Few people are more respected by the majority of Italians than those who fight their country’s powerful organised crime syndicates. There are four such gangs: the eponymous Sicilian Mafia, the Camorra of Campania (the region around Naples), the Ndrangheta from Calabria (the “toe” of the Italian “boot”) and the lesser-known Sacra Corona Unita in Puglia on the Adriatic coast. Members of the so-called anti-mafia include police, prosecutors and judges; campaigning local journalists; businesspeople who refuse to pay the pizzo (slang for protection money); and the members of voluntary organisations such as Libera. Founded by a priest, Don Luigi Ciotti, Libera specialises in the exploitation of land and other resources confiscated from mafia bosses, often in the face of intimidation from the jailed bosses’ associates. For the past eight months, however, several prosecutors in Italy’s southern badlands and parliament’s standing commission on organised crime have been probing the mafias’ supposed adversaries. Why?
Civil society anti-mafia groups have burgeoned since the murders in 1992 of the Sicilian Mafia’s most formidable opponents, the magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. Not all such groups are as irreproachable as Libera. Some exist merely to enhance the prestige of their founders. They also offer access to public funds that can be misappropriated. In January, the head of a women’s group in Calabria was given a four-year jail sentence for spending the cash on herself. Among other things, she bought a car. A senior prosecutor in Sicily has emphasised that these are isolated cases. But the head of the parliamentary commission, Rosy Bindi, believes they are symptomatic of a movement that has lost its original purpose. The mafia has changed, becoming more business-oriented, less violent and visible: it kills less to earn more. But, says Ms Bindi, the civil society groups remain focused on the sort of trigger-happy mobsters responsible for the 1992 assassinations.
What really caused alarm, however, was the suspension last year of a judge in a uniquely responsible and influential position. Silvana Saguto presided over a court in Palermo that decides who should take over companies seized from the Sicilian Mafia. Administering the mobsters’ former businesses provides lucrative opportunities for lawyers. Ms Saguto, who denies wrongdoing, is accused of accepting bribes and favours that influenced her decisions. Other cases have raised concern. A businessman feted as a champion of legality was convicted last October of practising the mafia’s own speciality, extortion. A renowned local journalist, celebrated for his denunciations of the mobsters’ activities, faces similar allegations, while the head of the bosses’ union in Sicily is also under investigation, accused of steering contracts towards firms in the grip of the Mafia. Both men deny wrongdoing.
In the short term, the unmasking of phoney do-gooders gives cheer to organised criminals. It will no doubt deter some members of the public from donating to anti-mafia groups (many benefit from a system whereby Italians can give a small percentage of their taxes to recognised charities). And it reinforces the cynical view of the mobsters that their adversaries are no better than them. In the longer term, however, the drive to purge the anti-mafia movement of undesirable elements should help restore public confidence. Meanwhile, stricter rules have been written into a bill going through parliament to ensure that judges cannot favour their cronies when deciding who should administer the mafias’ seized assets. The bill has been approved by the lower house Chamber of Deputies and is currently in the Senate. But because of Italy’s unwieldy legislative procedures, there is no guarantee it will reach the statute book.