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In Corleone,dons not the only bosses now

By Peter Ford Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 15, 2000


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.

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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.