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Crime author Brian Fremantle
"The Mafia is like a shark, when it loses a tooth it can grow another one."
 real 28k

The BBC's Brian Barron in Palermo
"It used to be that no-one in Sicily would mention the Mafia"
 real 56k

Monday, 11 December, 2000, 08:07 GMT
Dark days for not so secret society
Giovanni Brusca arrested
Italian police arrest another key mafiosi, Giovanni Brusca, in 1996
To many people Sicily is synonymous with the Mafia, so it might seem surprising that the island's first Mafia Museum is only now being opened. This week UN Secretary General Kofi Annan will inaugurate the museum. BBC News Online's Chris Summers and Angelina Grasso look back at the history of The Mob.

Omerta, the oath of silence, is at the heart of the Sicilian Mafia.

So imagine the reaction in the village of Corleone - home of the Corleonesi clan - to the opening of a Mafia Museum.

The museum - or documentation centre as the Mayor of Corleone, Pippo Cipriani, prefers to call it - will be inaugurated by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on Tuesday.

It will allow policemen, academics and the general public to study the world's most famous organised crime group.

The centre will house documents and videos from Italy's anti-Mafia agencies, the media and private collections.

The Mafia is rooted in society, its permeation of the economy, society and its institutions.

Pippo Cipriani, Mayor of Corleone

There will also be sections on La Cosa Nostra's sister organisations, the 'Ndrangheta from Calabria, the Neapolitan Camorra and the Sacra Corona Unita, which sprung up in Apulia after several mafiosi were sent into internal exile there.

The centre is linked to the University of Palermo and will host yearly conferences on the fight organised crime.

The first of these takes place this week and will be attended by representatives of 189 countries, as well as Interpol and Europol.

They are expected to approve a UN charter on fighting organised crime.

'Cancer of society'

Pippo Cipriani, Mayor of Corleone, told BBC News Online: "The characteristic of the Mafia which most marks it out as distinct from other purely criminal organisations is the way in which it is rooted in society, its permeation of the economy, society and its institutions.

"For this reason we speak of the Mafia as a cancer of society."

Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini)
Like TV's Tony Soprano, real mafiosi are feeling the heat
La Cosa Nostra - roughly translated as This Thing Of Ours, or as TV mobster Tony Soprano puts it "Our thing" - has its roots in the 19th Century but its origins are obscure.

Author Brian Fremantle, who wrote The Octopus, an exposť of organised crime in Europe, said it began as a defence league for peasants fighting oppression by their feudal landlords.

But Mr Cipriani said it was quite the opposite - the first mafiosi were "gabellotti", feudal middlemen who collected levies from the peasants and kept them in line.

During the 19th Century, as Italy gradually became united and independent, the Mafia evolved into a purely criminal organisation.

Initiates - who were exclusively Sicilian men - were sworn to secrecy by the code of omerta.

To break this oath, by informing on one's friends or enemies was to invite an instant death sentence.

Helped liberate Sicily

Mussolini, and his henchman Cesare Mori, attempted to break the Mafia in the 1920s and 1930s.

But the Mob was not finished and, not surprisingly, sided with the Allies during the battle for Sicily in 1943.

Forty years earlier the United States had imported the Mob like an infection, carried amid waves of largely law-abiding Italian immigrants.

Men like Al Capone and Charles "Lucky" Luciano profited hugely by selling bootlegged liquor during the Prohibition era.

When Prohibition was lifted they diversified into other rackets, such as prostitution, "protection" and "the numbers", an illegal lottery.

In the 1940s and 1950s La Cosa Nostra expanded on both sides of the Atlantic and was the driving force behind the fleshpot which became Las Vegas.

Tomasso Buscetta
Tomasso Buscetta...the first of the 'pentiti'
The code of omerta held until the late 1970s when men like Jimmy "The Weasel" Fratianno and Tommasso Buscetta turned informer or "pentiti".

