The New Mafia Order

The ‘sistema,’ which has ruled Sicily since my great-grandparents were children, has grown into a transnational empire of crime, and a trading power of phenomenal reach.

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Spring breaks early and powerfully on the Gulf of Castellammare. The citrus groves west of Palermo are already in fruit by the end of February, and the Sicilian air is so ripe with the odor of lemon and orange that it can make a visitor dizzy. From the sea, hillside villages are splashes of pastel masonry on a brilliant carpet of green and gold.

In spring 1972, an ambitious young Soviet bureaucrat named Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, spent 15 days here as guests of the Italian Communist Party. They were installed in a villa on the Castellammare coast, overlooking the fishing harbor from which generations of my ancestors set out for tuna each year. The Gorbachevs had a future — that much was obvious to their local hosts, the leading Castellammare families, who saw to it that the Russian couple had every convenience.

Two decades later, as he presided over the last days of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev would tell a biographer that the sojourn on the gulf had been a turning point in his life, a vision, a dream. The seeds of glasnost and perestroika were planted in that Sicilian reverie. A new world took shape.

But it isn’t the world Mikhail Gorbachev dreamed of. It is its nightmare image, cast in the precise mold of the Castellammare hills — the heartland of the Cosa Nostra, the cradle of the dons. The nightmare has its own logic, its own bones. Sicilians call it the “sistema del potere.” The system of power.

The sistema, which has ruled Palermo and its countryside since my great-grandparents were children, now extends across the face of the globe. Immensely expanded, both by design and by historical happenstance — notably the collapse of the Eastern bloc — it has grown too large for its Sicilian architects to rule alone, too far-flung, too complex.

“A cocktail shaker” of crime syndicates governs the system now, says Alain Labrousse, founder of the Observatoire Geopolitique des Drogues, Europe’s most important research center on organized crime. “This is not something that involves just one mafia, the one we all know from Sicily, but seven or eight of them, frequently operating in collusion.”

In addition to the Cosa Nostra and its Neapolitan cousin, the Camorra, the cocktail shaker includes organizations based in Turkey and post-Soviet Russia; the Colombian cocaine cartels and their operations in Spain; and ethnic Chinese triads from East and Southeast Asia, which have established key overseas bases in Rotterdam and London. At a lower level, the transport and marketing of contraband is managed by syndicates of Nigerians, Moroccans, Pakistanis, Lebanese, Albanians, and a potpourri of ex-Yugoslavs (who are known to put aside their fratricidal differences in the interest of business).

Together, they have constructed a state in its own right, a trading power of phenomenal reach, an Empire of Crime. Gorbachev’s Russia and her lost Asian satrapies are its vast new hinterland. The wretched of the earth are its foot soldiers. Sicily is its model — its dark Platonic ideal.


When the Gorbachevs vacationed on the Castellammare coast, Aliya Ibvagimovich was among thousands of Central Asians crammed into the gritty blocks around Moscow’s Kazan Railroad Station. He ran a thriving personal enterprise hawking pirated American rock cassettes and styled himself a hippie. He was probably the only hippie from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where he was born and grew up. “Down there, you couldn’t be sure what the word meant,” he told me, filling a water tumbler to the brim with Jack Daniels. “I knew it had something to do with long hair and music, and a lot to do with being different. That was me: I wanted to be different.”

In the context of the times — the long, stagnant reign of Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev — Aliya had been a high achiever. He’s still an achiever today, which is what brought me to his door on a frozen January morning in 1994. I was looking for a new entrepreneur, a story for the business pages. I’d heard that Aliya had money, seemed to buy and sell a lot, and owned a large building. Leads are like that in Moscow nowadays.

Aliya played the game for awhile, spinning patent bullshit about furniture manufacturing and exports. Then he started laughing, and reached for the Jack Daniels. Furniture? Even his dour sidekick, a blond Russian and former casino bouncer named Sergei, laughed out loud now. “No divanz, no chairz,” Aliya said in a rough pidgin English, throwing back his head of shaggy post-hippie hair. “Aliya Ibvagimovich, reketiry, aht your sarveez Meester Francesco!”

