Antonio Calanni, Associated Press
ROME — A woman who dares to cooperate with police in the fight against a dreaded Italian mob network is murdered, her body dumped in a barrel of acid in the countryside near Milan. Her 17-year-old daughter steps forward and testifies, helping to send six people to prison for life.
The lurid 2009 murder and the court verdict delivered in April gave a rare peek into Italy's secretive witness protection program, which marked its 20th anniversary this year and is considered Italy's single most important window into the secretive world of organized crime. Hundreds of mobsters have been given new identities in exchange for information that helped put longtime fugitive leaders behind bars, including the "boss of bosses" Salvatore Riina.
The use of insiders has combined with the seizure of mob assets to help Italy achieve a once unattainable goal: crippling the Sicilian Cosa Nostra.
"It has advanced immensely the fight against organized crime," said Felia Allum, a British academic who studies organized crime.
Italy's famed anti-Mafia prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino had fought in the 1980s to establish the two anti-mob weapons, arguing that criminals needed some incentive to step forward and turn state's evidence. They were killed by mob bombs within two months of one another in 1992, but not before they'd laid the foundations for a crime-fighting system that has largely tamed, if not defeated, the Mafia.
Living under state protection does take exact a heavy toll on witnesses.
A major problem is that most mobsters in the program are from Italy's underdeveloped south, and they are generally exiled to what they see as a hostile environment in the prosperous north, because it's easier to hide them there. There have been suicides. Some return to crime when their collaboration with the state comes to an end.
"They are given a new identity and a lump sum of money to start their new life but they are not helped as much as they should be to reintegrate back into society," said Allum.
The dead woman in the 2009 murder, 36-year-old Lea Garofalo, had left the government program "feeling uneasy" about her protection, her lawyer Vincenza Rando said, adding that she was subjected to unwanted sexual advances from her police guards. "She didn't feel well protected and risked it on her own."
Garofalo's daughter Denise felt that her mother's decision had cost her life, so she decided to put her trust in the program. She was the key witness in the trial and now lives with a new identity in an undisclosed location. The contrasting fates of mother and daughter underscore how critical it is for witnesses in mob cases to obtain new identities. Without one, experts say, turncoats like Lea Garofalo become sitting ducks for inevitable revenge killings.
Denise Garofalo is one of nearly 4,700 people in the program -- about 1,000 so-called "collaborators" who have turned state's evidence and the rest family members, according to a document obtained by The Associated Press on figures up to 2010. It is believed to be the second largest program after that of the United States. Most have been witnesses in cases against the Sicilian Mafia, the Neapolitan Camorra and the Calabrian 'ndrangheta --the crime syndicate in the Garofalo case.
Prosecutors say that no one who has followed the protection rules has been harmed. Those who stray do so at their own peril, like the son of a Camorra boss who returned to his hometown and was slain.
Changing immigration patterns and the spread of international terrorism have led authorities to open the program to eastern Europeans, North Africans and several other nationalities, according to the Interior Ministry report to parliament.
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