A young Silvio Berlusconi reportedly asked Stefano Bontade, assassinated in 1981, to protect his children and his first wife Carla
by Mark Franchetti
THE billionaire Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, once met a leading mafia godfather to ask for protection, according to testimony gathered over several years by crime prosecutors.
Mafia informants claim the meeting took place in Milan in 1974, when Berlusconi was already a wealthy entrepreneur, at the offices of his property company. The informers say Berlusconi met Stefano Bontade, then one of the mafia’s most powerful bosses, because he feared for his family’s safety at a time when Italy was plagued by a wave of high-profile kidnappings.
Francesco Di Carlo, one of Bontade’s henchmen who is now in jail, told prosecutors that he was at the meeting. He claims Berlusconi asked for help to ensure that neither he nor his children would be abducted by other mafia clans.
According to the henchman’s testimony, Bontade gave his word that he would personally ensure Berlusconi’s safety. In return Berlusconi told the mafia godfather that he was “at his disposal, for anything”.
According to anti-mafia prosecutors, the meeting was arranged by Marcello Dell’Utri, a close friend and business partner of Berlusconi. Dell’Utri later played an important role in founding the tycoon’s first political party, Forza Italia, which won the 1994 election and took Berlusconi to power.
Now a senator, Dell’Utri was sentenced in 2004 to nine years in prison for aiding and abetting the mafia. He denies the charges and is appealing — and is still a free man under the Italian judicial system. He and Berlusconi deny they met Bontade. But magistrates believe Di Carlo’s testimony, which was backed by another mafia boss who became an informant.
“In our view Dell’Utri had very close contact with the mafia. He acted as an ambassador for the mafia, representing its interests among Italy’s wealthy entrepreneurs,” said Domenico Gozzo, a key member of the prosecution team in the Dell’Utri trial.
“Instead of turning to the police, Berlusconi turned to Dell’Utri when he became worried about security. He asked his friend to find a solution. Dell’Utri did so during a meeting with the then mafia head, Stefano Bontade, in which Berlusconi took part. Bontade promised to send a person to protect Berlusconi and his family. Why? Because Berlusconi became of interest to the Cosa Nostra, first as an entrepreneur and later as a politician.”
Shortly after the alleged meeting with Bontade, who was killed in a mafia turf war in 1981, Berlusconi hired Vittorio Mangano, a mafia member.
Mangano’s official job was to run the tycoon’s luxury estate at Arcore, outside Milan. He lived at the 145-room villa for two years, driving Berlusconi’s children to school.
Prosecutors allege that Mangano was the man Bontade provided to guard the tycoon and his family, thus sending a signal to the other clans that Berlusconi was under the direct protection of the mafia. Berlusconi and Dell’Utri both claim they did not know that Mangano was a criminal. However, he was arrested twice while working for Berlusconi.
“Mangano was already a convicted criminal when Berlusconi took him in,” said Gozzo.
In 2000 Mangano, who was serving a sentence for drug trafficking, was found guilty of double murder. He died before his appeal could be heard. Berlusconi and Dell’Utri have since described him as a hero because he refused to make false claims against them.
“Mangano was a person who behaved very well with us,” said Berlusconi in 2008.
“He then had some problems with the law but I’m not aware of him having ever been found guilty for good,” he added, referring to the fact that Mangano’s appeal was never heard.
The prime minister has never been charged with mafia association. Gozzo and other magistrates sought to question him about Dell’Utri, his alleged mafia links and some of the funds invested in his businesses, but Berlusconi chose to remain silent, citing his right to do so under Italian law, It has also been alleged by informants that the mafia backed Forza Italia. The claim was made again last December by Gaspare Spatuzza, a jailed mafia hitman who killed 40 people and disposed of a rival by dissolving him in acid. He told prosecutors that Berlusconi and Dell’Utri had contact with the Graviano brothers, two mafia bosses.
Berlusconi, 73, has angrily rejected all allegations of mafia links and claims to be the victim of a conspiracy orchestrated by left-wing judges. He said recently that no Italian government had done more than his to combat the mafia.
“From the moment when Dell’Utri brought Mangano in, he put Berlusconi in the hands of the mafia,” said Marco Travaglio, one of Italy’s leading investigative reporters.
“Cosa Nostra is not like a taxi where you jump on, pay for the trip, get off and say goodbye. Once you are on you can no longer get off. Berlusconi is terrified that his past will catch up with him.”