“Racketeer:” He was proud of the very idea, and delighted to meet an Italian-American — a Sicilian, no less. In Moscow, after the Soviet demise, to be a member of the mafiya is equivalent to being a hippie in the Brezhnev epoch. It has cachet. It marks you as different, and powerful, in a city where there are two distinct power centers but only one that holds much promise. The political class gathered around Boris Yeltsin runs official Moscow, which is crumbling into ruin. The reketiry run the other Moscow, where $75 bottles of Jack Daniels are consumed like water.

In the first Moscow — Russia’s “legitimate” capital — a typical month’s pay was the equivalent of $45 when I knocked on Aliya’s door. President Boris Yeltsin’s salary check had just been raised to about $300. Pensioners drawing $35 per month from the state retirement fund stood outside public buildings, stamping their feet in the subzero temperatures, peddling loaves of bread and family heirlooms to stay alive.

In Aliya’s Moscow — the reketiry Moscow — scores of new restaurants, supplied with foie gras from France, prime beef from Australia, and the wildly popular Jack Daniels, are booked for weeks ahead; a dinner check for two begins at $120, and climbs rapidly. Cadillacs are sold for $100,000 cash at Trinity Motors, just yards away from Red Square; Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz showrooms dot the blocks around the Bolshoi Theater. Their clients drive straight into the attached garages of solid-oak “executive ranch homes,” constructed in the United States, then dismantled and shipped to Moscow for reassembly on special high-security sites in the suburbs.

Nobody in Russia has any doubt about who the conspicuous consumers are, or how they came by their money. “Unless you are mafiya, or maybe a diplomat, you can’t even think of such things,” Ludmilla Khachikian, an English teacher, told me. “When we see a certain kind of car on our streets, a certain kind of fashionable coat, that’s what we all conclude: It must be a foreigner or one of the reketiry.”

Aliya and Sergei took me on a spin one night in Aliya’s fire-engine red Audi, roaring at harrowing speed through the icy streets. The route was a bewildering zigzag. “You never know,” Sergei muttered opaquely, shrugging his shoulders.

As we fishtailed into a series of turns, the two men explained their business. It was quite straightforward; in mafiya Moscow, there’s no particular point to discretion. Aliya and Sergei are international oil merchants of a sort. Backed by a network of “friends” — either palm-greasers in the government ministries or ministerial officials themselves — they fill tank trucks with gasoline bought in Russia at the state-subsidized price of about 60 cents per gallon. (If it were any more expensive, Aliya pointed out, “only reketiry could afford to drive.”) The trucks are driven to the Russo-Polish border near the military stronghold of Kaliningrad, where another network of friends in the Polish customs service ushers them across the frontier. Yet more friends wait at the German border.

The economics are breathtakingly simple. A 60-cent gallon of Russian regular fetches up to $5.25 in Western Europe. Sell it on the black market at $4, and everyone is happy. The difference between four bucks and 60 cents buys a lot of Jack Daniels and foie gras, fire-engine red Audis, and ranch homes — most of which come into Russia as contraband.

Last year, as Russia’s visible economy slid into the deepest recession Europe has seen since the 1930s and its gross domestic product fell to just 60 percent of its 1991 level, $60 billion of goods from the West entered the former Soviet Union — at least $30 billion of it illegally, says the Russian Interior Ministry. What paid for it all, legal and illegal, was the mafiya-induced hemorrhaging of $45 billion in resources. Russian coal by the thousands of tons. Azerbaijani oil by the lakeful. Entire forests of Siberian timber. Miles of railcars stuffed with cotton from Aliya’s native Uzbekistan. Truck after truck of gasoline from Kazakhstan (and until recently, Chechnya) — so many trucks that at one point last summer, the line of vehicles waiting to cross the Hungarian-Romanian border, another major contraband gate, stretched dozens of miles and involved a five-day wait.

