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Italian authorities believe they will have landed a very big Mafia fish if they are successful in having South Africa-based fugitive Vito Palazzolo extradited from Thailand to serve out his nine-year sentence in Italy.
They will finally have under their control a figure described in the judgment handed down by Italy’s Judge President in the 2006 Mafia trial in Palermo, Sicily, as enjoying personal “relationships of great trust and secrecy with a number of high-ranking Mafia bosses”.
The Palermo judgment was confirmed in 2009 by Italy’s Supreme Court of Cassation, the country’s legal organ of last resort.
Notable among the dons linked to Palazzolo were Salvatore “Toto” Riina and Bernardo Provenzano, successive heads of the Corleone crime family in Sicily – and in the arcane hierarchies of La Cosa Nostra, undisputed “Boss of Bosses” in the global Mafia network.
Both Riina, once the most feared man in Sicily, and Provenzano – captured in 2004 after evading the authorities for 43 years – are currently serving life sentences for Mafia crimes.
Their underworld pre-eminence placed the Corleone bosses at the centre of the huge revenues generated by the Mafia’s criminal enterprises throughout the world – through drug trafficking, prostitution, protection racketeering, extortion, smuggling and all the other species of criminality celebrated in fiction and the movies.
In the 2006 Palermo prosecution, Palazzolo was sentenced in absentia to nine years in prison for “external collusion” with the Mafia – promoting the organisation’s interests beyond the borders of Italy.
In the following year, when the matter went up on appeal, Italy’s Appeal Court – while confirming sentence – toughened up the judgment, finding Palazzolo guilty of the stronger charge of Mafia association on the basis of additional evidence secured from Mafia turncoats in the interim.
Palazzolo was also indicted, and remains the subject of a live arrest warrant issued by the US authorities, in the most notorious Mafia scandal of all time – the so-called “Pizza Connection” case in which pizza outlets in New Jersey were used for the importation and distribution of heroin.
As spelled out in the indictment, Palazzolo’s role in the Pizza Connection was allegedly to launder drug money – to the tune of an estimated $1.5 billion – reinvesting a part in new supplies of opium for refining into pure heroin in Sicilian laboratories before it was exported into lucrative US markets.
As described in the 95-page Palermo judgment – a copy of which has been seen by the Cape Times – Palazzolo was a figure who “covered the role of drug trafficker and recycler of dirty money with great ability”, a “‘sweeper’ between the world of international finance and the Mafia organisation, ‘Cosa Nostra’”, a “valuable, if not almost irreplaceable, asset to the organisation”.
Indeed, US authorities at the time of the Pizza Connection included him in their list of the top seven Mafia figures internationally.
By the same token, if the Italians and the Americans are right, he could be in possession of information crucial to prosecutorial authorities in tracing and, ultimately, retrieving the proceeds of Mafia crime.
As confirmed to the Cape Times by Embassy First Secretary Dario Armini, Italian anti-Mafia law has come in the past decades to focus not merely on punishment, but increasingly on recovering laundered proceeds of La Cosa Nostra’s criminal activities.
Palazzolo would likely be the focus of such inquiries if returned to the country of his birth.
Indeed, much of the evidence against Palazzolo – as exhaustively reviewed in the judgment – was secured from convicted Mafiosi turned “pentiti” (co-operative witnesses) after their capture. Notable among these was Antonino Giuffre, once a close confidant of the elusive Provenzano, as well as underbosses Salvatore Ciulla, Giovanni Bastone and Salvatore Cancemi.
Among other startling claims made by the pentiti are that Provenzano himself was institutional “godfather” within the organisation to Palazzolo, and also his hidden partner in an unidentified diamond mine in South Africa, as well as in various enterprises in Namibia and Angola and perhaps as far afield as the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In Angola, Palazzolo is recorded as having secured several mining and other contracts – with the family of President Eduardo Dos Santos featuring prominently as local partners – coming to be appointed as “financial adviser” to Dos Santos.
In this environment, Palazzolo was also involved in moves to set up casino operations in Luanda in the 1990s, and well as several public sector construction and engineering projects. Additionally, as emerged from telephone intercepts before the Palermo court, he allegedly brokered several business deals with the Angolan regime on behalf of Italian underworld figures.
One such deal was offered in 2004 to Senator Marcello Dell’Utri, a close associate of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi in 2004. In exchange for moving to quash prosecutorial proceedings against Palazzolo, Dell’Utri, as recorded in telephone calls between Palazzolo and his sister Sara, was to receive assistance in setting up business ventures in the “fishing, petroleum mining and public works sectors in Angola”, as well as direct financial contributions paid to close associates.
A similar pattern of influence is allegedly evident in Namibia, where Palazzolo and entities linked to him own substantial real estate and farming interests, as well as investments in the mining sector.
Palazzolo allegedly continues to enjoy significant political patronage from the family of former president Sam Nujoma. There is also a trail of assets and revenues accumulated and shifted over the decades in South Africa itself. Notable among these is the plush La Terre de Luc estate in Franschhoek and its associated mineral water business, whose clients include South African Airways.
While most South African interests were apparently disposed of or transferred to his sons when Palazzolo shifted his regional base of operation to Namibia in the last decade, the proceeds of such deals would nevertheless remain of interest to the Italian state.
Equally of interest would be a series of as yet not fully investigated property deals. Some of these involved the developing of golfing and other top end residential estates in the Western Cape, with Palazzolo involved at the level of financing, as well as facilitation.
Others – at Cape Town’s prestigious Waterclub in Granger Bay – involved the sale of flats to overseas investors by Palazzolo and his associates at prices often three times higher than the market value.
Though investigations into the cluster of deals were still at an early stage at the time of the disbanding of the Scorpions in 2008, investigators believed they had identified a pattern of transactions aimed at laundering Mafia money into the legal economy.