Palermo, Italy — A well-dressed housewife encountered on a side street was reluctant to talk with a stranger. ''People are afraid,'' she said.
Palermo, after all, is the Mafia's home town.
The island of Sicily sits in the middle of the Mediterranean next to the toe of Italy's boot. Its geographical position, at the very center of what was long considered ''the world,'' has given it a variegated history.
And it is the history of this island people - a series of conquests and colonizations, of foreign rule stretching back into antiquity - that is in large measure responsible for the attitudes that gave birth to the secret antiestablishment organization known as the Mafia.
Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Moors, Normans, Swabians , the French House of Anjou, the Spanish House of Aragon, the French Bourbons, the northern Italian House of Savoy, and finally the Italian Republic have all made themselves at home in Sicily.
They have farmed the island's rich wheat fields, cultivated its citrus groves , built splendid cities rich in cultural diversity. But none of these foreigners has managed to win over the loyalty of the Sicilian people, according to West German sociologist Henner Hess, whose book, ''Mafia,'' was published this year.
''Sicily's political structure,'' Mr. Hess writes, ''has always been characterized by the extraordinary weakness of the organs of official power, by a diffidence, indeed, a hostility on the part of the people toward the government, and by their tendency to withdraw into their own informal system of self-preservation.''
A basically feudal system, in which the Sicilian nobility owned vast areas of farmland and the peasants had few rights and little autonomy, prevailed in Sicily until the early part of this century.
Although the first official use of the word ''Mafia'' appears in a letter dated Aug. 10, 1865, concerning an arrest on charges of ''a Mafia crime,'' it is possible to imagine how in earlier centuries Sicilian strongmen, having no connections with or respect for the laws of the foreign-based central government , could become a law unto themselves.
The Mafia of today is a product of our times. It is said to produce 4 percent of the total Italian gross national product, to the tune of an estimated $6 billion a year.
Today's Sicilian Mafia grew up primarily in the western part of the island, with Palermo as its base.
Tommaso Buscetta, the Mafia boss who has been ''singing'' to the Italian police since July, explained that for every region in western Sicily, the Mafia has a ''commission'' - and one for every neighborhood in Palermo.
Over these is a higher commission made up of the heads of the lower groups. The leader of this higher commission is the leader of the Mafia. This organization, according to Buscetta, exists in every city in Sicily but two: Messina and Siracusa have escaped its presence.
A knowledgeable observer in Rome, Guido Guidi, who covers the Mafia and Sicily for the Milan-based newspaper Il Giornale, explained that the Mafia has passed through different phases over the centuries.
First there was the Mafia of the peasants, which came to the defense of the poor against the occupying forces of the day. Until the end of the last century, the leading Mafiosi were treated as ''old wise men.'' Not only would they offer protection, but they would settle disputes and give advice on family matters. This, according to Mr. Guidi, was a chivalrous sort of Mafia, though violence was always a part of its code.
Around the turn of the century, many of these Sicilians emigrated to America. The Sicilians kept themselves quite separate as a group, in part to defend themselves and compete with other immigrants, notably the Irish, who tended to be rather violent themselves.
Soon they discovered that there were ways to make money outside the law. And they started their ''rackets'' in America. They expanded into gambling, prostitution, liquor (during the years of prohibition), and finally into drugs.
But in Sicily before World War II, the Mafia was largely a phenomenon of the countryside, of small villages. Nevertheless, Benito Mussolini took steps to thwart it. He sent a very severe prefect of police, Col. Cesare Mori, down to Sicily, gave him carte blanche, and Mr. Mori proceeded to arrest many of the Mafiosi of the countryside. However, when he was just at the point of reaching what is called today the ''third level'' - where the Mafia and politicians work together - Mori was called back to Rome. Later he said he was recalled because he was about to discover the real leaders of the Mafia.
It was not until after the war that the Mafia moved from the countryside into the cities, where there was more money to be made. In Palermo they got involved in real estate speculation and in the selling of contraband cigarettes. But they realized that their profits could be increased, and with the collaboration of their American cousins, they moved into drug traffic.
The raw material of this commerce, opium, would come from the Far East. When the French lost Indochina in 1954, French chemists there returned to Marseilles and from opium began to produce morphine and finally heroin and cocaine. These products were consigned to the Sicilian Mafia, who shipped them to America.
As a rule, a simple immigrant on his way to the United States would be asked by the Mafia to take a suitcase of clothes to a relative. This suitcase would have a false bottom with large quantities of cocaine underneath.
There is a village near Palermo called Alcamo, where there is a marble quarry. Apparently slabs of marble would be shipped to the US. Hidden in holes carved into the marble, and well-camouflaged, would be heroin.
From about 1960 to 1970, Sicily was the transport point of the international drug trade. And the actual production of the drugs was finally transferred to Sicily, in part because the French police discovered and closed down the laboratories in Marseilles, in part because the Sicilians realized they could increase their profits by producing the drugs themselves. They set up about six of these simple little laboratories near Palermo, but in 1976 the local police discovered them and closed them down. Many Mafiosi were imprisoned.
However, the drug traffic continued, and more clandestine laboratories are believed to have sprung up in other parts of Italy. The present brutal war between Mafia clans is being waged for the control of this drug traffic and its tremendous profits.
With the developments of the last few decades, the old Mafia has been transformed. It is no longer chivalrous or honorable. Wholesale killings - even of women and children, once considered taboo by the Mafia - have lately been taking place. In Italy, the hope is being voiced that the Mafia's new greed and cruelty may finally destroy it.