The scale of this rape is beyond anything the world has ever seen. It could only be the work of professionals. Of a phenomenally efficient system that swallows every legitimate institution it confronts. Of legions of Aliyas and Sergeis, backed by armies of friends. Of a conspiracy that beggars the imagination.

Its most disturbing activity involves neither purloined timber nor smuggled gasoline. Over the past year, German police have intercepted several contraband shipments of enriched plutonium and other nuclear materials from Russia. Their destinations, almost certainly, were clandestine atomic bomb laboratories.

The Audi slid to a bumpy stop, next to a fortresslike red brick building somewhere in the northern sprawl of Moscow. Sergei was explaining the zigzag ride to me: “Your public life, you live publicly,” he said. “Let the people see you are a big man. But your private life, if you are smart, you keep that to yourself. Nobody knows where our apartments are. We take a different route every day.” Aliya nodded in solemn agreement. “Insuranz, Francesco,” he added.

According to Izvestia, there were nearly 20,000 violent crimes in Moscow alone in 1993, up 36 percent from the year before. Nationwide, offenses involving fire-arms were up 250 percent, to 22,100. In 1993 Russia saw 355,500 crimes officially designated as racketeering, and nearly 30,000 premeditated murders.

In Moscow, the slaughter included 1,404 suspected gangland assassinations, and probably thousands more that went unrecorded. By the end of the first quarter of 1994, the toll was running at 84 murders per day, giving Russia the dubious distinction of surpassing the United States’ homicide rate — indeed, more than doubling it. “The bulk were contract killings, because of conflicts in the sphere of commercial and financial activity,” said Gen-eral Viktor Yerin, minister of the Interior.

On March 1, Vladislav Listyev, Moscow’s most celebrated broadcast journalist and the newly appointed director of Russia’s main public television station, was shot dead by assassins at the entrance to his apartment building. Listyev had announced his intention to suspend all advertising on the station — a key source of racketeering income — until the industry could be cleaned up. “The merging of the mafiya with commercial structures, administrative agencies, interior ministry bodies, city authorities — nowhere else in Russia do the authorities turn a blind eye to these things as they do in Moscow,” admitted President Yeltsin, the day after the killing.

Pyotr Filippov, director of the government-sponsored Analytical Center for Social and Economic Policies, who reports directly to Yeltsin, believes that four out of five Russian businesses are now paying protection money to the reketiry, or to their political henchmen. The public authorities in much of the country are so intimidated by the mafiya, claims Filippov, that they send requests for business permits to local god-fathers for approval. Moscow’s chief of police says he is convinced that 95 percent of his own cops are on the take.

An entire generation is coming of age in Russia, says Filippov, “who will not turn to official authorities, but to unofficial ones. These people are more likely to hire a murderer to punish a guilty or even an unpleasant partner than to go to court.”

On February 2, Sergei Skorochkin, 33, a prominent deputy in the State Duma (parliament), was found dead in a grove of trees south of Moscow. He was handcuffed and had a large-caliber bullet hole in his head. Skorochkin had always been more “businessman” than legislator, and his business was of a variety that other Duma members tended to discuss in whispers. In May 1994, he had a disagreement with a rival businessman and shot him dead on a busy Moscow avenue, killing a woman passer-by in the process. Skorochkin was the third Russian deputy murdered in a year. None of the three killings has resulted in an indictment.


The efficiency, brazen reach, and violent machismo of organized crime in Russia are unmistakably familiar to anyone who knows Sicily. To someone who also knows the recent history of the mafia in its Mediterranean homeland, the emergence of an underworld empire in the East is an entirely predictable development — the richest fruit of a deliberate strategy undertaken in the Castellammare hills in the late 1970s, not long after Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev dozed under the Sicilian sun and imagined themselves in paradise.

To understand the world of Russia’s reketiry, it is necessary to return to its model. To the sistema del potere in western Sicily. To a decision, by the very families who informally hosted the Gorbachevs in 1972, to expand vastly their horizons.

