Sicilian tragedy, world problem: First Falcone, now Borsellino. Two leading judges have been murdered, and Mafia crime is spreading across the globe. The state must fight back, rather than leaving it to individuals, says Charles Richards

Monday 20 July 1992 23:02 BST

At the Basilica of San Domenico, in central Palermo, on 25 May, a group of black-robed magistrates gathered to pay their final respects to the remains of Giovanni Falcone, the leading anti-Mafia campaigner and a symbol of the institutional struggle against organised crime.

Leading the magistrates was Paolo Borsellino. At the funeral, Borsellino acted as master of ceremonies and father figure to the grief-stricken. He gave an address on behalf of the Palermo judiciary, that brave corpus of men and women who lead the investigations against the Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian Mafia. And he went over to comfort Rosaria Costa, the young widow of Falcone's bodyguard, who broke down in hysterical sobs as she made her heart- rending elegy to the fallen.

Tomorrow, the magistrates will don the black robes of their seemingly deadly office once again to mourn a colleague. This time it is Borsellino to whom they will bid farewell. And the relatives of the bodyguards, one a woman, who died in the massive car-bomb attack on Sunday, will once more express their anger at a state which they feel has neglected and abandoned them.

Falcone had always been a living target, 'a walking corpse' in the graphic Italian expression, because of his extensive knowledge of the Cosa Nostra. Borsellino had been his closest collaborator and his dearest friend. When Falcone was forced to go to a secret military base in Sardinia because of death threats, Borsellino went with him. If Falcone was the country's leading anti-Mafia campaigner, Borsellino was clearly his understudy.

Borsellino never believed he had the talents of his mentor, who combined rigorous and methodical research with a flair that enabled him to establish a special rapport with those Mafia men who decided to turn their backs on the Honoured Society and co-operate with the authorities. If Falcone was charming and always smiling with his ready wit, Borsellino was more like a tough old policeman. Yet apart from Falcone, nobody knew the Sicilian Mafia as well as Borsellino. No other judge still practising could understand their mentality as well, or could penetrate the Sicilian nature of their actions and responses.

The murder of, first, Falcone and then his heir apparent, as if by a double-barrelled shotgun traditionally used by the Mafia to settle scores, has in effect decapitated the state's fight against the Mafia. None of the judges still practising from the anti-Mafia pool set up in the Eighties is of the same calibre. Some, such as Giuseppe Ayala, have entered politics.

What is significant is that once again the Mafia struck on its territory, in the heart of Palermo, the regional capital of Sicily. Once again they used a car bomb, a method first employed in the Sixties. And once again they showed no regard for the lives of innocent passers-by. The code of honour once followed by the Sicilian Mafia, of not killing women and children, or magistrates and policemen, went out more than a generation ago.

There is a school of thought that the Mafia strikes only when it is weak, when it needs to redress the balance of power with the state and the institutions working against it. The ease with which the Mafia struck against the two judges, in similar if not identical circumstances, and the impunity with which the assassins escaped suggest that it is the state that is impotent.

With the killing of Falcone, no one could say that the state had not been warned. After the assassination, Pino Arlacchi, a leading academic expert on the Mafia wrote: 'The assassination is not a challenge to the state. It is an indisputable victory over the state and its laws. It is a defeat for everyone working for a moral and political renewal in Italy. If Cosa Nostra had eliminated a very senior politician or prime minister, it would not have had the same effect. The devastating consequences of this crime will be felt for months and years.'

What was true then is doubly so today.

The killing of the two judges in such a short time exposes the main structural weakness in fighting the Mafia and organised crime: that is, the absence of a real institutional framework combating the Mafia. The main body fighting the Mafia is made up of the courageous investigating magistrates, most of them Sicilian, who operate out of the palace of justice in Palermo. But they have been hampered by lack of resources, laws that favour the accused, and an apparent absence of political will in Rome to commit the manpower to continue the fight.

In its fight against the Mafia, Italy has tended to concentrate attention on single individuals. In 1982, it was General Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa. He had defeated the terrorist Red Brigades but was assassinated within weeks of his arrival in Sicily. Falcone was ideally suited to the role, although for years he had tried to resist it.

Although he did not establish the anti- Mafia pool, he was its most fervent exponent in the Eighties. The pool attempted to get all judges to bury their differences and work together. This would ensure that if one was eliminated, his or her researches or inquiries would not go to waste. The pool handled all the cases dealing with the Sicilian Mafia on both sides of the Atlantic. Its investigations led to 338 convictions on charges relating to the laundering of millions of dollars of drugs profits.

The number of convictions showed that the Sicilian Mafia is not a problem confined to Sicily, or even to Italy. Because of the enormous profits generated by the international drugs trade, and the huge sums that are recycled through legitimate businesses and banks outside Italy, it is an international problem which confronts us all.

The pool, however, was not universally popular. Rumours were spread in newspapers, stating that the pool judges were seeking to advance their careers by exaggerating the dangers posed by the Mafia. The rumours were untrue, the conclusions erroneous. But the mud stuck, and the pool was disbanded. It was only in the months before his death that Falcone had been working with the justice minister, Claudio Martelli, and the then interior minister, Vincenzo Scotti, to set up a new super-prosecutor's office with a national investigative authority to fight against the Mafia. It was an attempt to persuade the judiciary, riven by political rivalries and personal jealousies, to pool resources in the common struggle. Another aim was to encourage closer co-operation between police forces, and between the police and the judiciary, despite the misgivings of judges who felt this would compromise their autonomy.

With Falcone's death, Borsellino became the chosen candidate of the state. His murder leaves a void. Shortly before his death, he expressed fears that time was running out and that the decrees which would have increased the powers of the authorities to investigate Mafia suspects would not be passed in time by parliament.

The death of Borsellino will lead many to adopt the pessimistic stance of Il Gattopardo, a leading character in Giuseppe Lampedusa's novel The Leopard, that Sicily cannot fundamentally change, yet all things must change so that they can remain the same. Borsellino did not share this view. I once asked him why he ran the daily risk in his thankless task of fighting the Mafia. His stern face cracked into what passed into a smile. 'Because I'm not a gattopardista. I don't believe that things cannot change. And for Sicilians there is a choice. Either they can leave the island, or they can stay behind and try to improve the situation.'

There have been some glimmers of hope. The Mafia in many areas of Sicily is losing the silent complicity of the common people among whom it has been used to operating with impunity. In some towns, ordinary people have been prepared to stand up against the Mafia, denouncing those who extort protection money from legitimate business enterprises. Voters at successive polls have shown they are increasingly turning to parties overtly standing against the Mafia. But no number of demonstrations and marches, or sermons from the pulpits,

can persuade the people to turn against the Mafia unless the state proves that

it is an acceptable and dependable alternative.

Obituary, page 18

(Photographs omitted)

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