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Saturday, 6 January, 2001, 14:06 GMT
Mafia - past and present
Palermo in Sicily
Mafia members in Corleone had bitter rivals in Palermo
By Robert Fox

These past few weeks, the town of Corleone has been hanging out the flags - the UN flag in particular.

A couple of weeks before Christmas, Italy's president and prime minister inaugurated a brand new UN centre for the documentation and study of the Mafia.

It is situated in a converted 16th Century convent just off the main square, dominated by the baroque confectionery of the town hall.

The Mafia allegedly controls one in five businesses
Ten years ago, such a ceremony - and such a centre - would have been unthinkable. Corleone's status as the heartland of the Mafia, or the Cosa Nostra as Sicilians prefer to call it, was well established before it became the stuff of celluloid legend in the Godfather movies.

Behind the legend there is a great deal of fact. Corleone was one of Sicily's great granaries when the island's grain underlay the spat between Ancient Rome and Hannibal's Carthage known as the second Punic War.

In more recent times, it has always been the base of the toughest clans of the Mafia, the rural criminal secret society which rose to prominence just over a century and a half ago.

Violent past

Twenty years ago, the Corleonesi - the men of Corleone - fought the rival clans in Palermo. For more than a year they were killing each other at the rate of at least one victim a night.

At stake were the rich pickings from the increasingly global trade in narcotics and arms - and development subsidies and contracts from the government and the European Community in Brussels.

The really important change is that we can talk about the Mafia openly here now

Giuseppe Governali, Corleone's Deputy Mayor
At one point, it is reckoned the Mafia was creaming off subsidies for olive and citrus crops of such volume that it would have taken an area twice that of Sicily to grow them.

Despite waves of arrests and trials, the Corleonesi are still thought to be the most powerful Cosa Nostra clan in the island - only they do not frequent the town now.

The head of the clan, Bernardo 'the tractor' Provenzano, is understood to be capo di tutti capi, Boss of Bosses, though he has been on the run for 25 years.

New beginnings

The opening of the centre represents a new departure for the fight against the Mafia - and for Corleone itself.

When I called just a few days after the opening, the signs were not auspicious. "Chiuso," said the concierge, "closed for restoration - well it's not really ready yet!"

Eventually I was taken around by Laura, an assistant from the town hall.

Like so much in Sicily and the Mafia, there is both more and less to the new centre than meets the eye. The walls and shelves were bare, except for a few books and videos, and yes the Godfather was among them.

On the walls were huge blown up photographs of old Corleone, the Bosses and their victims, the judges and police chiefs, and politicians - the cadaveri eccellenti, illustrious corpses as they are termed in Sicily.

Giovanni Falcone
Giovanni Falcone was murdered by a Mafia car bomb in 1992
Most illustrious were the investigating magistrates Paolo Borsellino and Giovanni Falcone, murdered by huge bombs in the summer of 1992, and who did so much to change the climate of opinion against the Mafia on both sides of the Atlantic.

"The really important change is that we can talk about the Mafia openly here now - we even have regular classroom debates about it," I was told by Giuseppe Governali, Corleone's Deputy Mayor and Head of the Liceo Classico secondary school.

"Just 20 years ago, you could not breathe the word Mafia in the family, at school or anywhere in the town. In the family there was absolute respect for the capo, the padre, the father. This became twisted to respect for the padrino, the godfather."

Code of silence

On my last visit 15 years ago, Corleone was stuck in the old ways, shrouded in a conspiracy of silence, the code of Mafia omerta. Men and women in the streets would look through me as if I didn't exist.

That June afternoon, I stood on a rock and watched a herd of more than 1,000 head of cattle, sheep, horses and mules on the move. They were being driven by 10 men on mules and horses, and nearly every one had a lupara, a sawn-off shotgun, slung over his shoulder.

This was the old business of the Mafia, ripping off both the big landowners and the contadini, the peasants, with their scams ranging from protection money to rustling and running their own herds.

Like the herdsmen, the Mafia has moved on - the old rural economy does not interest them as it once did. For the Cosa Nostra and its cousins on the Italian mainland and across the Atlantic, new vistas are opening up. Mafia business is now part of the globalised economy.

Global business

The Italian Mafias are heavily involved in the Balkans, shifting anything from drugs and arms to tobacco - now said to be more profitable than narcotics - and even people.

In Kosovo last year, I went through villages where omerta, the code of silence, can almost be touched - just as it used to be in Corleone and its neighbours in the Sicilian triangle of death 20 years ago.

Mafia prisoners in Russia
A growing number of Mafiosi are being arrested in Russia
It was the new Mafia commerce in arms, drugs and above all people which concerned the delegates who were meeting in Palermo to sign the UN's first treaty on organised crime, which coincided with the opening of the new centre in Corleone.

While more than 140 governments could agree on new measures on extradition, conspiracy and money laundering, the protocols on the traffic in migrants, especially women and minors, had to be put to one side.

Today thousands of young girls from eastern Europe are sold into prostitution - becoming wageless slaves in Italy, France and Germany.

In Palermo much has changed since the worst days of the Mafia wars. After the murders of the great judges Borsellino and Falcone eight years ago, people have learnt to say no to the Mafia, and politicians have begun to back them.

But the suggestion by several delegates to the UN convention that the old Mafia was beaten was met with a heavy dose of Sicilian scepticism - not least in Corleone itself.

"This noise and ceremony doesn't help," said Father Vicenzo Pizzitola, the parish priest of the Parish of San Martino, who has several families of latitanti, Mafiosi on the run, in his flock.

"This question of Mafiosita, divides people - it divides the generations," he said. "We have made some advances, but these things are best done quietly."

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Costa del Crime no more?
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