As in Russia, the activities of these crime lords are blatant today; and the sistema’s hierarchy is open knowledge. Across the island, people will tell you — everyone citing identical figures — there are 186 ruling families, 67 of them located in Palermo and the Castellammare countryside. The district of Cinisi, where the Gorbachevs vacationed, is “under the authority of Partinico,” 10 miles to the west, one of my cousins explains. “And Partinico is under the authority of the Provincial Committee in Palermo, which reports to the Commission for all of Sicily.” When the decision to expand was made, the Commission had three seats. One belonged to the Castellammare boss, Gaetano Badalamenti, the unwitting Gorbachevs’ chief local host.

Before the decision was made, organized crime in Sicily had been primarily local, satisfied with corrupting minor officials, and comfortably but not extravagantly wealthy. By the mid-1980s, when the new strategy was fully operational, the mafia and its allies were bidding for undisguised control of Italy, and with it, the fifth-largest industrial economy on earth. By 1990, their ambitions were trans-European. Today, they are global.

The strategy opened with the declaration of a war pitting the Castellemmarese and their sometime ally, the Corleone faction headed by the ruthless Toto Riina, against two enemies: other mafia clans, who for their own reasons opposed the new strategy, and the Italian state. Since the struggle began in earnest, around 1978, as many as 900 Italians per year have died in its gunfire and bombings. It is a war without mercy or quarter. Roberto Mazzarella, Palermo’s administrative director of La Rete, an anti-mafia political party, calls it “la mattanza.”

The word refers to a peculiar Sicilian fishing practice, in which tuna are driven by boatmen into a circle of nets, then bludgeoned to death while frantically trying to escape.

I was in Palermo a week after one of the mattanza’s clearest messages was sent to the beleaguered authorities — a 176-pound bomb placed in the car of magistrate Paolo Borsellino in July 1992. Borsellino, who was then the chief prosecutor assigned to Italy’s nationwide mafia investigations, had just arrived at his mother’s home when the explosives were ignited. The explosion left virtually no trace of his body, killed five other people, and broke windows several blocks away.

The Borsellino assassination followed that of his mentor, Judge Giovanni Falcone, who was blown up two months earlier with his wife, Judge Francesca Morvillo, when their car passed over a remote-controlled mine on the autostrada from Palermo to the Gulf of Castellammare (photo below). A huge stretch of highway was reduced to rubble by the blast.

Falcone and Borsellino depended heavily on the disclosures of the “pentiti,” the “penitents,” alienated mafiosi who opposed the Castellammare and Corleone leaders. The most productive information came from Tommaso Buscetta (photo opposite), whose testimony broke the famous “pizza connection” case in the early 1980s — the first inkling that the Sicilian mob was involved in big-time international trade. The product was Sicilian-processed heroin, $750 million’s worth per year exported to New York City alone.

Tommy Buscetta can attest to the gravity of the mafia’s expansive new course, and its awful toll. Since he began talking to prosecutors, mafia hit men have killed his wife, his three sons, his parents, his aunts and uncles, his in-laws and their assorted children. And the toll continues to rise: On March 6, fully 11 years after Buscetta turned state’s evidence, his nephew Domenico was shot dead. In all, there are 33 Buscetta corpses.

More significant to the strategy’s purpose, the executioners have assassinated virtually every Italian political figure who has effectively thwarted their grand design. The mattanza has eliminated a generation of honest officials — in a nation where the breed is exceedingly rare.

At this writing, more than 6,000 Italian bureaucrats, corporate executives, and politicians (among them a staggering 438 deputies and senators) are under investigation or have been indicted on corruption charges of one kind or another. One estimate is that the mob has paid $40 billion in bribes to executives and officials over the past decade. On March 2, seven-time Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti was indicted for connections to organized crime.

