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Sunday, October 25, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sicily's Towns Are Mafia Battleground -- Italian Government's Anti- Crime Drive Faces Crucial Test In Small Cities

AP

GELA, Sicily - The taunts on the concrete wall were scrawled with black spray paint practically under the noses of mob bosses.

"No to the Mafia. Welcome to Gela. Free Gela."

Not unexpectedly in this city, where sidewalks have been stained almost daily with blood, nobody was boasting openly that the graffiti were theirs. But, remarkably, days after the battle cry was painted on the turf of one of Gela's feuding crime families, no one had whitewashed it away.

Whether such daring develops into determined action in backward towns and small cities across Sicily will be crucial to the success of the state's renewed pledge to defeat the centuries-old evil force called the Mafia.

The state has far to go on its promises. Many places, like Gela, don't have enough investigators. High unemployment means that many more young people become easy recruits for mobsters seeking drug runners, extortionists and killers for hire.

DECEPTIVE IMPRESSION

To some outsiders, Sicily of late has been perceived as shedding its image as a land hopelessly resigned to Mafia control. But that impression is somewhat deceptive, for it's largely shaped by Palermo, which doesn't represent the largely hardened heart of Sicily, made up of country villages, mountain hamlets and coastal resorts.

Compared with the Sicilian capital, anti-Mafia rallies and organizations are relatively rare in the backwaters. But like the anonymous graffiti artist, some people in Gela, especially the young, are challenging the Mafia.

If a spirit of rebellion can take root in this ugly and corrupt little city, then there's hope for the rest of Sicily.

The Piovra, or Octopus, as it's also called, has wrapped its tentacles tightly around many local governments, Gela's among them.

Interior Ministry investigations indicated politicians were related to, friends with, or in the pocket of Mafiosi, or else so intimidated by them that they couldn't make fair decisions, especially in the parceling out of public works contracts, the lifeblood of the underdeveloped south's economy.

This summer, under the provision of a year-old national law, Gela's city council was disbanded. The central government in Rome appointed three of its own officials to administer the city's affairs.

Several other Sicilian towns also have been put under Rome's temporary control, including Capaci, along the autostrada linking Palermo to its seaside airport.

Capaci's government was suspended 17 days after a bomb hidden in a culvert under the highway blew up as Italy's anti-Mafia hero, Judge Giovanni Falcone, was driving from the airport to Palermo. The blast on May 23 killed Falcone, his wife, and three police escorts.

Investigators believe the remote-control bomb was detonated from a house on a rise just outside Capaci.

The Octopus also has in its grip Sicilian shopkeepers and other business owners, who pay hundreds or thousands of dollars a month in extortion money to shield their store or trucks or cars from bombs.

Gela's Deputy Prosecutor Roberto De Felice says its hard to tell just how many are resigned to paying the "pizzo" because "people here don't talk."

Gela, Sicily's fourth-largest city with 80,000 residents, sits on a hill on the edge of a coastal plain skirting the island's mountainous heart. It's 140 miles over the mountains from Palermo and at least a decade in mentality away.

In Palermo, women hold hunger strikes from the 19th to the 23rd of each month in the main square to commemorate the assassination of Falcone and the killing on July 19 of Paolo Borsellino, Falcone's heir in the Mafia war. The women demand justice for them and the scores of other killings blamed on the Mafia in the last 20 years.

Investigations led by Falcone and Borsellino put hundreds of Mafiosi behind bars - many for decades.

Borsellino and five police bodyguards were blown up by a car bomb outside an apartment building where he went to pay a Sunday visit to his elderly mother.

WHITE SHEETS

Protesting the state's failure to stop organized crime violence, residents of Palermo drape white sheets painted with anti-Mafia slogans from balconies. Bookstores, sometimes two or three to a block, have display window shelves filled with books by and about Mafia investigators, including Falcone's best-seller, "Cose di Cosa Nostra" (Things About Cosa Nostra), a kind of last testament of what he learned about the Mafia.

Gela residents put out no dangling, slogan-painted bedsheets, just laundry strung from windows of never-finished apartment buildings. Instead of bookshops, here the main street is lined with grocery stores and fruit stalls, coffee bars and gas stations.

The Mafia often recruits hit men for "run-of-the mill" murders from among the thousands of Gela's jobless teenage boys and young men. They can earn $185 to $280 for a killing, De Felice says. They're also hired to torch the property of merchants who refuse to pay the "pizzo."

Gela city officials turn a blind eye to construction without a plan and without a permit, sometimes in exchange for money or a favor. As a result, there are few nice houses here, if you don't include the housing put up by EniChem, a sprawling state petrochemical plant along the coast.

Around the rest of the town, nearly all the buildings are three or four stories, with families living on the first floor or two. The top floors stay unfinished for a generation or more, making for a kind of inhabited ghost town.

Gela, inhabited during the second millennium B.C., is one of Sicily's oldest towns. Its decline began when the local tyrant Gelon defeated the Carthaginians in 480 B.C. and moved his reign to Syracuse.

For most of the past decade it looked like Gela would succumb to modern tyrants, two power-hungry Mafia clans, the Madonia and Ianni-Cavallo families, dueling for control over extortion rings and public contracts.

(Giuseppe Madonia, considered No. 2 in the Cosa Nostra and long sought by police, was arrested in early September in the northern city of Vicenza in what was seen as a major triumph for investigators.)

Until the 1980s, the Mafia's presence here brought little bloodshed. Then the clans began killing, with shootings increasing until there were sometimes two or three a day.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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