10 MARCH 1990, Page 33

It all started at a dinner in Palermo

Caroline Moorehead


Hamish Hamilton, £15.99, pp. 384

Claire Sterling cduld not have picked a better moment to bring out a book on the mafia. With the much publicised acquittal on murder charges of John Gotti, the boss of the New York Gambino family last month, and the recent drug summit in Colombia, the public has been sharply reminded of the power of the so-called `octopus' whose many tentacles she seeks to pin down and describe.

The Mafia opens in New York, in the winter of 1977, with a meeting between an undercover policeman called Le Vien, and Enzo Napoli, a boastful mafia operator who Le Vien had been slowly setting up. Napoli was a very acceptable catch in that not only were his own powers consider- able, but he was beginning to hint at the existence of an immense international net- work dealing in arms, counterfeit money and above all drugs. Then Le Vien's superiors abruptly lost interest, and closed the investigation down. Le Vien was out- raged, but even he had not realised the enormity of what he had just missed: not simply the biggest heroin circuit in the world, but the fact that it was all being run by the Sicilian mafia, from Palermo. In the late 1970s, no one, either in Sicily or America, had any inkling of the drug plague which was about to explode.

The Mafia is an enquiry into the roots of that plague. Claire Sterling traces its ori- gins to a four-day dinner-party in the Grand Hotel des Palmes in Palermo in October 1957, when American and Sicilian bosses came together to form a 'paramilit- ary pyramid' and to agree that the Sicilians would take over the import and distribu- tion of heroin in the USA. From here, she follows the fortunes of mafia bosses, like Luciano Leggio (who is thought to have masterminded most of the drug war from his cell in L'Ucciardone prison in Palermo) and their soldiers, the battles for suprema- cy among the mafia families, and the great mafia war of 1981-3, which left over a thousand people dead and put an end to the old 'good mafia' with its men of honour and ancient codes. She was herself present at some of the `maxi-processe, the mass trials of several hundred mafia suspects for extortion, intimidation and murder; and describes the new breed of 'super-pentiti' or super-grasses, whose singing has pro- vided ordinary Sicilians with a decade of fascination and horror, but shamefully few convictions.

The recent history of Sicily is in fact one of extreme violence by the mafia and great courage on the part of a handful of judges, journalists, policemen and investigating magistrates. Claire Sterling rightly pays tribute to the 'distinguished cadavers', as they have become known, men like the magistrate Rocco Chinnici, or the com- munist party secretary Pio la Torre, or Gaetano Costa, Palermo's attorney gener- al, murdered for challenging, each in their own way, mafia power on the island.

She is somewhat less generous in ack- nowledging either the findings or the brav- ery of the other handful of men who have been studying and describing the mafia phenomenon for years, academics like Pino Arlacchi, whose work she dismisses in a single sentence, or Umberto Santino, who runs a research centre on the mafia in Palermo, at extraordinary personal risk, and whose name is not mentioned at all. Both these men, and others like them, have been analysing mafia power for years, coming to many of the conclusions pre- sented as fundamentally new in this book. Sterling quotes Arlacchi as saying that the mafia, in the sense of a hierarchical secret society, does not exist; whereas in Mafia Business, published in 1983, Arlacchi argued not simply that the mafia was a band of highly organised urban criminals, but that it had to be dealt with at a financial level, with radical reform of the banking laws, seizure of illegally acquired property and proper investigations into the colossal fortunes responsible for what Sicilians were already describing as Palermo's 'mini- boom'.

However, no more than the researchers has Claire Sterling been able to establish anything fresh or concrete about the long accepted links between the Christian Democrat politicians and the mafia. She devotes only two pages to the question, and merely reaffirms 'the collusion of certain Christian Democrat leaders'. A real investigation into the precise political and economic ties between party and mafia would indeed be riveting.

The Mafia opens well and promises much. The story Claire Sterling has to tell is gripping and she has gathered together an impressive collection of details about the comings and goings of mafia men of honour over the last 30 years. But there are just too many of them. What starts as an engrossing tale soon loses itself in a jumble of dates, murders, arrests, trials, releases, meetings, police reports and the criss- crossing of the Atlantic by a huge cast of characters whose names and identities rapidly blur. The chronology alone is chaotic. What emerges is a terrifying, confused and highly sensationalised picture of a world hooked on drugs, manipulated by a many-tentacled secret society, patrol- led by police too incompetent or too unimaginative to recognise what is going on. As with The Terror Network, Claire Sterling's earlier assertions about the KGB and international terrorism, sources and attributions are given no clear weighting, so it is hard to separate conjecture from fact. For a description of an organisation nurtured in the shadows, The Mafia deals curiously confidently in blacks and whites. Belief in conspiracies depends ultimately on the credibility of the author: The Terror Network makes one uneasy. The sole independent witness to anything irregular going on at the 1957 Grand Hotel dinner party, for instance, seems to have been a waiter, serving drinks, who overheard highly eliptical fragments of conversation.

It is a pity, for the workings of the mafia are indeed alarming, and becoming more so, as drugs spread, and police on either side of the Atlantic are unable to curb them. There is, as she correctly warns, a new and terrible dimension: the abolition, in 1992, of the Common Market internal borders and all that that will mean for drug runners. 'Not even they', she concludes, `might have expected as much of an oblig- ing world: a mafia without frontiers'.