SHORTLY before 9 a.m., a pack of men with automatic rifles charge up the stairs of a courthouse in Reggio Calabria on Italy's southern tip. They stride quickly toward Prosecutor Salvatore Boemi's office.
A crime raid? A Mafia hit? Not this time.
The armed men are bodyguards and tucked among them is prosecutor Boemi himself. As the bodyguards' eyes dart around the corridor, Boemi slips from their midst and passes lithely into his inner chamber.
It is just another day in the life of an anti-Mafia prosecutor.
Three of Italy's southern regions lie in the grip of organized crime that has grown tighter since the introduction of drug trafficking in the 1970s.
Organized crime also has taken advantage of low employment and poverty throughout the south, further deepening the region's disparities with the prosperous north.
The island of Sicily is dominated by the Mafia, or Cosa Nostra, as it is known to initiates. The region of Campania, whose capital is Naples, is controlled by the Camorra. Calabria is ruled by the 'ndrangheta. Another Mafia group, la Sacra Corona Unita, controls parts of the Puglia region, such as the port of Brindisi, where tourists hop on boats to Greece.
Whoever combats organized crime in Italy walks through a political minefield.
"It's essential for a judge to be a common, normal man, whereas the anti-Mafia judge in Italy is no longer a normal person, but an animal who has to hide, because he could be killed on any street corner," Boemi says.
The last big job
Boemi resigned his job as Reggio Calabria's chief anti-Mafia prosecutor this summer because he says he doesn't have state support - the staff or the money - to wage a serious anti-Mafia fight in Calabria. But he agreed to finish the so-called maxi-trials stemming from his probes, trials that involve from 50 to 500 defendants at a time.
When he began his work here in 1993, leaving nearby Palmi, Boemi rejected the traditional approach of seeking out Mafia leaders responsible for a specific murder and began to search for the motives behind crimes and for the supposedly upright citizens who were protecting crime bosses.
He wanted to know what businesses organized crime controlled, what politicians it had in its pocket, why it had become so strong.
Through interrogation of pentiti or penitents, as Mafia collaborators with justice are called, Boemi found that Mafia bosses were infiltrating secret Masonic lodges that were not affiliated with the official Italian Masonry. The members of these secret lodges included politicians, businessmen, and law officers.
He found that there was constant, reciprocal support between the unofficial Masons and the 'ndrangheta.
"These are not hypotheses," Boemi stresses. "These are declarations [by pentiti] that could be false, but they're numerous and unambiguous."
Boemi is by no means the first person to raise an alarm about secret Masonic groups in Italy. In the 1980s, the secret Propaganda Due (P-2) lodge was uncovered. Its membership consisted of political, economic, military, and opinion leaders. Many say the P-2 was a subversive organization.
Since then, numerous anti-Mafia investigating magistrates and parliamentary experts have warned of the associations between organized crime and secret Masonic organizations.
"It wasn't the 'ndrangheta that dominated Calabria and Reggio, but it was a pluralism of criminal groups, where the Masonry was the mind that moved the 'ndrangheta to the conquest of the city," Boemi says.
If Boemi is right, then his life is like a page out of a Robert Ludlum novel, in which the hero discovers his friends are really his enemies, and he is no longer sure he can trust anyone.
Among the Masons, Boemi suspects, were judges who agreed to subvert justice, not exactly for money but in loyalty to their secret Masonic brothers.
"We always saw the 'ndrangheta over there and the state on the other side, in opposition. Instead, what are we finding out? That part of the state, instead of taking care of the social interests of the Italian citizen, did business with the 'ndrangheta in Calabria and Cosa Nostra in Sicily. Partially secret groups, such as the Masonry, helped," Boemi says.
Once he understood this, Boemi saw that attacking the 'ndrangheta while ignoring its hidden support was not sufficient. He asked for more help. When it was not forthcoming, he resigned.
How things work
Boemi cites an example of how things work in Reggio Calabria.
In May 1992, Pietro Marrapodi, the city's most important notary public, decided to collaborate with justice. The notary is a key figure in Italy, since he draws up all formal documents and contracts. Mr. Marrapodi revealed to investigators that he and three friends clandestinely controlled the construction of judicial buildings in Reggio Calabria for a decade for their own enrichment, involving some 200 billion lira ($126 million) in contracts.
They divided the profits as follows, Marrapodi said: 40 percent to a builder of the projects; 30 percent to a provincial secretary of a political party; and 30 percent between himself and a doctor.
Most, if not all, of the men were allegedly official or secret Masons.
"This is an illicit association," says Boemi. "So the problem is not the 'ndrangheta, but it's those who, through the 'ndrangheta, succeed in acquiring the wealth that's pouring into the city."
It is time for Boemi to get back to work. In the next room, his bodyguards are on duty, a constant reminder of the risks he runs putting in a day's work.
"The Mafia is strong because the state is weak," Boemi continues, "and because this [Italian] democracy is not based on the great values of freedom, of nonviolence. It's a democracy without values."