Italians are watching with curiosity and cautious optimism the trial of 474 Mafia suspects which opened Monday in the Sicilian capital of Palermo, traditional home of the Mafia. While it is not the first Mafia trial, it is seen as the most encouraging event to date in the long fight between state and organized crime.
Massive security precautions surround this, the biggest Mafia trial ever. The specially built courtroom is a huge fortress-like building, an extension of the Palermo jail of Ucciardone where many defendants are detained. Some 2,000 armed police guard it 24 hours a day and police helicopters continually fly over the city. Jury members are given round-the-clock police protection. All who enter the courtroom are carefully searched.
Added to the physical defense of this trial is the spirit of determination which seems to emanate from the Palermo court. For the first time a team of substitute judges is ready to step in should any of the presiding judges be prevented from attending. Another unprecedented factor is the large group of plaintiffs -- few people in the past have had the courage to bring charges against the Mafia.
The group includes the regional government of Sicily, the Palermo city council, and family members of Mafia victims. These include relatives of General Carlo Dalla Chiesa, the special anti-Mafia high commissioner who was killed by the Mafia in September 1982.
Charges include homicide (over 90 murders), drug trafficking, robbery, and extortion. A multi-billion dollar heroin trade is thought to be the Mafia's main activity.
Evidence for the trial is based on statements given by ex-Mafia members who turned police informants such as Tommaso Buscetta, a Mafia boss who turned state's witness after the murder of members of his family, and Giuseppe Contorno, a minor Mafia boss. Both are now in protective custody.
Their testimony has been corroborated by police investigation and other evidence has also been gathered from extensive pre-trial judicial investigations into bank accounts and financial affairs of some of the suspects.
Yet, despite the media attention the trial has attracted, there are few illusions that this trial means the end of the Mafia. Of the total number of accused, only 208 are currently in jail, 35 are under house arrest, 112 are on parole, and 119 are fugitives of justice -- on trial in absentia.
The latter figure includes Mafia leaders such as Michele Greco, the so-called ``boss of bosses,'' and Salvatore Riina, both of whom are accused of complicity in the murder of Palermo magistrates and General Dalla Chiesa.
Of those held in the barred cages in the Palermo courtroom, only two are considered of major importance -- Luciano Liggio, already serving a life sentence for murder, and now charged with complicity in more assassinations of magistrates and policemen, and Pippo Cal'o, suspected of being chief cashier and administrator of Mafia funds.
There is concern here that the trial, for all the good intentions of investigating magistrates, will accomplish little.
Sentences must be passed by next November or, under new preventive-detention laws, many of the detainees will be automatically acquitted. Also, some judges are concerned that the trial is attracting too much attention of the wrong kind.
``This is a trial, not a circus,'' exclaimed one member of the public prosecutor's office in Palermo facing a noisy press conference recently.
Even if the trial results in Mafia convictions, it will not deal with the social problems that many feel allow the Mafia to prosper.
For the last hundred years the Mafia has held sway in Sicily as a sort of state within a state, says Franco Ferrarotti, professsor of Sociology in Rome University. ``The real justification, if not the reason for ills of southern Italy, such as the Mafia, comes from bad state administration,'' he says.
Lack of government structure and efficiency is a well-known problem in southern Italy. One example is that local tax collecting is entrusted to private enterprise rather than to the government.
Unemployment is another complaint in the south. In Sicily alone the number of unemployed grew by 10,000 over the last year. While high school students last week held anti-Mafia demonstrations and classroom debates on the Mafia both in Sicily and on the mainland, in run-down suburbs of Palermo groups of demonstrators waved placards saying: ``Viva la Mafia'' and ``At least with the Mafia we had jobs.''
Those who have lived with the Mafia know that it will take more than a ``maxi-trial'' to rid Sicily of an organization that has grown over the last hundred years from a feudal-protection system and dispenser of local justice and assistance to a multi-billion dollar criminal concern.