Bar killings raise spectre of hydra-headed Mafia at war with local gangsters

 

As a start to the Sicilian new year, it could hardly have been worse. The scene of the crime was an Esso petrol station, just outside the town of Vittoria in southern Sicily. It is the sort of service station that has a look of innocent familiarity to anyone who travels by car in Italy, the sort of station where millions of Italians, on the move over the Christmas holiday period, might have stopped.

The two men who walked into this particular bar at about seven o'clock last Saturday night had no such intentions. Their faces hidden by stockings, they re-enacted a scene that might have come from a mobster movie about Al Capone and Chicago in the 1930s.

In the bar, they found five young men. One was sitting on a stool reading a paper, one was drinking a beer at the counter and the other three were sitting together at a table. Taking a quick look at each other, they each pulled out two long-barrelled pistols, probably equipped with silencers, and began to fire.

Within seconds, all five men had been hit and lay on the ground, probably dead. Leaving nothing to chance, the killers then stood over each victim and fired another bullet into the back of their heads.

Behind the counter, barman Sebastiano Lorefice crouched in terror and in tears, certain that he had but seconds to live. The killers, however, were not interested in him and ran out to a waiting car. Behind them they left a sickeningly familiar trail of devastation. TV images and news photos show five young men sprawled in awkward positions, lying on the bar's marble floor.

One of the victims lies on top of another in a ghastly embrace. Another lies on his back, his track suit bottoms down around his knees, an ungainly testament to the force of firepower that literally blew him off his feet.

Investigations into the killings are continuing, and even though 12 people were arrested on Mafia charges in the Vittoria area yesterday, those arrests were not immediately connected to the killings.

For the time being, as is often the case, witnesses seem able to offer police investigators little or no help. The barman was crouched behind his counter in terror while two employees working on the petrol pumps claim

they heard the shots but did not see the killers.

Perhaps omerta, the code of silence, is already at work.

Even at this early stage it seems almost certain that Saturday's killings were the result of mobster warfare about disputed "territory", a warfare perhaps involving Cosa Nostra and a rival, smalltime crime syndicate known in Sicily as Le Stidde.

Three of the five men killed had criminal records and were believed to have links to the local stidde. The other two appear to have been "mistakes", perhaps killed for no other reason than that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Salvatore Ottone (21) and Rosario Salerno (27) were friends, football fans and supporters of the local team, Vittoria Calcio, who regularly met in the bar to play the football pools and argue soccer.

These latest Mafia killings have inevitably prompted reactions of horror and protest, with figures such as the Junior Defence Minister, Massimo Brutti, and the Catania State Prosecutor, Mario Busacca, suggesting that, not for the first time, the Italian state has dropped its guard in its long-running battle with organised crime.

Ironically, that response could prove mistaken. It may well be that last Saturday's killings were the result of a power-vacuum created by the recent efficacy of the state's fight against the Mafia, a fight greatly helped by the increasing numbers of mafiosi who elect to turn state's witness.

We are back to the hydra aspect of the Mafia monster: chop off one head by arresting a godfather, and two new ones appear in his place. At stake in a town like Vittoria is, above all, an extortion racket. Le Stidde is reportedly 90 per cent made up of small-time sheep farmers who supplement their incomes by claiming protection money; £220 per month for a shop, £6,000 per year for a stall at the fruit and vegetable market and £100 for every lorry or container to be unloaded at the market.

Although he convened a special summit of police chiefs yesterday, the Prime Minister, Massimo d'Alema, rejected calls for further emergency legislation or for army reinforcements to be sent into Sicily, as happened earlier this decade.

Without in any way underestimating the Mafia phenomenon, the Prime Minister was probably right when he said on radio yesterday: "Ours is a strange country. There's always somebody ready to say that we're . . . in a state of catastrophe. But that's not so, you cannot say that organised crime has grown. The contrary is the truth . . .

"However, the Italian state has far from won its battle with the Mafia. We need to keep fighting ceaselessly, probably permanently, because our organised crime has very deep roots."