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Tommaso Buscetta; Top Mafia Turncoat

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Tommaso Buscetta, a top Mafia turncoat who helped convict hundreds of mobsters in Italy and testified in the “pizza connection” trial in the United States, has died at age 71.

Buscetta died of cancer Sunday in the United States, his lawyer, Luigi Ligotti, said Tuesday. Ligotti said he did not know where his client died because Buscetta was in the witness protection program. Although Buscetta married three times and had several children, there was no immediate information on survivors.

A native of Palermo, Sicily, Buscetta turned Italian state witness in 1984 after he was arrested in Brazil on murder charges and extradited to Italy. Once he decided to talk, he went on for 45 consecutive days, revealing some of the Mafia’s darkest secrets, including its alleged relationship with key politicians in Italy.

Buscetta later moved to the United States, where he was given a new identity under the U.S. witness protection program.

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In the 1980s so-called “pizza connection” trial in New York City, Buscetta testified against 22 people charged with smuggling $1.65 billion in heroin to the United States. The drugs allegedly were sold through a network of pizza parlors in the Northeast and Midwest.

Buscetta testified that he had held many conversations in Brazil in 1982 with one of the defendants, Gaetano Badalamenti, who was convicted of running the international drug ring and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Buscetta also was a star witness in a series of trials in Italy in the late 1980s that convicted more than 350 Mafia figures.

His prominence as a turncoat earned him the name in the Italian press of “principe dei pentiti"--"prince” of the repentant Mafia figures.

He returned to Italy in the 1990s to testify in two cases against former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, claiming that the politician had met top Mafia bosses.

Andreotti was brought to trial on separate charges of murdering a meddling journalist and granting favors to the Mafia in exchange for votes. He was acquitted in both cases last year.

The former prime minister insisted throughout his trials that Buscetta and other turncoats were seeking revenge for his tough anti-Mafia measures while in government.

“I did my part: I told what I knew,” Buscetta said after giving that testimony. But he added, “the word of a pentito is never pure gold” and should always be corroborated.

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Just days before the Andreotti verdict, Buscetta charged that Italy has given up its fight against the Mafia.

“There is no collective, focused strategy,” Buscetta said in “The Mafia Has Won,” a book that took the form of an interview with a journalist.

“The fight against the Mafia has almost become a matter of personal commitment,” Buscetta said.

“I do not see any interest by the state. There is no final aim anymore.”

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