Informer Testimony Plays Key Role In Italy's Mafia Sweep

THE Italian police, in the biggest anti-Mafia operation in nearly a decade, have arrested at least 170 people in raids from Sicily to Milan since Tuesday.

"This is only the first phase," explains Achille Serra, a leading anti-Mafia fighter for the state police. "It's possible we'll conduct a second phase, as a result of these investigations."

About 205 arrest warrants were issued in the sweep, known as Operation Leopard. Among the suspects: three national parliamentarians from Sicily, mayors and other local political officials, and businessmen. The charges include being associated with the Mafia for the purposes of controlling the drug market and of acquiring public contracts.

"It's a very important moment for the country," says Gaspare Nuccio, a parliamentary deputy for the Sicilian-based Rete, a small anti-Mafia party. "There's the possibility to contain and to overcome the Mafia."

"The situation is getting better, because they're making continual strikes against the Mafia," agrees anti-Mafia Judge Piero Grasso, who presided over the so-called maxi-trial of Mafia leaders nearly a decade ago and who now works in the Justice Ministry. "This is another hard blow against the organization."

The police blitz follows testimony by Leonardo Messina and Paolo Severino, two Mafiosi who agreed to tell police investigators what they knew about La Cosa Nostra. Such witnesses are known here as pentiti.

And it coincides with testimony by another major pentiti, Tommaso Buscetta, to the anti-Mafia commission of the Italian parliament on the Mafia's links to politicians. While Mr. Buscetta declined to reveal the names of political figures, saying he would do so only in front of the judges, he did urge the country to take prompt action against the Mafia. "La Cosa Nostra is breathing its last," Buscetta told the parliamentarians Monday. "La Cosa Nostra is on the brink of failure."

Buscetta says he agreed to talk to the parliamentarians after the brutal murder of a revered anti-Mafia judge, Giovanni Falcone, in May. Buscetta also collaborated with Falcone, who more than once acknowledged his debt to the pentito in his Italian No. 1 best-seller, "Things of La Cosa Nostra."

"We hope that the declarations of Buscetta and [of pentito Antonino] Calderone will change the situation," says Mr. Grasso. "We hope we can continue this happy season of fighting the phenomenon of the Mafia."

Particularly helpful to Operation Leopard was the testimony of Mr. Messina. In a surprise revelation, he told investigators that it is not true that the Mafia's code of conduct is unwritten and that he was informed by a fellow Mafioso that a "bible" of Mafia laws is in the possession of a prominent Mob leader. Investigators, however, have been unable to get their hands on it.

Messina says he was persuaded to testify after hearing the plea of Rosaria Costa, the widow of one of Falcone's bodyguards. On live television from Falcone's funeral in Palermo May 26, Mrs. Costa pleaded with the Mafiosi "to have the courage to change," and then through bitter tears added, "but they aren't changing. They aren't changing."

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