As for the honest dead, in addition to Falcone, Morvillo, and Borsellino, the list includes Michele Reina, provincial secretary of the Christian Democratic Party in Sicily; judges Cesare Terranova and Boris Giuliano, the two officials who presided over the pizza connection investigation; Gaetano Costa, the chief judge in Palermo’s criminal court; Sicilian Communist Party Regional Secretary Pio la Torre; Provincial Government President Piersanti Mattarella; General Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa, Italy’s top law enforcement official and the man who defeated the Red Brigades’ terrorist squad; and Judge Rocco Chinnici, the magistrate who sent Borsellino and Falcone to Palermo — and to their graves.

By stunning contrast, in the three decades that preceded the mattanza, the mafia had targeted just one political figure.

Roberto Mazzarella, a leading expert on organized crime, has no doubt about the mattanza’s intention. “About a decade ago, I began to understand that something very different was happening,” he told me. “The mafia was making an explicit attempt to seize actual power in Italy. They were corrupting, or decapitating, the legitimate leadership of the civil state.”

Three successive developments accompanied this strategic leap, and brought its planners rewards beyond their dreams.

The first was that the mafia began to exploit the revolutions in transportation and communications that made a global marketplace possible in the 1970s, before most of the world’s legitimate governments recognized their im-portance. Starting with narcotics and then diversifying into other forms of contraband, including arms and explosives, organized crime became a pioneering force in international trade.

Vast cross-border networks were carefully established, which would eventually link organized crime groups from the Americas and Europe to Central and East Asia — the precursors to those “friends” who take care of Aliya and Sergei’s oil shipments — with a steadily increasing array of products flowing along the same routes that serve the heroin and cocaine trades.

The second, closely related development was the maturing of the borderless European community, today’s 15-member European Union, of which Italy was a founding member. To own Italy was to have unhampered access to the world’s largest single economy, with (by 1995) a $7-trillion-per-year gross domestic product and 372 million consumers.

The third development was the collapse of Communism, and the descent of the old Eastern bloc and much of the Third World into tribal civil war.


Pristina, the capital of Serbia’s Kosovo Province, is a film noir set made real. Its most conspicuous landmark is a sinister hotel, the Pristina Grand, run by one of the freelance Serb warlords who descend into neighboring Bosnia whenever the mood strikes, burning Muslim villages to the ground and carrying off everything of value that is portable.

In the first-floor lounge, men gather to discuss terms and payments into the small hours of every morning. In addition to Serbia, they come from Sicily and Turkey, Russia and France, Germany and Austria; they converse in the same rough pidgin English that Aliya and Sergei speak.

The Grand is the Waldorf Astoria of the clandestine arms trade. The men in the lounge sell assault rifles, grenades, napalm, mines, handheld and surface-to-air missiles, which are shipped from Italian and Spanish ports directly to the harbors of Kotor, Montenegro, and Split, Croatia, for trans-shipment into Bosnia and Serbia.

As in Moscow, as in the Castellammare hills, discretion is pointless at the Grand. Everyone in Kosovo knows that there are only two commodities to discuss in the endless negotiations here: weapons and human beings. And two currencies to pay for them: dollars and drugs.

Kosovo is 90 percent ethnic Albanian, and mostly Muslim. Its people are under the heel of a government in Belgrade that appears ever-more determined to make the province Serbian and Orthodox Christian again, as it was in the Middle Ages. With good reason, the Kosovo Albanians see themselves as the next candidates for ethnic cleansing; and the Bosnian tragedy suggests that no one in the outside world will take the risks necessary to help them.

No one, that is, except the masters of the Empire of Crime. In return for guns to defend themselves — and the greenbacks necessary to smuggle their wives and children to safety abroad — the Kosovo Albanians have become central players in the European drugs-for-arms trade. Organized crime reaps the profits. The wretched of the earth pay the price, which in the charnel house of ex-Yugoslavia already amounts to more than 250,000 dead and 3.7 million refugees.

These human numbers are mirrored in a vast flow of cash and contraband that keeps the armies on the march — and the refugee figures mounting. “The Serbs have financed a part of the war in ex-Yugoslavia thanks to counterfeiting, and also through the laundering of drug money deposited in 200 private banks or currency exchange offices,” said German Secret Services coordinator Bernd Schmid Bauer, following an inquiry into the sources of narcotics in his country. He estimates that $1.5 billion in drug profits were laundered in Serbia last year alone.

