The State and The Mafia

Italy gets bad press internationally, but the trial to ascertain the connections between the state and the mafia should be lauded. It's time to understand what happened to Italy decades ago

Toto Riina
Tim Hedges
On 31 May 2013 13:16

‘I have fought the mafia all my life. Of course I cannot be in the same trial as them’ said Nicola Mancino. But he can: it is the start of one of the most extraordinary episodes in Italian legal history.

By the 1980s, everyone knew there was a connection between the Sicilian mafia and the long governing Christian Democrat party. Nobody felt keen to prosecute and no one felt keen to testify (both deemed bad for your health).

But things were moving in the mafia world. Toto Riina, head of the Corleonese clan, had wiped out a number of traditional mafia bosses in Palermo and absorbed their empires. He was a man of extreme violence. In 1982 a politician who introduced a law making mafia conspiracy illegal and a carabiniere general sent to enforce it, were both killed.

Public opinion for the first time was turning against the Cosa Nostra and the government felt constrained to set up an anti-mafia unit. This prepared the groundwork for the Maxi Trial of 1986-87, in which 474 mafiosi were charged and 360 convicted. Riina was incandescent, blaming Prime Minister Andreotti for not stopping this trial, not sorting it out. Riina started a wave of anti-government outrages, the first of which was the murder of Salvo Lima, a former mayor of Palermo who at the time was a Euro MP. Lima had been known as Andreotti’s proconsul in Sicily. He was shot in the back of the head, trying to escape from his ambushed car, on  March 12th 1992.

On May 23rd 1992, the mafia killed Giovanni Falcone, the chief prosecuting magistrate at the Maxi trial, using a massive bomb which registered on the earthquake sensors. As well as having conducted the mafia trial and damaged the reputation of the Cosa Nostra, Falcone knew something. The first pentito, or supergrass, had explained to him that the mafia had a governing council which approved all actions. Prosecutions would therefore be easier, since each member of the council could be deemed to know what was going on. It is astounding, in retrospect, that this had never been known before.

On July 19th 1992, they murdered Falcone’s deputy and friend Paolo Borsellino, also with a bomb. Riina was arrested in January 1993 following public outrage that more had not been done to protect Falcone and Borsellino. He had been ‘in hiding’ for 23 years but in fact happily living in Palermo, he and his children being registered at the local hospital under their own names. Who would have thought to look for him there?

The Italian public remain to this day outraged at the murders of Falcone and Borsellino. I remember seeing an English cookery programme where an Italian chef took an Englishman to Sicily. The first thing the Italian did was to show the place were Falcone had been killed. More than two decades later the wound is still sore. On the 21st anniversary 3,000 students chartered two boats, renamed Falcone and Borsellino, for a solidarity trip to Sicily. The airport at Palermo is renamed Falcone-Borsellino airport. And everyone, everyone knows there were politicians involved behind the many deaths.

But from 1992-1994 the bombings continued; the trial referred to above started on the 21st anniversary of a bomb in Florence, in which several young people were killed and paintings destroyed in the Uffizi gallery.

So much for the background. What the trial is alleging is that between the death of Salvo Lima in March 1992 and some time in spring 1994 the Italian State negotiated with the Sicilian Mafia, which was prepared to stop the bombings if there were lighter sentences handed out to mafiosi.

If true, it would be shocking. The trial hopes to pierce the veil hanging over the thinking of the governments of Andreotti, Amato and Ciampi. Did they believe that the social fabric of the country was breaking down and there was no option but to deal with the mafia? Or was this a sop to the public, peace on the streets to keep themselves in power?

There are ten accused: three former mafia heads including Riina; two pentiti, Giovanni Brusca who probably set of the Falcone explosion and Massimo Ciancimino son of a former mayor of Palermo; two politicians, ex-senator Marcello dell’Utri, a senior adviser to Silvio Berlusconi who, it is alleged, was Silvio’s go between with the mafia and whose second conviction for mafia association was confirmed by the court of appeal earlier this year, and Nicola Mancino (see above) who was formerly president of the senate; finally two policemen. A most eclectic bunch for a single trial.

Equally interesting, there are 148 witnesses called, which were to have included the President of the Republic, Giorgio Napoletano (although he may not have to testify) and Piero Grasso, the current president of the senate.

What should we make of all this?

Italy gets a fairly bad press internationally, what with the economy, Silvio Berlusconi, the mafia, even overcharging for ice creams. Most Italians are a bit fed up with it, and I am often asked why the foreign press can’t be a bit kinder. Perhaps it’s that good news isn’t really good copy. But in my view this trial is a thoroughly commendable attempt to get things right, the blindfolded figure of Justice doggedly pursuing truth at whatever embarrassment.

The future cannot be better unless we understand the past. 

Tim Hedges is a weekly columnist for the Commentator. He previously worked in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelance writer and novelist

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