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Saturday, 15 April, 2000, 13:20 GMT 14:20 UK
Mafia supergrass who escaped revenge
By David Willey in Rome
The death of Tommaso Buscetta, Italy's most famous Sicilian Mafia supergrass, brings back memories of three decades of efforts I have witnessed by the Italian state to defeat the Mafia.
He spent his last years in the USA, where plastic surgeons had given him a new face, and justice authorities a new home in Florida, a new identity and a pension.
He had to go into exile for deciding to turn state evidence after nine members of his family, including two of his sons, were killed in a Mafia feud.
Judge Giovanni Falcone, the mastermind Mafia investigator, travelled to Brazil in 1984 where Mr Buscetta was serving time on drug smuggling charges. He convinced him to break the fearsome Mafia code of silence - or 'omerta' in Sicilian dialect.
Following the murders, 7,000 Italian soldiers were sent to Sicily to try to show Sicilians the presence of the State and the rule of law on the streets of Palermo.
But after several years Rome got tired, and the troops returned to the mainland.
The criminal organisation refuses to die. It has simply metamorphosed from drugs into new lucrative fields of crime, such as smuggling people from the Balkans, international money laundering in cahoots with Russian crime gangs, and good old-fashioned business extortion.
Only this week a court in Catania, in eastern Sicily, sentenced 15 people to life imprisonment for a series of 25 murders carried out during years of vendetta between rival Mafia families for control of their territories.
Tommaso Buscetta was a colourful character. He had had wives in three continents and served many years in prision in Italy, Brazil and the USA for drug smuggling. He finally decided to break with his former comrades in crime and managed to die a non-violent death in his own Florida home.
Not many summers ago he was spotted by an Italian journalist enjoying a holiday on board a Mediterranean cruise-ship with his wife, Cristina.
He was the first major "pentito", as the Italians call their supergrasses. Just 45 days after he was extradited to Rome from Brazil, he told everything he knew about the organisation of the Mafia to Judge Falcone. His unprecedented detailed evidence provided the basis for the biggest criminal trial in Sicilian history in 1986 with more that 500 people accused. Hundreds of Mafia bosses were sent to prison as a result.
The number of officially recognised pentiti has now swollen to several hundreds. Together with their wives, children and close relatives, they form a community of several thousand people who are now being supported by the state and given police protection.
But there is growing criticism of the way in which hardened criminals are often able to benefit from official leniency in exchange for information.
The case of the Mafia hit-man Giovanni Brusca, who was granted pentito status despite committing many brutal murders - including dissolving in acid the body of the 12-year-old son of one of his former henchmen - aroused particular opposition among lawmakers.
The harsh prison regime to which the worst Mafia offenders are normally subject was suspended and he was given a small monthly income.
But a new law going through parliament will regulate the use of pentiti, and stiffen the conditions under which they can benefit from co-operating with justice. The new regulations will require the accused to answer all questions put to him in open court as well as before private investigators, and will ensure he serves at least a quarter of any sentence handed down.
Ten years before Mr Buscetta decided to throw in the towel, another Mafia member had tried to blow the whistle on organised crime in Sicily. His name was Leonardo Vitale.
At least in hospital he was safe from the Mafia. They would not go to the bother of killing him because no-one believed his story.
Killing him, the Mafia reasoned, would prove he had been telling the truth.
When Tommaso Buscetta much later confirmed the secrets that Mr Vitale had first revealed to incredulous police, the authorities decided to rehabilitate him, and released him from the mental asylum.
Within three days the Mafia had taken their revenge for betrayal. Mr Vitale was shot down in the street.
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