CORLEONE, ITALY — Time was, Mafia dons would spend their evenings in the cobbled square of this Sicilian hilltop town, giving audience to supplicants who turned to them for help.
Today, the bosses are out of sight - if not in jail - their place in the square taken by a bust of a man the Mafia killed.
The town Mario Puzo took as his inspiration for "The Godfather," Corleone has been notorious for decades as the heartland of the Sicilian Mafia. During the 1990s, a few courageous individuals, and a townful of citizens ready to follow them, broke the mob's grip of fear.
"They haven't disappeared completely, but they've lost their influence," Corleone's young mayor, Giuseppe Cipriani, says of the Cosa Nostra. "The new generation is freer and more relaxed."
Corleone and its bigger neighbor, the Sicilian capital of Palermo, are claiming remarkable victories in their battles with organized crime. And they credit citizens movements that bred a new sense of community pride as much as they credit the police.
"The fight against the Mafia is like a cart with two wheels - law enforcement and civic education," says Palermo mayor Leoluca Orlando, an ebullient man elected twice on an anti-Mafia ticket. "If they don't both turn at the same speed, the cart goes in circles."
After decades of notoriety as a Cosa Nostra bastion, Palermo has become a poster child for the battle against the Mafia - a reputation that earned the city the right to host a United Nations conference this week that launched an international convention against organized crime.
Palermo "is a sign that the forces of evil, the forces of uncivil society, can be defeated," declared UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, opening the conference.
Nobody here is claiming that the Mafia is gone for good, or that it has been wiped out. "They are down but not out," says Pino Arlacchi, the Italian expert on organized crime who now heads the UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention.
But law-enforcement officials, political leaders, and foreign experts agree that the balance of power in western Sicilian towns such as Palermo and Corleone has changed over the past decade or so. "The Mafia has lost its cultural hegemony," boasts Mr. Orlando. "It no longer controls peoples' minds."
Nor do its hit men control the streets. In 1990, Palermo police registered 240 murders that they classified as mob-related. Last year, the city saw only seven murders, none of them to do with the Mafia.
In 1993, Corleone native Toto Riina, the Cosa Nostra's infamous capo dei capi (boss of all bosses), was arrested at last. However, his successor, Bernardo Provenzano, remains at large.
And in the courts, "people will testify now if they witness a crime," says investigating magistrate Maria Vittoria Randazzo, who deals with Mafia cases involving minors. "The Mafia cannot survive without a culture of silence."
Palermo residents have learned to break that silence, city officials say. The streets are currently lined with posters urging people to "Denounce the Protection Racket" by calling a hotline if they have been victimized. The response, officials say, has been heavy enough for them to map extortionist Mafiosi's areas of influence.
Certainly, Palermo's outward face has changed. From a town that residents describe as once cowed and sunk in decay, the Sicilian capital has blossomed.
Scabrous slums have been restored. The opera house in the heart of the city, which had lain empty for 24 years after being closed "temporarily" for repairs, has been brought back to life, and a number of other theaters that had closed have been reopened.
Palermo still suffers from a 29 percent unemployment rate, but the mood of the city has been transformed.
Key to that transformation, say people involved in what has become known as the "Palermo Spring," has been a massive program of "education for legality" in Sicilian schools. In a bid to inculcate a law-abiding attitude into children raised in a culture of illegality, teachers, magistrates, journalists, and priests have deployed into the island's schools to talk about everything from how the Mafia works to why you should pay for your bus ticket.
Children have also been encouraged to reclaim their cultural heritage by "adopting" a city monument in need of repair. A school will "adopt" a building, and students will then learn all they can about its history, which motivates them to pressure the owner into restoring it.
"Good policemen and good laws are not enough," argues Roy Godson, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., who runs the National Strategy Research Center, which is seeking to apply Palermo's lessons to other lawless parts of the world. "You must have a culture supportive of rulemaking and enforcement."
That culture does not emerge spontaneously. Instead, courageous individuals had to speak out first, offering a lead.
Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, two crusading anti-Mafia prosecutors, gave such a lead, until they were murdered in 1992. Mayor Orlando stood up and gave speeches in Corleone's town square that nobody dared listen to at first, he recalls.
Individual teachers took up the cause, teaching classes about the Mafia to their students. A handful of priests finally persuaded the Catholic church to acknowledge the Mafia's existence and to denounce it, in 1985. A few investigative journalists risked their lives to report stories about Mafia activities.
And ordinary people got involved, like pharmacist Rita Borsellino, sister of the assassinated prosecutor. A gray-haired, reticent woman, she says she paid little attention to the Mafia until her brother was killed.
"Then I felt almost guilty for his death, and realized I had to play my part," she explains. For the last eight years she has toured the length of Italy giving speeches, taking part in debates, and teaching classes about the Mafia. All these efforts have reinforced each other - individual campaigners provoking a change in people's mentality, that in turn makes it safer and easier to campaign.
"Some people have always spoken out against the Mafia," says Corleone's deputy mayor, Giuseppe Governali. "But, before, they were voices in the dark - alone. Today they have society's support, because there has been a cultural change."
Some activists are afraid now that their success contains the seeds of future defeat, if they rest on their laurels. "It is dangerous to say that the Mafia is beaten and to let our guard down," worries Ms. Randazzo. "The Mafia is very adaptable, and now it is trying to recover lost ground without shocking people with murders."
But if the Italian police have enjoyed a degree of success in breaking up the Mafia's armed wing, and if Sicilians have thrown off some submissiveness, efforts to tear organized crime out of international financial affairs is a global challenge just beginning, law enforcement officials say.
"For years the world was asking Sicilians why they didn't fight the Mafia," Orlando points out. "Now we are asking the world, 'why don't you fight the Mafia?' "
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society