Italy hopes to regain turf in battle against Mafia

August 18, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

TAURIANOVA, Italy -- There were no police around the day the Mafia came calling.

The date was May 3, the time 5:30 in the afternoon, the place a small neighborhood grocery store on the Via Solferino.

Owner Giuseppe Grimaldi, 54, was standing behind the deli counter when he saw the hit men coming. He grabbed a long, sharp knife made for slicing bread and cheese.

Before he could use it, he was shot dead. So was his brother, Giovanni.

The killers took the bread knife and cut off Giuseppe's head. Then they tossed the severed head into the air, time and again, pumping bullets into it. Target practice.

The next night, hit men, disguised as police, opened fire on the mourning Grimaldi family, wounding the dead man's son, Roberto, 23, and his daughter, Rosita, 13.

It was all part of a three-day orgy of violence in this little town near the toe of the Italian boot, an orgy triggered when the local crime boss, a city councilor named Rocco Zagari, was gunned down in a barbershop.

What happened in Taurianova, the brazenness and brutality of it all, has underscored the fact that the Italian government has been losing ground in its on-again, off-again war against the organized crime families who still dominate the regions of Calabria, Campania and Sicily -- the heart of the Italian south.

In all, there were five separate attacks and five dead bodies.

Agostino Cordova, the area's chief prosecutor, finds the situation deeply frustrating and maddeningly typical.

"These killings happen in broad daylight on main streets in the center of town, and nobody knows anything, even the relatives," he said in an interview in his apartment, while two police officers stood guard on the street below.

The killings have served to prod the government in Rome into action, or at least activity, although it remains to be seen 'N whether this anti-Mafia offensive will be any more successful than previous ones.

Government officials have, in effect, declared that little, bloodstained Taurianova -- an undistinguished town of crumbling stone facades and fewer than 15,000 people -- is to become a Mafia-free zone.

It will not be easy. Finding the Grimaldis' killers would be a good place to start.

The authorities think they know what happened. Their theory is that the killing of Giuseppe Grimaldi was part of a bloody yearlong war for control of the Mafia in Taurianova.

The stakes in the war were high. A huge, coal-fired power plant is to be built in the area, a project involving hundreds of millions of dollars with the Mafia sure to take its cut. As various factions of Mafiosi began maneuvering for the spoils, the level of violence escalated.

Officials aren't sure of who belongs to what Mafia faction. But they are quite sure that the battle began May 22, 1990, with the slaying of the local crime boss.

Hostilities quickly shifted into high gear. In one 24-day period last summer, there were five separate shooting incidents. Four men were killed. One who was targeted but survived was an alleged (( Mafia soldier named Vincenzo Grimaldi, 20, the younger son of Giuseppe Grimaldi.

Vincenzo, whose role in this drama is unclear, was shot at again March 17 this year, this time in northern Italy. Again, he escaped.

On May 2, the new boss of Taurianova, Rocco Zagari, was gunned down in the barber chair. His henchmen set about getting revenge.

Once more, Vincenzo Grimaldi was one of their prime targets. If they could not find him, apparently, then any Grimaldi would do -- father, mother, uncle, brother, sister.

Still, had it not been for the way in which Giuseppe Grimaldi's corpse was mutilated, this might have been seen as just another internal gangland skirmish that law-abiding citizens could safely ignore.

"When the Mafia kills in the normal way, nobody pays any mind," said Mr. Cordova, the prosecutor. "When they cut someone's head off, everybody pays attention."

In any event, officials in Rome responded with unusual vigor. On May 30, the government of Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti gave itself the power to dissolve any local authority deemed to have been infiltrated by the Mafia, appoint new interim officials from outside and keep them in place for up to 18 months.

It then dissolved the Taurianova City Council, on which Mr. Zagari had served. He had been considered the right-hand man of the town's political boss, Francesco Macri.

Mr. Macri, whose family has dominated the town's politics for generations, was ousted from his power base, the local health authority, source of 1,200 jobs. Mr. Macri was widely known as Mazzetta, an Italian word meaning a stack of paper money. His connections to the Mafia have been long suspected though never proved.

On May 31, a new police station was opened a few hundred yards from the Grimaldi grocery. Two members of the national Cabinet, the justice minister and the interior minister, came to Taurianova from Rome for the ceremony.

Local people think all this federal attention is great. But they wonder whether it will have any lasting impact.

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