Taking on the mob

A crackdown in Italy has netted 17 of the 30 most-wanted fugitives

The code name for last week’s anti-Mafia raid, at least among the more than 1,200 Italian police officers who carried out the nearly 100 Mafiosi arrests in Palermo and Tuscany, was “Perseus.” The name refers to the Greek mythological hero who killed Medusa by cutting off her head—and it’s meant to embody the renewed Italian commitment to “decapitate” the Mafia elite. For Peter Schneider, a retired sociology professor who studied organized crime in Italy for decades, the reference is not entirely apt. He describes Italian crime rings as “hydra-like”: “You cut off one head, and three or four others sprout immediately.”

Either way, it’s clear that heads are rolling. In just the last few months, police have nabbed 17 of the country’s 30 most-wanted fugitives. The blitz, dubbed “historic” by anti-Mafia forces, has targeted all major crime syndicates: the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, the Naples-based Camorra, and Calabria’s ’Ndrangheta. A critical win was the arrest of Gianni Nicchi, said to be the Cosa Nostra’s No. 2, early this month. Another was the Dec. 1 sweep of southern Italy—the grand finale of operation “Domino,” which decimated the Parisi clan and allowed officials to confiscate assets totalling nearly $374 million.

If you believe the many prosecutors and officials who are celebrating this latest siege, the “decapitation” might indeed appear lasting. “With Operation Perseus,” explained Pietro Grasso, head of the anti-Mafia prosecution services, “we have stopped [the Mafia] from rising up again, by cutting off all [its] strategic, thinking heads.” The raids have been a “decisive blow,” Defence Minister Ignazio La Russa agrees. At the least, it would seem that Italy’s organized crime rests on fragile ground. Said Justice Minister Angelino Alfano: “The Mafia is on its knees. Now we want to deal the killing blow.”

Then again, these kinds of political divinations have been made before. In the 1920s, Benito Mussolini pledged to eradicate the Mafia, which had by then been making trouble in Sicily for about 50 years. That was followed by more than 11,000 arrests and many trials. Decrying earlier “half-hearted attempts” to crack down on the Mafiosi’s’ “fiendish devilry,” a 1927 Time magazine article celebrated “Signor Mussolini,” who had at last “dared to put down their wholesale lawlessness.”

Some say that this recent campaign marks a more modern turning point. Peter Schneider explains that things came to a head a few years ago, when gang warfare broke out around Naples and it became obvious that southern Italy was “Europe’s largest drug supermarket.” It became a national embarrassment, he says, and “the authorities were under pressure to intervene.” Added to that, says Schneider, was an “avalanche of pentiti: Mafiosi who, “caught between a rock and a hard place,” became police informants.

John Dickie, author of Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia, says that these latest arrests have been a long time coming—and are the fruit of a “cumulative successful effort.” It began in the 1980s with the Maxi trial, which put hundreds of Sicilian criminals in the accused’s box. The two prosecutors of that case were famously murdered in 1992 and have since been revered as anti-Mafia martyrs. But Dickie agrees that “the Sicilian Mafia has been absolutely devastated recently.” The commission of Mafia chiefs, he says, has not even been able to meet since 1993.

But if the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, which used to run the Italian crime show, is indeed in its death throes, the once-secondary Naples Camorra is gaining ground. Tom Behan, author of The Camorra, says that the Camorra has “managed to recycle itself better.” It has responded to crackdowns by extending its reach into legal industries, like municipal trash collection. The Camorra, explains Behan, is different from the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, whose image has been made universal with The Godfather films and The Sopranos TV series. Unlike the Cosa Nostra, the Camorra lacks a federal structure and is not as dependent on large crime families. It has no “precise boundaries” or “agreement between competing gangs,” says Behan, factors that make the Camorra more prone to inter-group violence, but also harder for authorities to track. (The Camorra itself might be nostalgic for the old days of Sicilian rule. When Giuseppe Bastone, a Camorra leader, was located this summer in an underground bunker, police found a DVD copy of The Godfather among his scant possessions.)
But there are other signs that the face of Italian crime is changing. “It’s not just psychopaths with guns on street corners” anymore, says Behan. For starters, there’s a growing gender shift, as more women take the criminal reins. In July, for instance, police busted an 81-year-old woman in Sicily known as “the Godmother.” There’s also a new preference for white-collar leaders: bosses who are not street fighters, but are lawyers, doctors and entrepreneurs.

But the Mafia is still kicking, as Italy’s prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, has found out. A notable Mafia turncoat, Caspare Spatuzza, has alleged that Berlusconi was in cahoots with the mob in the early 1990s. He also claims that Berlusconi was involved in a Mafia bombing campaign in 1993. The messenger in this case is not the most reliable: Spatuzza is serving a life sentence for murder. On the other hand, Marcello Dell’Utri, Berlusconi’s former right-hand man, has already been convicted of ties to the Cosa Nostra. Berlusconi has made light of the situation. “Do you have problems with the Mafia?” he joked when meeting workers in Olbia last month. “Don’t worry—I am the Mafia!” But the PM went out of his way to herald some recent arrests, stressing that he had “done more than anyone else” to tackle organized crime—a sign that the Mafia, and allegations of ties to it, can still sting.