Vienna Police Commissioner M. Gunter Bogl says that “part” of the war is an understatement; he is convinced that international crime syndicates are playing “the dominant role” in the Balkan catastrophe. “Their profits are filling a war chest that is managed in ex-Yugoslavia by members of the Italian and Russian mafias,” he recently told journalists.

The term used to describe the Kosovo Albanians’ role in the drugs-for-guns trade is “camel.” By the hundreds, they cross the mountains, lakes, and seas that comprise affluent Europe’s outer frontiers — usually in the dead of night — carrying the mob’s narcotics in one direction and its laundered money in the other.

Pascal Auchlin, a criminologist at Switzerland’s National Center for Scientific Research, says, “Here and in half-a-dozen other Western countries, there is now an ant’s trail of individual drug traffickers, a trail that leads right to Kosovo.” Once inside the 15-nation European Union (or Switzerland, with which the Union has a free trade agreement), the camels and their cargo can move at will.

No one can be certain how many camels perish in this business. Empty boats often wash up, after howling Mediterranean storms, on the Spanish and Sicilian coasts. Decomposed bodies are discovered each spring in the Alps, when the seasonal thaw opens snowbound passes. Other camels are luckier — they’re caught. Currently, nearly 500 ethnic Albanians from ex-Yugoslavia are in prison on drug- or arms-trafficking charges in Switzerland, and more than 1,000 others are under indictment. “Law enforcement agencies are turning a blind eye on the big syndicates and focusing on the little people, the couriers — they are expendable,” says Bertil Lintner, a correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review who has traced the drugs-for-arms routes from Southeast Asia, through the former Soviet Union, to Europe.

In late November 1994, French judiciary police cracked a drug ring of Kosovo Albanians in Annecy. Swiss authorities believe the ring is connected to a group that has been operating in Switzerland for the last five years. According to the Observatoire Geopolitique des Drogues, “It is suspected that a drugs-for-guns swap (heroin for Beretta submachineguns) was to take place in Italy.”

The Kosovo Albanians have no monopoly on the lower, expendable ranks of the Empire. They are part of an immense tidal wave of desperation that will fuel organized crime recruiting long into the next century. Put simply, the world’s stateless nations — Kosovan Albanians, Kurds from Turkey and Iraq, Tamils from Sri Lanka, Chechens from Russia, Ibos and Ogoni from Nigeria, and hundreds of other tribes and ethnic groups whose names are not yet in the headlines — are the army-in-waiting of the new criminal superstate. Or the army already in the field, altering its composition at a rate that befuddles law enforcement authorities.

“From 1986 to 1988, 80 percent of the heroin in Spain was carried here by Tamil Tiger guerrillas working with Pakistani residents in Barcelona or Madrid,” says Julio Fernandez, chief of the Spanish national police’s drug squad in the province of Catalonia. “As soon as we destroyed that network with arrests, it was replaced by Kurds from Turkey, who completely dominated for the next two years. We moved against them in the early 1990s — and now it’s Africans.”

There are scores of stateless nations on the globe today, and at least 5,000 politically suppressed tribes, according to the Hague-based Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, a sort of United Nations of the dispossessed. Their population is in excess of 100 million. At least 20 of the 37 largest UNPO members are already at war against their nominal governments. Most of the rest are poised on the brink.


The sistema del potere is more than a power structure, Umberto Santino, Palermo’s leading authority on the Cosa Nostra, tells me. “It is an entire society,” he says, “A culture. A way of viewing the world.”

The sistema even favors its own urban-planning paradigm, a city “style” that prevails everywhere that the Empire of Crime sinks its roots. The great Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski describes it in Imperium, his recent account of a journey in post-Soviet Russia: “An elegant bank stands amid shabby apartment buildings; a luxurious hotel is surrounded by slums; from a brightly illuminated airport one plunges into the darkness of a grim, squalid city . . . .”

