Mafia man free ... for now

The convicted Mafia money-man at the centre of an alleged Cape Town crime ring has again evaded the Italian police, following a decision by the Ministry of Justice to block his extradition to Italy.

The reprieve granted Vito Palazzolo may, however, prove short-lived. South African police and justice officials are compiling new extradition papers, which could put Palazzolo before an Italian court—14 years after the Italians began hunting him.

Palazzolo, convicted in Europe of laundering Mafia drug money, has always protested his innocence. For now at least, Minister of Justice Dullah Omar agrees.

Omar’s office says the Italians’ latest extradition request—Pretoria has rejected several others—claims Palazzolo is involved in “Mafia-related” activity, which is not yet a crime in South Africa.
Omar wants the Italians to allege something that is an offence locally. His decision was conveyed to the Italian embassy in Pretoria three months ago.

“The Italians must come forward with concrete evidence for extradition,” Omar’s representative said. “We are waiting for them to supply us with the details.”

The Cape-based presidential investigations task unit, which has been probing Palazzolo’s activities for nearly two years, is liaising with Italian officials. Six months ago the unit drafted Anton Ackerman, deputy attorney general in Gauteng, to advise the Italians on their extradition efforts.

Local police attempts to pin something on Palazzolo have degenerated into farce, widening the split between conventional and “intelligence” police operations in the Western Cape.

Palazzolo is also embarrassing to various politicians. He quickly ingratiated himself with the National Party when he arrived in South Africa in 1986. He believes he has also successfully wooed many in the African National Congress - a process he started long before 1994.

He has established a thriving business empire in Southern Africa, ranging from bottled water to diamond prospecting. He received South African citizenship in 1995, despite featuring on an Interpol wanted list.

The Italians want him to stand trial for his part in the “pizza connection” scam. His Swiss bank held money raised from heroin that the Sicilian Mafia sold through United States pizza stores. Palazzolo served one year of a five-year term in a Swiss jail for that offence, before arriving in South Africa.

The Italians also allege he harboured three Italians in South Africa wanted for the 1992 murder of a Palermo politician.

The Italians’ allegations, on top of South African police claims linking him with senior police, state officials and politicians, prompted the creation of the presidential investigations task unit.

Since then, the unit has been in contact with the Italians and the FBI. The latter is thought to want him as a source of information on Mafia operations in the US.

The unit handed in a preliminary report to senior management and the government early last month. Marked “top secret”, the report was the stuff of urban legend before it surfaced in the press last weekend. The unit has spent much of this week trying to identify the source of the leak.

The report describes a syndicate including Palazzolo, Hard Livings gang leader Rashied Staggie, two former military intelligence operatives, Gert Nel and Cyril Beeka, and current National Intelligence Agency officer Dirk Coetzee.
Their links are well known. Nel frequently works for Palazzolo, late last year investigating what the unit had on him; Nel is a partner in Beeka’s Cape Town security company, Pro Security (where Coetzee’s son also works); Coetzee usually stays with Beeka when he’s in Cape Town; Beeka apparently knows Staggie well.

The report does not, however, contain any compelling evidence that those it names are doing anything illegal. The unit believes it can produce that on demand.

Its efforts are thought to have been greeted with scepticism by Minister of Safety and Security Sydney Mufamadi, although he declines to comment.

The Western Cape serious violent crime division chief, Director Leonard Knipe, says there is nothing in the report that his division needs to investigate. Even the unit’s managing officer, Commissioner George Govender, says it contains “nothing substantial”. But the report does throw new light on the former head of the unit, Andre Lincoln.

Currently suspended, and facing fraud and theft charges, Lincoln has been accused by police of getting too cosy with the people he was tracking. He even wrote a letter for Palazzolo, clearing him of the charges the unit had been investigating.

Lincoln’s background has also ensured that arguments within the police about his activities have taken on a bitter racial and political tone. He was a former member of the party’s intelligence structure, and reported directly to Deputy President Thabo Mbeki on the unit’s activities.

The unit was ordered to re-start the Palazzolo investigation after Lincoln’s suspension. It found he had been reporting in detail on the alleged links between Palazzolo, Beeka and the other syndicate members since October 1996. It now believes the letter Lincoln wrote clearing Palazzolo was a ploy to throw the wary Italian off guard.

Lincoln was unavailable for comment this week. Task unit officers are also reluctant to comment on their efforts.

Govender, however, adds their work forms part of an “intelligence-gathering exercise” in the province. “We need to get to the bottom of it,” he adds.

Palazzolo’s lawyer, Norman Snitcher, says his client told him “to be in communication with the appropriate authorities to lay charges” following the press coverage of the unit’s report.

Nel passed all queries to Snitcher, while Beeka, Staggie and Coetzee could not be contacted.

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