Mon, Mar 30, 2009 - Page 6 News List

FEATURE : Bodyguards needed when judges get coffee in Italy

VACANCIES: Sicily has 55 unfilled magistrates’ posts, but the risks are so great that only four people have applied for what must be Italy’s most unpopular job

THE OBSERVER , CALTANISSETTA, ITALY

Tens of thousands of people march in Naples on March 21 to commemorate victims of the Mafia and demand an end to organized crime in southern Italy.

PHOTO: EPA

Finding five minutes in his 14-hour day to eat at his desk is tough enough for Sicilian magistrate Nicolo Marino. The real challenge is walking down the corridor to the espresso machine. That has required an armed escort ever since a Mafia clan tried to blow him up in his office more than a decade ago.

Sicilian by birth, Marino has the kind of intensity and energy needed to fight the Mafia in the hinterland town of Caltanissetta, but there are not many like him. While Italy’s jobless rates soar, only four applications trickled in to fill 55 empty positions for magistrates in Sicily this year, making it the most unpopular job in Italy, possibly in Europe.

“Will the Mafia kill me? You just never think about it,” said Marino, who has signed 500 Mafia arrest warrants in four years at the solid wooden desk he inherited from a magistrate who was murdered by mobsters in Palermo in 1980.

Following the spectacular arrests of bosses Bernardo Provenzano and Salvatore Lo Piccolo as well as the mounting resistance by businesses to paying the pizzo, as protection money is known, Sicily’s Cosa Nostra has been described as on the back foot.

But the Mafia is very much on the minds of prosecutors at the crumbling justice building in Caltanissetta, which sits among grim tower blocks that edge out into the rolling hills, citrus orchards and eucalyptus copses of central Sicily.

About 700 Cosa Nostra affiliates lurk in the province, pressuring well over half the shops in the town to pay pizzo and forcing public works contractors to hand over an estimated 10 million euro (US$13.3 million) a year — 2 percent to 3 percent on contracts — to avoid workplace “accidents.”

Last week felt like old times in Sicily. Marino arrested local mobsters suspected of planning to kidnap a Sicilian banker for ransom at Easter, while in Palermo a politician was sent a goat’s head, complete with a bullet in its forehead.

To stem the crime wave in Caltanissetta, the justice building has offices for seven anti-Mafia magistrates, but today only three are occupied, following the government’s decision in 2006 to stop dispatching young magistrates to earn their spurs in unpopular postings.

Of the four magistrates who applied to work in Sicily this year, none wanted to come to Caltanissetta.

Funding cuts imposed by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s cash-strapped administration, which halved the team’s spending in January, do not make the place more appealing.

After a frenetic morning spent meeting the clerks, policemen and lawyers who line up outside his office, Marino dons a robe to duck into a courtroom on the second floor, where a handsome man locked in a cage is calmly staring down anyone who dares to make eye contact with him.

Francesco Ghiando, a leading member of the local Mazzarino clan, stands accused of the shotgun slaying of two men he believed killed his brother in a drug-dealing dispute.

Ballistics evidence is given in a brief hearing, the case is adjourned to allow the judge to move on to another trial and Marino is back in the corridor with his bodyguards.

“Trials are staggered like this because we need them opened quickly so that pre-trial custody orders for suspects don’t expire,” he said.

Down the corridor from Marino’s crowded office, fellow anti-Mafia prosecutor Stefano Luciani has hung photos of his home city, Rome, behind his desk, leaving space for a framed shot of his heroes, magistrates Paolo Borsellino and Giovanni Falcone, both assassinated by the Mafia in 1992.

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