He could be describing Palermo. As in so much else that defines the Empire of Crime, Sicily is the imperial model. Its capital is a schizophrenic city, split by a sharp divide that runs north from the port, through the busy Piazza Castelnuovo and into a backdrop of mountains that separates Palermo from my ancestral Gulf of Castellammare.

On one side of the divide is the Borgo Vecchio, a picturesque but fetid and rotting medieval quarter, where young Palermitani learn the tricks of a trade many of them will practice for the rest of their short lives: the strong-arming of merchants, the care and handling of semiautomatic weapons, the psychology of intimidation. On the other side of the divide, stretching along the Via della Liberta, is a luxurious sprawl of high-rise apartment buildings, fashionable boutiques, and exclusive restaurants that can only be explained — like their Moscow counterparts — by crime.

Palermo has virtually no legitimate profitable industries or commercial significance. The Via della Liberta is awash in the cash benefits of the sistema’s global expansion. One estimate, by the French government, is that more than $20 billion per year in laundered cash alone winds up in this city. How much more, from other sources, is anyone’s guess. Palermo ranks a dismal 80th among Italian urban areas in reported per capita income — but a dynamic fifth in annual consumer spending.

Umberto Santino, a soft-spoken man of 55, lives on the divide, in an apartment just off the Piazza Castelnuovo. Every room is stuffed with papers: court proceedings, depositions, interviews, newspaper clippings in a dozen languages, police reports, crime studies, bank records. For 19 years, to the point of obsession, Santino has consecrated himself to the war against the mafia. The details of every Sicilian assassination are stored in this room. It was Santino who first warned — in 1984 testimony before the European Parliament that was ignored by the press and the parliamentarians alike — that the syndicates had penetrated the highest levels of the Italian government. That organized crime had embarked on an unprecedented, worldwide expansion.

Some police officials, like Catalonia’s Julio Fernandez, understand the connections. Some politicians and journalists have taken up the fight, in Sicily and elsewhere. There is even a body of thought — it’s a favorite theme of the New York Times — that the problem is under control. That a solution is at hand. The mob is on the run, the theory goes.

Umberto Santino’s face turns red when this theory is mentioned. After a two-year slump that inspired the optimistic assessment of the New York Times, the tide of mafia murders in Sicily has again reached a level of nearly one per day. “For the newspapers and television, it is a revolution simply because Andreotti is being investigated, and a few people like Toto Riina have been put in jail,” Santino says, referring to the disgraced former Italian prime minister, and the Corleone godfather, who was apprehended two years ago.

The investigations, the front-page arrests:
Santino calls them “distractions,” the smoke screen of
a grand conspiracy. “What if this is all
deliberate, the final weakening of the state before
the complete takeover?”

The question hangs between us in
the inert evening air. A generation or more
will pass before it can be fully answered.

pauses, reaches for a file box bulging with
documents, begins leafing through them. He shakes his
head, and turns his gaze to the window,
to the western sky, which is red-gold with
the approaching dusk. The Sicilian sun is beginning
to ease into the mountains, dipping toward the
Castellammare shore where the Gorbachevs dreamed of a
perfect world. “The killings aren’t over,” he says
suddenly. “The war is not over.”


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Mother Jones was founded to do things differently in the aftermath of a political crisis: Watergate. We stand for justice and democracy. We reject false equivalence. We go after, and go deep on, stories others don’t. And we’re a nonprofit newsroom because we knew corporations and billionaires would never fund the journalism we do. Our reporting makes a difference in policies and people’s lives changed.

And we need your support like never before to vigorously fight back against the existential threats American democracy and journalism face. We’re running behind our online fundraising targets and urgently need all hands on deck right now. We can’t afford to come up short—we have no cushion; we leave it all on the field.

Please help with a donation today if you can—even just a few bucks helps. Not ready to donate but interested in our work? Sign up for our Daily newsletter to stay well-informed—and see what makes our people-powered, not profit-driven, journalism special.

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