Where crime rules

August 04, 1992

Colombia and Italy stand as object lessons in what can happen where crime is tolerated and criminals respected. Crime grows too strong. Whoever appears to govern, criminals do so in the shadows. When the time comes to crack down, it can't be done. Crime is immune to the law of society, and society cringes before the new law of crime.

For too long, the Mafia thrived in Sicily as the alternative to feudal controls holding the people down. Governments were content to see an alternative to the communists. But Robin Hood legends are misplaced. The Octopus, as it is called in Italy, reaches nationwide and rules people through fear, not generosity.

The third assassination in Sicily of a leading official charged with prosecuting the Mafia has plunged Italy into a crisis of confidence and the shaky government of Prime Minister Giuliano Amato into disarray. Giovanni Lizzio, the police official investigating the protection rackets of Catania, was murdered by gunfire two days after troops flew in to uphold law. This followed the Palermo car-bomb assassinations of Judge Paolo Borsellino July 19 and Judge Giovanni Falcone May 23. The Mafia challenges the government's authority to do anything about it. Several police and officials have resigned. The Mafia is winning, while Italians wonder at a possible link to corruption in Rome and the north, where such things are not expected.

For too long, Colombia's drug cartels were credited with providing an economy for poor farmers in the Andes and good works in Medellin. The escape of drug lord Pablo Escobar, with military complicity, reveals his former incarceration as a sham.

Escobar lived in a custom-built palace with guards of his choice, running operations and ordering assassinations. A government effort to end this led to his escape. From a hide-out he continues to dictate terms under which he might again "surrender." Generals and officials have resigned and been fired, and six American military planes joined the search of the countryside.

Romanticism and corruption allowed the Mafia to grow in Italy and the cocaine cartels in Colombia until they were too big for any government to take down. It is what the United States risks if we continue to tolerate organized crime, whether in its traditionalist or new forms. Drug sales organizations have given new meanings to the words "shooting galleries" to describe city streets.

In the long run, gangs cannot be left in control of the streets and kept out of City Hall, the Court House, the State House. What's happening in Colombia and Italy can happen here. If we let it.

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