Mafia-hunter who needs bodyguards to visit his office coffee machine

Sicily has 55 unfilled magistrates' positions, yet the risk is such that only four people have applied for the most unpopular job in Italy

Finding five minutes in his 14-hour day to eat at his desk is tough enough for Sicilian magistrate Nicolò 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, pressurising well over half the shops in the town to pay pizzo and forcing public works contractors to hand over an estimated €10m (£9.3m) a year - 2% to 3% 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 Silvio Berlusconi's cash-strapped administration, which halved the team's spending in January, do not make the place more appealing.

"We are on our knees begging for the petrol to fill the three usable cars we have left," said Sergio Lari, head prosecutor in Caltanissetta. "We are not missionaries out here. We can't pay overtime and the magistrates are digging into their own pockets to go and visit turncoats in jail."

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 explained.

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.

"They are heroes for me because, despite challenges, they did their job," said the 37-year-old, who was a young law student when they were killed. Luciani now has that same job, and he claims it is the one he has always dreamed of, but it is not leaving him a life.

"Here it's just home to office to home and you think twice about making friends," said Luciani, who lives in an isolated house outside town to give his dog space, and is unruffled by the arson attack on a local judge's country house last year that nearly killed him and his family. "Experience suggests that, if they really want to get you, bodyguards can be a deterrent, but cannot stop them," he said.

To explain who "they" are, Luciani pulls out a map of the province, which is split into four mafia zones of control or "mandamenti", each with its own boss who in turn rules over local clans, 20 listed in all in a province with a population of 287,000.

Such intelligence is shaped by wiretaps, which bring magistrates right into the lives of their quarries. "When we arrested one extortionist, Pietro Riggio, I was interested to meet him, because I had listened in to his calls and found him an intelligent man who quotes Latin," said Luciani.

"I insist the magistrates build a knowledge of the clans," said Sergio Lari, "so that when they hear nicknames, like 'Pepe with the bad eye', for example, they know exactly who that is." Lari likened the battle to "two states facing off against each other", but recent arrests show the battle lines are blurred.

Riggio, who terrorised businesses in Caltanissetta for his clan, was a prison guard. A businessman reported two uniformed policemen demanding pizzo from him. "Do we fear moles in the justice building? Yes, it happens," said Luciani. "That's why documents circulating between offices are sealed."

For Marino, the mafia in Caltanissetta remains entrenched in society.

"Carmelo Barbieri, who is suspected of serving as the provincial boss of bosses, running all the mandamenti on behalf of jailed supremo Giuseppe Madonia - who was close to Provenzano - worked as a teacher before his arrest," he said.

Against such odds, said Lari, victories are being scored, but the empty offices in the justice building and the clapped-out cars outside give the mafia an edge at a crucial moment. "Businesses are finally rebelling against the pizzo, and they must not lose faith now or this moment will never happen again," he said.


Tom Kington in Caltanissetta

The GuardianTramp

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