Rome — With hundreds of Red Brigade terrorists now behind bars, Italian authorities are beginning to focus long-neglected attention on an older, more deeply rooted and insidious Italian phenomenon - the Mafia.
The recent upsurge in Mafia activity has alarmed politicians, police, and citizens alike. In the areas of Naples, Reggio di Calabria, and Sicily, virtually no one escapes from the influence of the Mafia's iron grip.
A group of citizens in Naples recently took to the streets, demanding the government take action against the Neapolitan variety of the Mafia known as the Camorra.
But the Sicilian Mafia remains the most powerful and most feared. It has largely forsaken prostitution and the protection rackets for the drug trade, a shift that has provided it with an economic power and political muscle unrivaled in its 100-year existence.
''Its multimillion dollar a year drug production business, its international network, and its penetration into politics have transformed the Mafia into one of the most deadly serious dangers facing Italy today,'' said the Communist Party leader from Sicily, Pio La Torre, in a report to Prime Minister Giovanni Spadolini in March.
The government responded to La Torre's report by dispatching to Sicily top antiterrorist carabinieri Gen. Carlo Alberto Della Chiesa, who scored major successes against the Red Brigades in the late 1970s.
The Mafia responded with an unmistakable warning. On May Day, Mafia hitmen gunned down the Communist Party leader and his driver in broad daylight in Sicily's capital of Palermo.
The death of La Torre follows at a two-year interval, the slayings of Palermo's chief public prosecutor, the chief investigating judge, and Sicily's regional president. But La Torre's murder has left Mafia fighters in Sicily deeply shaken.
''Until now the Mafia always killed those who were directly impeding specific interests or projects. Now that they've gone after someone like La Torre, who was spearheading a broad anti-Mafia campaign, it means they can go after anyone looking into the Mafia,'' said Pino Arlacchi, one of Italy's foremost experts on the Sicilian Mafia.
At stake is a heroin production and distribution setup that nets the Sicilian Mafia a half-a-billion-dollar profit each year, according to the United States Drug Enforcement Agency. Most of this is earned in the US, since the Sicilian connection is the largest single source of heroin for the States.
Investigators say at least 80 percent of the heroin that ends up on streets in the northeastern US comes from Sicily.
Since 1977, between 2 and 4 tons of morphine base from Lebanon and Syria has made its way each year into Mafia-operated portable laboratories. There it is refined into equal quantities of heroin and delivered to the Mafia's ''cousins'' in New York, who cut and distribute it.
The heroin is smuggled into the US in attache cases, stashed inside suitcases , in talcum powder containers, inside 45 r.p.m. record cases, in the pedestals of fake antique tables, and in cappuccino machines. When police smash one smuggling operation, the Mafia comes back with z- -oOe.
The money from heroin sales is smuggled back into Sicily, laundered (often in one of Palermo's many Mafia-controlled banks) and reinvested in real estate, an industry the Mafia also dominates.
''The biggest construction boom in Europe is going on in Palermo, and it's all paid for in cash,'' said an investigator.
In January, Palermo Judge Giovanni Falcone, who is constantly surrounded by no less than five body guards, completed a three-year investigation of the Sicilian connection, and indicted 76 members of the underworld. Twelve of these reside in the US, including Michele Sindona, and the Gambino brothers - Giuseppe , Giovanni, and Rosario. Scheduled to begin in the fall, the trial will be the biggest drug case in the last decade.
But investigators have been hampered from zeroing in on more of the mobsters because of a bloodbath that erupted a year ago between the six powerful crime families vying for control of the lucrative drug business in western Sicily.
In 1981, Palermo police reported 98 people killed and 40 more missing. Another 43 have been killed so far this year. Of these, 12 had documented links with the US-Sicilian drug connection and another nine were top Mafia bosses. The feud has driven seven more powerful Mafiosi into hiding, police say.
''It has practically put us back to Square 1. We aren't sure who is running things anymore,'' said one drug investigator.
Many of the murders take place in broad daylight on busy streets but witnesses usually prove unhelpful. And the murderers are rarely apprehended. Prosecutors say people are either bound by the oath of silence or they are afraid to speak out against the Mafia.
Police have also been thwarted by the banking secrecy laws in Italy. The Parliament is currently considering a new bill, similar to a law in the United States that permits the state to confiscate money procured from criminal activities. This would hopefully undercut the ability of arrested Mafia bosses to continue their drug rings from prison.
A council of judges is also studying a proposal to allow drug smugglers to plea bargain in return for lighter sentences in an effort to crack the Mafia's oath of silence.
Not all politicians in Italy are anxious to stand up to the Mafia. While no one is willing to point a finger at any one politician, it is not a well-kept secret that Christian Democratic politicians have traditionally received large blocks of votes in Sicily.
''If they dismantled the Mafia, the Christian Democrats would lose 50 percent of their votes,'' said Rita Costa, the wife of former Chief Prosecutor Gaetano Costa, who was murdered in 1980.
Prof. Peter Schneider, a sociologist from Fordham University, told an anti-Mafia conference in November: ''Their power comes from the power to intimidate, but also because they are protected by the political process. There's no other way of explaining how Mafiosi get off the hook time after time without the intervention of highly placed officials.''