One woman's dangerous and lonely battle to break the Cosa Nostra

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When Giovanni Brusca, the notorious Mafia killer known as "The Pig", was arrested in Palermo in May last year, the mayor of his home town, San Giuseppe Jato, celebrated by displaying large photos of the assassinated anti-Mafia magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino outside the town hall.

But any hopes of an end to the long night of intimidation and violence in this most Mafia-ridden of hill towns in the Palermo hinterland quickly evaporated. The photos of Falcone and Borsellino - for whose deaths Brusca bears considerable responsibility - were burned within 24 hours. And although Brusca's band has vanished from San Giuseppe Jato, the oppressive atmosphere of fear and stagnation is as palpable as ever.

"The arrest was not the decisive moment we hoped for. We know who the mafiosi are. They are still operating around here. Brusca's capture may simply have served to strengthen groups that were in opposition to him," said San Giuseppe's mayor, Maria Maniscalco.

Perhaps the clearest sign of a new, as yet anonymous generation of mafiosi is to be found on the walls of the cemetery. Here graffiti has sprung up in recent weeks insulting Brusca and other members of his gang, notably Balduccio Di Maggio, the man whose testimony led to the arrest of the former head of Cosa Nostra, Toto Riina. In the sophisticated semiotic code of the Sicilian underworld, the graffiti is both a challenge to the old criminal order and the assertion of a new one.

After years of spectacular violence under the Corleonesi clan, to which Brusca and his friends belonged, the new Mafia has resorted to more traditional operating methods - quietly imposing a stranglehold on civic life and undermining the institutions of the state.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of their new tactics is the manipulation of petty bureaucracy. Since the beginning of the year the Mafia has forced a number of bars and restaurants in San Giuseppe to close, thus depriving the town of what little social life it enjoyed along its two drab main streets. The Mafia's methods are ingeniously simple.

Since the state has been so absent from San Giuseppe for so long, almost no shop or business has a full set of valid permits and licences. If the Mafia does not like a particular bar owner, all it has to do is make an anonymous denunciation to the police or the state health inspectors. These are obliged by law to follow up any tip-off they receive and they quickly discover that the allegations are true.

Failure to produce an up-to-date health and safety certificate is punishable by closure under Italian law, and it is up to the local mayor to issue the closure order. "We've already got a terrible economic crisis and now more places are shutting. Not only that, but I'm being made to look like the bad guy when in fact the closures are nothing to do with me," said Mayor Maniscalco.

This is just one of many ways in which the town council is being discredited. This year Mayor Maniscalco has discovered that San Giuseppe's debt has jumped from the 300 million lire she had counted on in her budget calculations to nearly 10 times that figure. Why? One reason is a long-standing lawsuit between the council and two local property speculators over the fate of a former convent.

The nuns originally agreed to let the council take over the building to construct a creche and elementary school. But before the paperwork went through the sisters were induced - no doubt through intimidation - into selling the property to the two speculators. The affair appeared to have been settled in the late 1980s - albeit unsatisfactorily - when the council was ordered to pay a modest fine for unauthorised construction on someone else's property. But unbeknown to Mayor Maniscalco, who took office in 1993, the fine was never paid and the case was sent back to court.

The Palermo tribunal which judged the case earlier this year could not understand why the council failed to send so much as a lawyer to the hearings - in fact it simply had not been informed - and imposed a punitive fine of nearly two billion lire.

In this, as in so many other affairs, it is near-impossible to tell where the bureaucratic obfuscation ends and the deliberate Mafia-influenced malice begins. But it is clear that the tentacles of Cosa Nostra reach far into the state hierarchy.

Anyone genuinely interested in combating the Mafia, as the quietly courageous Mayor Maniscalco indubitably is, finds themselves on the receiving end of a low-intensity conflict waged by other organs of the state as well as criminal bosses - a conflict that threatens at any moment to explode into devastating violence. And with the extension of Mafia power comes the terrible isolation of those who seek to fight it.

In the last few weeks, testimony from former members of Brusca's gang has revealed a plan, never carried out, to kidnap and kill the 22-year- old son of one of Maria Maniscalco's closest colleagues, council leader Gioacchino Lo Giudice,as well as a plan to murder Mrs Maniscalco herself.

Twice Mr Lo Giudice asked the the council to pass a vote of solidarity in his favour, but the first time nobody turned up and the second time the proceedings were boycotted by the centre-right opposition parties. A call for a public demonstration went equally unheeded, and Mr Lo Giudice resigned. "He realised just how much he had risked, and saw no tangible support for his work," Mayor Maniscalco explained. "But I intend to carry on, no matter what it takes."

This series continues next week.