Page last updated at 10:59 GMT, Monday, 14 April 2008 11:59 UK

Rita Borsellino: Anti-Mafia campaigner

By Stephanie Holmes
BBC News, Palermo

The streets of the Sicilian capital Palermo will not let you forget this island's entanglement with its Mafia, known as the Cosa Nostra.

Rita Borsellino
Rita Borsellino wants to break Mafia links with politicians

The city's network of avenues, roads and squares have been constantly renamed or transformed into discreet memorial sites as the criminal web has claimed its victims.

An incongruous olive tree grows outside number 19, Via d'Amelio, a block of white flats in a residential area. It has low railings and its own porter, who sits in a booth by the gate.

It was here that Paolo Borsellino, a pioneering anti-Mafia magistrate, was killed on 19 July 1992. A huge car bomb exploded that Sunday morning, shattering the windows of the block of flats, damaging walls and setting some of the homes on fire.

Rita Borsellino, Paolo's sister, is a calm, dignified woman with bright blue eyes. She has become a social activist, an anti-Mafia campaigner and a politician.

'Not if but when'

"He was fully aware of the risks he was taking," she says of her brother, whose pioneering work with fellow anti-Mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone managed to get under the skin of the organisation and reveal how it was structured.

Mount Pellegrino, Palermo
The Cosa Nostra spied on Paolo Borsellino from this vantage point

"He always talked about it, like he wanted us to accept the idea. He used to say 'when they kill me', not 'if they kill me'. He knew it was coming, he'd heard that some explosives had arrived and that they were probably intended for him. He said he had to work fast, that he was running out of time."

The olive tree's branches are hung with ribbons and scraps of coloured cloth. Tatty plastic flowers nestle by its roots and someone has gone to the trouble of leaving a large, enamelled tile to remind the tourists and the curious that "Not all Sicilians are mafiosi".

If you turn your head there is a clear and uninterrupted view of Monte Pellegrino, a hill which rears up again and again as you walk around Palermo.

It was from a pink-coloured building perched on the side of this vantage point that the Cosa Nostra lay in wait for Borsellino, as he came to take his mother to a doctor's appointment.

His murder, so soon after the killing of his colleague Falcone in late May 1992, on the motorway linking the city to the airport now named after them, so shocked the public conscience that things really began to change, Ms Borsellino says.

"It was as if, in that moment, everyone suddenly became aware of the real danger of the Cosa Nostra."

Endless chameleon

But the organisation has changed too, she says, its tentacles reaching into the highest echelons of power, within Sicily and beyond.

Raffaele Lombardo

Clean politics is absolutely fundamental

Raffaele Lombardo
Sicilian presidency candidate

"The Mafia has learnt, over time, to continuously transform itself like a chameleon. Today's mafia has infiltrated politics and economics, so it is far more difficult to see."

"The Mafia has an absolute need for these links with the political and economic spheres, otherwise they'd still be just in cloth caps and rifles. It has been able to become a greater force because it has sought - and found - political support."

She says the resignation in January this year of Sicily's president, Salvatore Cuffaro, who received a five-year sentence during a Mafia-related trial, is one illustration of this transformation.

Rita Borsellino lost when she ran against Cuffaro in 2006 for the regional presidency.

Cuffaro, now running for the national Senate for the centrist Union of Christian Democrats (UDC) party, insists he is innocent and is appealing against the sentence. He underlines the fact that he was not legally obliged to resign, but did so as a matter of honour.

Rita Borsellino election poster
Rita Borsellino is campaigning for a seat in Sicily's assembly

His personal friend and fellow politician Raffaele Lombardo, the man backed by Silvio Berlusconi and who pollsters say is likely to win the regional presidency, says the trial was blown out of proportion.

"The truth is it was a big storm in a teacup. These people were his close friends but he had absolutely no idea that they were mafiosi," Mr Lombardo says from his campaign headquarters in Palermo, where he has called for greater autonomy.

"Clean politics is absolutely fundamental," he adds. "All politicians can really offer is to keep themselves clean and offer an example to their citizens."

During the Italian election campaign politicians on both the centre-right and centre-left spoke fervently of their desire to rid Sicily and the rest of southern Italy of the paralysing influence of the Mafia.

'Too timid'

But Rita Borsellino says it is often too little, too late.

"The Mafia has often been defined as anti-state, but it is actually a state within a state, there is too much collusion, too much timidity.

"The fight against the Mafia has lacked continuity. It is either considered a political priority or completely forgotten - this has been the Mafia's greatest advantage. The political will was lacking."

The real change has come from the grassroots level, she says.

"Civil society has to deal with the Mafia on a daily basis, and eventually there comes a time where they just say 'enough!' and start to rebel.

"Politics, on the other hand, often co-habits with the Mafia, and they even do business together."

Sicilians grow defiant of Mafia
11 Apr 08 |  Europe
Italian Mafia turnover '$120bn'
22 Oct 07 |  Europe

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