Moving in on the Mafia

At the end of January, Italian television reported, rather casually, that police had overpowered and arrested a Mafia boss they had been hunting for nine years. Benedetto Spera was captured near Palermo, capital of Sicily, and until the early 1990s also the capital city of the criminal organization that had dominated Sicilian life for generations.

The event followed the arrest of another most-wanted Mafioso in October, quickening the pace of Italy's war against the gang. It also signaled the successes of Palermo in particular; its 700,000 people have turned the city around, cleaning out the Mafia and restoring normal life.

Those who saw the city in the bad old days were depressed by its faded beauty. It was featureless, except for its crusader cathedral and, perhaps, the huge colonnaded post office that Mussolini had planted there. The inhabitants, who walked clutching bags and bundles against the ubiquitous cutpurses also pondered a homicide rate that averaged 200 a year. That is now down to 11, and purse-snatching is no more frequent than in the big cities of northern Italy.

Last December it was possible, almost as an exclamation point, to host an international conference on the very issues that surround the Mafia. Representatives of 150 countries came to Palermo to sign the International Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. This aims at serious crimes such as money-laundering, corruption, and obstruction of justice. It also provides for measures to combat trafficking in women and children, economic migrants, and illicit arms. Interlinked gangs are now estimated to move some 4 million people a year as human cargo, earning $5 billion to $7 billion.

The prime mover in bringing the conference to Palermo was Mayor Leoluca Orlando, underlining the city's success in draining the criminal swamp. He and the city fathers held a symposium on the role of civil society in the fight against organized crime. The message was that passing laws was not enough, that success demanded what amounted to a cultural revolution.

Efforts in previous years to root out the Mafia in Sicily were ineffective because it was too deeply anchored in the population. It was, for instance, the one reliable employer in a society with steady unemployment of more than 20 percent.

It even provided the old Christian Democratic Party with the votes to help keep it in power, in return for protection against the police. Only gradually did it dawn on people that the permanent condition of lawlessness discouraged the outside investment needed to lift the depressed economy.

The turning point came in 1992. Sophisticated bomb attacks that killed two leading Italian anticrime prosecutors sent down from Rome outraged public opinion. In 1993 Mr. Orlando was elected mayor on an anti-Mafia platform that he has kept blazingly alive. He returned life to normal with concerts, soccer games - and the opera. The Teatro Massimo had been shut "temporarily" for 24 years for minor repairs, serving as a cash cow for assorted thieves, corrupt officials, and the Mafia. Its reopening in 1998 had a tonic, almost triumphal effect.

Prying loose the Mafia's grip on municipal institutions went ahead bit by bit. Schools are one example. The godfathers used their influence to block the construction of new school buildings. They arranged instead that classrooms be rented for appropriate sums in private houses that, of course, were Mafia-owned. This fraud led to a chronic shortage of schoolrooms with the inevitable depressing effect on pupils' performance. Not until 1995 was the practice stopped once and for all with a program of renovation and building new schools. Children were then encouraged to "adopt" and repair rundown municipal buildings, and classes are busy at it still.

As a foundation for such sweeping social and cultural change, Orlando and his administration have put Palermo's fiscal house in order. Today the city enjoys the highest rating from Moody's which judges public and private credit.

But Palermo is not Sicily. Bernard Provenzano, the boss of all bosses known as the "Phantom of the Mafia," has eluded capture since 1963. And the criminal organizations that feed on southern Italy, the Neapolitan Camorra, the 'Ndrangheta in Calabria, and the Sacra Corona Unita in Puglia, the heel of the Italian boot, are still very much in business.

Richard C. Hottelet, a long-time correspondent for CBS, writes on foreign affairs.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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