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Mafia takes a lower profile

CORLEONE, Italy - Here in the harsh, tawny hills of central Sicily, proud residents of Corleone are trying to take back the name that has become synonymous with the Cosa Nostra.

That nasty reputation of their town as a home for murderous thugs is simply mistaken, they say. Oh, sure, directions are often given in relation to the sites of famous slayings ("turn right where they offed the Bandito Giuliano ... "). And the wives and children of some of Sicily's most notorious Mafia dons (jailed or on the lam) live in Corleone.

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But take the town's "Mafia tour," as 1,700 tourists have so far this year, and a visitor hears about not only the local history of organized crime but also the efforts of a handful of brave souls to fight it.

Corleone is trying hard to shed its image. But is the Mafia ever really very far away?

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"I think they're laughing at us," said Gino Felicetti, a young dentist who guides the Mafia tours. "They leave us alone for now. But if these tours ever take off and become moneymaking, they'll want to be part of it."

Like Corleone, the Mafia on this island of vineyards, ancient Greek temples and half-finished concrete buildings has spent the past few years carefully burnishing its public guise and courting a new air of respectability. But even if it rarely makes headlines these days, the Cosa Nostra is, in fact, flourishing.

Mafia capos have suspended their most vicious campaigns - the ones where they might blow up a prosecutor visiting his mother or melt a young boy in acid - and instead are running commercial enterprises, securing government construction contracts and calmly claiming protection money from vast numbers of Sicily's residents.

They have become a gentler breed of criminals, harder to fight, virtually impossible to stop.

"The Mafia today is less violent but much more infiltrated into daily life," said Silvana Saguto, a judge 25 miles away in the Sicilian capital, Palermo.

Saguto oversees a program that confiscates Mafioso property and assets as part of the punishment meted out by the courts. She estimates having seized or "sequestered" about 6 billion euros, or $7.5 billion, of assets in the past decade.

And yet, she readily acknowledges, it's a drop in the bucket. This is a losing battle.

"No economic activity is untouched by the Mafia," she said. "As soon as we arrest one criminal, another takes his place."

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The Cosa Nostra, along with its counterparts in the southern Italian provinces of Calabria, Campania and Puglia, will rake in this year profits equivalent to 10 percent of the national GDP, or about 100 billion euros, according to the Roman think tank Eurispes.

Although drug trafficking is the biggest moneymaker for these criminal organizations, Eurispes said, business corruption, construction deals and public works projects constitute a major source of income, and Sicily's Cosa Nostra leads the pack in such pursuits.

In Corleone, a town of 11,000, Antonino Iannazzo, deputy mayor, said residents who would have run in terror in years past are now happy to point out to visitors the houses where native-son mobsters lived. That courage seems born of a kind of mutually tolerated coexistence.

"The Mafia is always active, but they are acting in a more hidden way," Iannazzo, 30 and a member of the right-wing National Alliance Party, said in an interview in his office, where three photographs of Benito Mussolini grace the wall.

One of the world's most enduring criminal organizations, the Mafia was formed in Sicily's central farmland to defend feudal barons, especially from peasants who eventually demanded land.

By the middle of the 19th century, it had evolved into a loose network of crooks, thieves and hired guns.

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Built on the foundation of secretive Sicilian clans, the Mafia grew to control numerous Sicilian villages and towns by the early 20th century. When Italy's Fascists rose to power, dictator Mussolini coveted the territory and suppressed the Mafiosi who were in charge, throwing many into prison.

His crackdown on the Mafia made its members natural allies of U.S. forces that invaded Sicily during World War II. The Americans in turn allowed Mafiosi to become mayors across Sicily, and over time they moved from agriculture to urban businesses, construction in particular.

All the Mafia clans were violent, but the most savage was the Corleone gang. Writer Mario Puzo gave the town's name to his fictional "Godfather," Don Vito Corleone, in his 1969 opus, which became the basis for the classic film trilogy.

Although most of the thousands of Mafia murders through the generations had involved internal feuds and vendettas, the Corleone mobsters aimed their guns and bombs at public figures, including judges, police officers and uncooperative politicians.

"The massacres" is how the period is referred to here.

In 1992, crusading anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone was blown up as he drove from the Palermo airport to the city. His wife and three police bodyguards were killed with him.

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Two months later, the chief prosecutor for Palermo, Paolo Borsellino, met a similar fate. A car bomb outside his mother's apartment building killed him and five bodyguards as he arrived for a visit.

The carnage unleashed a backlash. The Sicilian public rebelled, tougher laws and longer jail sentences were enacted and, for a period, authorities scored significant victories in their fight against the Mafia.

After the arrest in 1993 of Salvatore "The Beast" Riina - the Boss of Bosses - the Mafia under his successor, Bernardo "The Tractor" Provenzano, made a strategic decision to temper its methods, lower its profile and stick to the lucrative but less-visible business of corruption and protection rackets.

And thus it became what Palermo's chief prosecutor, Piero Grasso, calls the Invisible Mafia. It keeps out of the limelight, uses persuasion instead of murder and has gradually, quietly expanded its grip on Sicilian economic life.

Gone are the days when gangsters charged a handful of businesses exorbitant extortion fees. Now an estimated 80 percent of all Palermo's shopkeepers pay some amount of protection money - known as the pizzo.

It's part of the new style, Grasso said, citing today's mantra: "Pagare tutti, pagare meno," which essentially means "everyone pays less, but everyone pays." And no one goes to the police, Grasso said, speaking during an interview at Palermo's fortress-like Justice Ministry. Six of his bodyguards sat just outside his office.

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Everyone in Palermo knows which Mafia family controls his neighborhood or the neighborhood of his place of business. From recovering stolen property to getting permits to open a shop, the Mafia has a hand in it. A legitimate business might secure a big building contract legally, but Mafiosi will then tell it where to buy cement or which ditch-diggers to hire.

"The Mafia doesn't even need to threaten anymore: People look to the Mafia and seek it out for favors," said Enrico Bellavia, a Sicilian journalist and author of a book on the Cosa Nostra.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.


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