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Mysteries unravel as mafiosi spill secrets

Italy's new government has gangsters on the run
Rome - It is confession time in Italy. The latest mafioso to turn state's evidence, Calogero Ganci, has owned up to more than 100 violent crimes and shed valuable new light on a series of high-profile killings, from General Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa in 1982 to Judge Giovanni Falcone a decade later.

Meanwhile, a former Red Brigade terrorist called Germano Maccari has come clean after three years of agonising soul-searching and admitted that he was the hitherto shady "fourth man" in the kidnapping and murder of the Christian Democrat leader Aldo Moro in 1978. For the first time, he talked about the intricate planning that went into building the various hide-outs where Moro was hidden during his 55 days in captivity, and gave a detailed description of the shooting which finished him off.

There are indications, too, that another great Italian mystery is edging closer towards elucidation. Last week a London-based mafioso called Francesco Di Carlo was extradited from Britain to Italy to give evidence about the death of Roberto Calvi, the corrupt banker found hanging beneath Blackfriars bridge in London in 1981. The Italian courts have consistently recorded a verdict of suicide but, according to judicial sources, Di Carlo may now be about to confess to Calvi's murder.

It may be that the timing of these admissions is fortuitous but, in a country as contorted and conspiracy-ridden as Italy, that seems unlikely. What links them, if nothing else, is the arrival of a new centre-left government - a government made up of parties and interest groups that have been working for years from the opposition benches to combat the Mafia and clear up the mysteries that have plagued the health of Italy's democracy for the past quarter of a century.

The prospect of a more authoritative state, guided by a government set to last rather longer than the miserable postwar average of 10 months, will almost certainly have emboldened a man such as Ganci, whose confessions have alienated him completely from his family and friends and have left him entirely at the mercy of the state's witness protection programme.

It has undoubtedly emboldened the magistrates who have been working in virtual isolation to tease out the well-protected secrets behind such mysteries as the shooting down of a civilian airliner north of Sicily in 1980, or the series of unresolved bombings that began in the Piazza Fontana in Milan as early as 1968.

"A healthy democracy should not have dark spots muddying its past. A strong government will certainly make it easier to shed light on these events," commented Marco Minniti, national co-ordinator for the main left-wing party in power, the PDS.

Since Romano Prodi's government entered office a month ago, the most palpable advance has been in the fight against the Mafia. Apart from Ganci's confessions, police have arrested one of Cosa Nostra's most ruthless killers, Giovanni Brusca, as well as Giovanni Riina, son of the Sicilian Mafia's super-boss turned super-convict, Toto Riina. The feeling is that the Corleonesi clan, which ran Cosa Nostra's anti-state terror in the Eighties and Nineties, is definitively in retreat.

In truth, the retreat began in 1992 in the wake of the Falcone killing, which so shocked the nation that it mobilised a massive police and judicial operation to track down the culprits. But the anti-Mafia push suffered a damaging period of thumb-twiddling once Silvio Berlusconi's conservative government came to power in 1994. One of Mr Berlusconi's closest associates, Marcello Dell'Utri, is now under investigation for collusion with the Mafia, as is his party's chief representative in Palermo, Francesco Musotto.

In the political vacuum which preceded April's general election, the anti-Mafia effort virtually ground to a halt. The trial of Giulio Andreotti, Italy's most prominent post-war politician, accused of Mafia patronage and murder, hit a brick wall back in January and did not resume until two weeks ago. Now, nearly nine months after Mr Andreotti first appeared in court, the case is at last proceeding at a reasonable pace.

And what of the Mafia's future? Certainly, its "military wing", as prosecutors call the likes of Toto Riina, is breaking up at a spectacular rate. But it would be wrong to assume that the whole organisation is under threat. Illegal trade in drugs and arms is by all accounts booming, especially in Eastern Europe and the former Yugoslavia, and the closed atmosphere of protection rackets and omerta that has characterised southern Italy for so long shows no sign of lifting.

"It wouldn't be the first time that the Mafia had hidden itself in its own territory," said the chief prosecutor of Palermo, Gian Carlo Caselli, this week. "Going underground might put an end to the terrorist wave and the series of illustrious corpses, but only to lower the guard of the state authorities."

In other words, the real war against the Mafia, the war for the hearts and minds of Sicilian society as a whole, is far from being resolved.