IN a growing number of Sicily's cities and towns, shop owners are banding together to resist the Mafia's long-unchallenged extortion racket.
In a small village of the Adriatic region of Apulia, a young mayor has won national attention for her daily fight against creeping Mafia influence.
And across the country this summer, large demonstrations were staged to express people's revulsion at the bombing assassinations of anti-Mafia Judge Giovanni Falcone and Palermo Judge Paolo Borsellino.
Is Italy breaking the omerta, the traditional law of silence that has allowed organized crime to prosper? A growing number of officials believe so and are pushing for tougher action and stepped-up coordination to give the public the means to fight what many believe could be a war.
If unprecedented progress is being recorded in Italy's anti-Mafia battle, "it is because we have started, after much discussion and controversy, something we had never done before: a true coordination of all the police and criminal justice forces," Italian Justice Minister Claudio Martelli said recently.
With Italian officials pressing the point that the anti-Mafia war cannot be won by Italy alone, signs are growing that Europe is beginning to work together to cut the tentacles of organized crime.
"Events are moving in favor of the part of Italy that is determined to fight against the Mafia," says Luciano Violante, president of the Italian Parliament's bicameral commission on anti-Mafia activity. "It will take resources, the people's determination, and cooperation from Europe, but those elements are coming together."
Signs of a shake-up in the place organized crime has long held in Italian society - and in the public's acceptance of it - have multiplied this year:
* In February the government approved new antiracketeering legislation that includes harsher sentences for extortion, relaxed requirements for arresting suspects, and the creation of a fund to support extortion victims. The country's strongest-ever anti-Mafia law, based on proposals from Mr. Martelli, was passed by Parliament in August.
* Before his death, Judge Falcone was a pioneer in the use of convicted Mafiosi as collaborators - a practice yielding increasingly fruitful results. With more than 50 new pentiti this year, judges are having a hard time keeping up with their revelations.
* In September, two of the Italian organized crime world's top leaders were arrested, and a huge drug-money-laundering network was shut down after a long collaboration between Italian police and foreign authorities, including the United States Drug Enforcement Administration.
Mr. Violante says the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the communist threat, which overturned Italy's postwar order, are also central factors in Italy's Mafia turmoil. "Because Italy once had the largest Communist Party in the West, the Mafia has had a political role here as an anticommunist force," says Violante, himself a member of Italy's Democratic Party of the Left, the descendant of the former Italian Communist Party. "But now the world's bipolarization is finished, and along with it the [It alian] government's need of the role the Mafia played."
Other Mafia observers believe that an important upheaval and an "atomization" within the structure of Italian organized crime have led to an internal war that has meant more violence and a break in links to more traditional centers of power.
Violante points to findings released by magistrates in Palermo last month, developed with testimony from numerous pentiti, that for the first time revealed a direct link between a top-ranking public official and the Mafia. Investigating judges found that Salvatore Lima, a member of the European Parliament, a Christian Democrat, and long-time associate of former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, was connected to several Mafia families. He was killed in March after he failed to deliver certain polit ical favors, the judges said.
If Mr. Lima was murdered, Violante says, it is because politicians' need for a Mafia link had eroded, and he was no longer able to guarantee the results his Mafia contacts sought.
But this weakening of the old links to power does not mean the Mafia is mortally wounded.
According to Confcommercio, Italy's small retailers organization, the Mafia rackets took in more than $25 billion last year, perhaps three times more than in the mid-1980s. That kind of money will not be given up easily, any more than the "easy" money of the drug trade.
The huge amounts of money organized crime is able to amass and the increasing ease with which that money can move around a Europe of falling borders are two reasons that officials are seeking a coordinated anti-Mafia effort at the European level.
"We need new ways of addressing a changing Mafia, we need more cooperation and similar legislation to make that cooperation easier, and we don't have a lot of time," says Liliana Ferraro, who coordinates the Justice Ministry's anti-Mafia work. "We know something operating like the Mafia is growing in importance in Germany; we know they are moving into the new markets of Eastern Europe."
To tackle these problems, European Community justice and interior ministers met in September to discuss for the first time a common anti-Mafia campaign.
But officials acknowledge that European anti-Mafia cooperation has a long road to travel. "Countries talk coordination, but then they refuse the extraditions we seek," says Ms. Ferraro.
"Just occasional dialogue will do nothing when the Mafia has its hidden companions all across Europe who launder its money," Violante says. "The Mafia works fast and with many, many connections, so we must develop the same speed and level of connections if we want to combat it."