EUROPE: Mafia 'shifted allegiance to Berlusconi'
By Tony Barber in Rome
Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian Mafia, transferred its allegiance in the early 1990s from Italy's once dominant Christian Democrats to the new political party formed by Silvio Berlusconi, who later became prime minister, according to a mafioso who is collaborating with the authorities.
Antonio Giuffrè is giving testimony in the trial of Marcello Dell'Utri, a former company director in Mr Berlusconi's Fininvest business empire who now represents his centre-right Forza Italia party in the senate, or upper house of parliament.
Asked by Mr Dell'Utri's defence lawyers on Monday if the Mafia had jumped on Forza Italia's bandwagon because it wanted to back a winner, Mr Giuffrè replied: "Permit me to say that Cosa Nostra rides the best horses."
"We were all tired of the Christian Democrats. We found in this new formation [Forza Italia] a certain sense of excitement," he said.
Mr Dell'Utri's lawyers, whose client is charged with Mafia association, heaped scorn on Mr Giuffrè's testimony.
The alleged agreements between Cosa Nostra and Forza Italia were a fantasy, they said. The facts "categorically disproved Mr Giuffrè's version, given that the centre-left passed laws favourable to Cosa Nostra, while the centre-right introduced numerous measures against organised crime, " they said, adding: "Mr Giuffrè has shown he is a vagabond with language . . . at the moment when he is asked for specific names and circumstances, all one hears is silence."
Mr Giuffrè, regarded as one of the highest-ranking Mafia defectors of the past 20 years, was arrested last April and began to collaborate with prosecutors in June. He has testified in Mr Dell'Utri's trial and an appeals hearing in which prosecutors are seeking to overturn a lower court's verdict that found Giulio Andreotti, the dominant Christian Democratic political leader of the post-1945 era, not guilty of Mafia association.
One reason why the testimony of Mr Giuffrè continues to have resonance is, according to various Italian parliamentary inquiries, that Mr Andreotti's faction of the Christian Democratic party developed a power base in Sicily from the late 1960s onwards that depended on a working relationship with Cosa Nostra. This relationship disintegrated in 1992 when Italy's highest court struck the largest ever single blow against the Mafia by upholding guilty verdicts against more than 300 Mafia defendants in a so-called "maxi-trial".
According to several Mafia defectors, the decision infuriated Cosa Nostra, which had hoped that Mr Andreotti's lieutenants would put pressure on the court to quash the verdicts.
The subsequent collapse of the Christian Democratic party coincided with the rise of Forza Italia, which Mr Berlusconi used as a vehicle to sweep to power as prime minister in the national elections of 1994 and 2001.