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Town Tries to End Mafia Tie

THE road to Corleone passes through rolling hills of farmland. Tractors of various dimensions regularly sputter up and down its streets.

In many ways it's like other quiet Italian towns. In the morning, elderly people sit in the central square and chat in the local dialect. Young people meet there in the afternoon or listen to American disco music at a snack bar. About half the people getting out of their cars in this town of 12,000 don't lock them.

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But Corleone isn't any Italian town. It is the birthplace of Salvatore Riina, the Sicilian Mafia's supreme leader. Mr. Riina, who is now in prison, says he knows nothing about Cosa Nostra, as the Italian Mafia is known to its initiates. He is just a simple, illiterate peasant, he says.

But Mafiosi call Mr. Riina "the beast" and with good reason. His Corleone faction emerged triumphant after he allegedly massacred his enemies inside and outside Cosa Nostra in Palermo's 1980s Mafia wars.

The fact that the ruthless Mafiosi of Corleone are dominant in Cosa Nostra today does nothing for the good name of the town. "Corleone is known as a Mafia town and nothing else," admits Mayor Giuseppe Cipriani.

It's an image he wants to change. Mr. Cipriani, an ex-Communist and an ex-trade-union leader, won 69 percent of the vote in a runoff election in 1993.

He was elected on an anti-Mafia platform at a time when Italians wanted to make a clear break with the past - after the Mafia assassinated two revered Palermo judges, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. There had also been revelations that dozens of national politicians had financed their parties and their personal bank accounts with kickbacks from businessmen.

"It was a moment in which the people of Sicily wanted to liberate themselves once and for all of their past," says Cipriani.

Riina's wife and children still live in Corleone and this morning his son Giovanni, wearing a bright green jacket and carrying a book bag, walks in the center of town with a friend. He is a large young man and, although he exudes a certain arrogance, he seems rather clumsy.

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"The father is the same way," says Dino Paternostro, a Corleone health-care worker. "If you see the father, you say, 'And this is the powerful boss of bosses?' "

Cipriani had engaged for a time in a dialogue with Antonietta Bagarella, Riina's wife and the sister of Leoluca Bagarella, another leading imprisoned Mafioso. Ms. Bagarella reportedly wanted to find a way to keep her son, Giovanni, out of Cosa Nostra.

But the dialogue broke off months ago. "In my opinion, it's a waste of time," says Mr. Paternostro, who edits New Cities, a monthly magazine dedicated to the rebirth of Corleone and the surrounding villages.

Speaking in his City Hall office, Cipriani says Corleone's biggest problem is unemployment. Since no one knows for sure how many people are out of work, the town has commissioned a sociologist to count the jobless, but Cipriani says the numbers are in line with those of the entire island of Sicily, where nearly 1 in 4 working-age people sought work last year.

"The level of unemployment is becoming unbearable," says Raffaele Turtula, a Palermo architect who is a consultant to Cipriani on cultural issues. "It's not only a problem in Corleone. It's a problem in all the southern cities."

Cipriani's office is open to everyone. Citizens don't hesitate to walk right in and tell him their problems. Dressed in a plaid shirt and jeans, he doesn't have the air of a professional politician. He declares he has no desire to grandstand.

About a year ago Cipriani received death threats himself. But it is not a subject he wants to discuss. "This story of the threats - we've never magnified them, we don't consider them serious," he says. "We've always tried to play it down, not to consider it anything but an attempt to waste our time and concentration."

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