
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

SSRS Report Developer - Urgent Contract - London - £300pd

£300 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: SSRS Report Developer – 3 Mon...

KS1 Teacher

£95 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Key Stage 1 teacher require...

HR Business Partner - Essex - £39,000 plus benefits

£32000 - £39000 per annum + benefits + bonus: Ashdown Group: Generalist HR Man...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel like your sales role...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?