After two years of calm Italy's Mafia is back in force

Organized crime in Italy, once thought hampered by an unprecedented police sweep and courtroom trials two years ago, is back with a vengeance. Over the past month, factions of Sicily's Mafia have been entrenched in an internecine battle that has claimed the lives of more than 20 ``Mafiosi,'' as well as a number of police and judicial officials.

This new defiance has Italian officials particularly worried because it has carried the violence onto ground previously considered sacred: a judge's chambers. Past intimidation of the state involved the killings of police officials and retired magistrates. But in late September, the Mafia claimed its first active jurist, an appellate judge in Palermo.

The violence is not limited to Sicily. Similar scenes have been played out around Reggio Calabria (at the toe of the Italian ``boot'') and in Naples, the respective domain of the country's two other criminal networks - the 'ndrangheta and the Camorra.

The new wave of terror has been unleashed after a two-year ``pax mafia'' in which the crime groups laid low to recover from the onslaught and, as it turns out, regroup.

Following the 22-month trial, in which 338 of 474 Sicilian defendants were convicted, Italian officials proclaimed the Mafia was irreparably broken up. Bettino Craxi, prime minister at the time, called the highly publicized trial ``the mirror of a defeated culture.''

But Mr. Craxi's statement proved inaccurate as the succeeding two-year lull in Mafia violence turned out to be deceptive.

Police say Sicily's crime families are locked in a power struggle over a revived trafficking in heroin and cocaine.

The recent killings have come on the heels of another highly publicized anti-Mafia campaign, in which the Italian government has given its crime-fighting czar sweeping powers of access to local administrations, banks and other financial institutions. While murders prove difficult to prosecute, the new measure will theoretically allow the anti-Mafia high commissioner to trace allegedly ill-gotten funds.

However, when Italy's most-widely read newspaper blared the headline ``The anti-Mafia law is no longer a joke,'' the targets of the new law seem to have set out to prove otherwise.

Ironically, the state's apparent helplessness in battling the crime families of Palermo, Naples, and Reggio Calabria has legitimate business people in other parts of Italy wringing their hands.

The country's small businesses are notorious for maintaining several sets of books, just as the government is well-known for its inability to collect taxes. The new anti-Mafia law, some say, might give the state a new means to solve this tax problem and thus reduce its out-of-control budget deficit.

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