In return for immunity from prosecution, police protection and the creation of new identities, the pentiti began offering up names and details of their former colleagues.

Scores of mobsters both in Italy and in the United States were jailed and crime operations were busted.

Mafia backlash

The Mafia struck back the only way it knew how - with extreme violence.

In Italy the head of the anti-Mafia task force, General Alberto Dalla Chiesa, was assassinated in 1982.

Ten years later, investigating magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were assassinated with two giant car bombs in the space of two months.
Giovanni Falcone
Prosecutor Giovanni Falcone was murdered in 1992
But the Mafia had miscalculated. The state was not intimidated, and the dead men and their bodyguards became widely regarded as martyrs.

Anti-Mafia demonstrations began and a political party, La Rete (The Network), was formed to fight crime and corruption.

The Mafia had once been seen as an honourable institution, glamorised in Mario Puzo's novel, The Godfather, and in Francis Ford Coppola's eponymous film trilogy.

Corleone was used as the family name of Marlon Brando's character, an old-style "man of honour" who disapproved of the drug trade.

But in reality Corleone was home of Salvatore "Toto" Riina, who ruled the Corleonesi for 20 years and held sway over much of Sicily before his arrest in 1993.

Not a nice man

Riina not only wholeheartedly embraced drug trafficking but personally ordered the cowardly murders of Falcone and Borsellino.

He was not a well-mannered, old-fashioned criminal but a ruthless, illiterate peasant.

Toto Riina
Salvatore Riina was caught in 1993 after years in hiding
Riina was the most high-profile of a series of "latitanti" or fugitives from justice who were captured in the 1990s.

After his arrest Bernardo Provenzano took over the Corleonesi, which had dominated Sicily since going to war with rival clans in the 1980s.

Provenzano, whose nickname Binnu u Tratturi (Bernie The Tractor) relates to his determination and reliability, has been on the run for at least two decades.

His wife, Saveria Benedetta Palazzolo, lives above a second-hand car dealer's shop on the outskirts of Corleone.

Although the carabinieri keep tabs on her, she has never led them to Provenzano.

On the defensive

La Cosa Nostra and its American brothers are on the backfoot nowadays.

The RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act was passed by Congress in 1970 and used mercilessly over the next three decades to crack down on the Mob.

John Gotti
John Gotti, the "Teflon Don", was jailed after a friend turned informer
Prosecutors such as New York District Attorney Rudy Giuliani got success after success and under the onslaught Mob morale dipped and "squealers" became more common.

John Gotti, known as The Teflon Don because prosecutors failed to make charges stick, was finally convicted after an associate, Sammy "The Bull" Gravano, joined the Federal Witness Protection Scheme.

The Mob is not only under pressure from law enforcement agencies, but also from rival organised crime groups.

The Russian mafia, in particular, is carving a reputation for violence and ruthlessness and muscling in on several rackets formerly run by the Mob.

In its Sicilian heartland the Mafia is engaged in a war with a new group, La Stidda (The Star), a violent collection of bikers and ex-mafiosi.

Cornered animal

Hemmed in on all sides, the modern mafioso is likely to feel in need of therapy, like Tony Soprano.

But, like a wild animal backed into a corner, the Mafia is still a dangerous adversary and is by no means washed up.


We have made much progress but the Mafia has still not been definitively eradicated.

Pippo Cipriani
Last month a report by Italy's leading trade association said the Mafia controlled about 20% of the country's businesses, with an annual turnover of about $133bn.

Billions are made from counterfeiting international brand names and from skimming off money from public works contracts.

Mayor Cipriani told BBC News Online: "We have made much progress but the Mafia has still not been definitively eradicated.

"On the contrary, I would say that we are undergoing a moment of uncertainty.

"The Mafia can only be defeated if the process of suppression continues and improves and at the same time, civil society continues its process of cultural change."

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See also:

14 Nov 00 | Europe
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21 Mar 99 | Europe
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