ROME (Reuters) - Italy risks falling back into the kind of political violence that scarred the country during the 1970s, President Giorgio Napolitano said on Wednesday at a commemoration for anti-mafia judge Giovanni Falcone who was murdered 20 years ago.
Speaking days after a deadly bomb attack on a school named after Falcone’s wife, who died with him in a huge explosion set off by mafia killers on May 23, 1992, Napolitano said Italy faced a deadly threat to its future.
He warned that organized crime groups could try to profit from the widespread mood of uncertainty and discontent caused by the economic crisis to provoke a return to the kind of bloody upheaval seen in the 1970s “Years of Lead”.
“The mafia, Cosa Nostra and other forms of organized crime remain a serious problem for Italian society and thus for democracy,” he said at the Ucciardone prison in Palermo, Sicily, scene of a trial led by Falcone of hundreds of mafiosi in the 1980s.
“We cannot rule out that they might even try a savage return to terrorist violence bearing the stamp of that (the 1970s)carnage,” he said in a speech.
The stark tone of Napolitano’s comments underline the mounting alarm felt by political leaders at the turbulent social climate that has developed as the economic crisis has deepened over the past months.
Italy has lived with the reality of the mafia for decades but a fresh series of political scandals and attacks on the main tax collection agency have fuelled a loss of respect for the authority of some of the main state institutions.
At the same time, the shooting of a senior nuclear industry executive this month in an attack claimed by an anarchist group has heightened fears of a return to the political violence carried out by the Red Brigades and other extremist groups.
Prime Minister Mario Monti, who also attended commemoration events for Falcone on Wednesday, said the mafia was still deeply entrenched in Italian life and had moved well outside its original bases in the south to permeate the more prosperous north and beyond Italy.
“It’s an illusion to think that you can beat Cosa Nostra only in Palermo, L’ndrangheta only in Reggio Calabria and the Camorra only in Naples,” Monti said, referring to the three main branches of the mafia in Sicily, Calabria and Campania.
Saturday’s school bombing in the southern town of Brindisi, in which a 16 year-old girl was killed and five other teenagers seriously injured, is still unsolved but it appears not to have been connected with the mafia, as originally feared.
But Interior Minister Annna Maria Cancellieri still branded it as “terrorism” and the tense national mood hung heavily over the commemoration for Falcone.
The death of Falcone and fellow judge Paolo Borsellino, killed just weeks later by a mafia bomb, caused a profound shock to Italian society and contributed to the downfall of the old Italian political order after the “Bribesville” corruption scandals of the 1990s.
The two judges were responsible for putting hundreds of leading mafiosi behind bars but they complained repeatedly of being isolated by politicians many believed were in some way complicit with mafia interests.
However their reputation as postwar Italy’s greatest heroes has been firmly established in the years since and there was blanket media coverage of the commemoration ceremonies by Italian newspapers and television stations.
The tributes to Falcone and Borsellino from all sides of the political spectrum, however, have not been matched by success in the fight against organized crime, which has changed and adapted to become if anything more powerful.
Editing by Susan Fenton