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The Mafia's Gauntlet

THE brutal killing last Sunday of Italian Judge Paolo Borsellino and five bodyguards in Palermo is a reminder of the Mafia's deep entrenchment in parts of Italian society.

Judge Borsellino was an associate of Judge Giovanni Falcone, the anti-Mafia investigator murdered May 23, along with his wife and three bodyguards. The two judges were at the core of Italy's anti-Mafia effort, including a series of trials in the 1980s that led to hundreds of convictions.

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It was their very success that made the two heroic judges targets for revenge. Borsellino was explicitly warned by informers before he was slain that gangsters were planning his assassination.

"We're looking at a very clear strategy by the Mafia to kill, one by one, inexorably, all those who have understood and accumulated knowledge about the Mafia," says Pino Arlacchi, a noted expert on organized crime.

This is the challenge to Italy. No group in a democratic society can be a law to itself. The government must take strong action to convince the public - and the judges and police who are on the front line of the struggle - that it means business and that it can protect its servants. New Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato should immediately move for enactment into law of a temporary Cabinet decree issued in June that affords greater protection for informers and makes it easier to detain suspected Mafio si.

The Amato government should also move quickly to appoint a chief for its new anti-Mafia agency, a post that had been given to Falcone, and for which Borsellino was being considered. Italy needs to put the same priority on combating the Mafia that it did on breaking the Red Brigades terrorists in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But it will be far more difficult for Italy to expunge the Mafia because of the organization's historic roots in Sicily, and because so many Christian Democratic and other politici ans are beholden to organized crime.

A good starting point for investigation will be in the Justice Ministry itself. Many Italians want to know why the supposedly secret movements of the two judges were known to the Mafia. The stunning successes of the FBI against the Mafia in the United States show the absolute necessity of an uncorrupt and trustworthy justice agency.

Given the links between the Mafia in Sicily and the US, Washington has every interest in seeing Italy overcome this scourge. The FBI has cooperated in the investigation of the Falcone killing. The Bush administration should ensure that all relevant US government agencies continue to assist Rome in ways consistent with Italy's sovereignty.

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