18 November 1999

South Africa: Palazzolo: The Mobster From Burgersdorp

Johannesburg — South African and Italian police documents in the Mail & Guardian's possession reveal shocking details of "mafia kingpin" Vito Palazzolo's chequered career.

Palazzolo, arrested last week for "lying" in his 1994 South African citizenship application, has been branded one of seven top Sicilian mafia leaders worldwide by the United States FBI. He is wanted in Italy for his alleged mob activities. A Swiss court sentenced him in 1984 for his money- laundering role in the "Pizza Connection", a mafia drug- smuggling operation bust in the US.

From local police documents it appears that the elite police presidential investigation task unit launched "Operation Intrigue" against Cape-based Palazzolo in 1996. An early "Intrigue" planning document states Palazzolo arrived at Johannesburg's Jan Smuts airport on December 26, 1986 bearing a false passport allegedly obtained from a fellow inmate at a prison in Lugano, Switzerland.

A day earlier, Palazzolo had absconded from his five-and-a-half-year Swiss prison sentence while out on Christmas parole. He travelled to the Eastern Cape, where he met up with National Party parliamentarian Peet de Pontes, who had organised Ciskei residence for him.

By January 1988, Swiss police had traced him and informed their South African counterparts they were coming to get Palazzolo. South African Narcotics Bureau (Sanab) police raided Palazzolo's Franschhoek farm, Terra de Luc, and arrested him - seizing 10 guns and diamonds worth R500,000. He was declared an undesirable person in South Africa and returned to Switzerland to complete his jail sentence.

A February 1988 document seemingly composed by the Sanab reveals that the South African police then already knew that Palazzolo was a wanted man in Italy, and gives more detail about his multimillion-rand property acquisitions after arriving in South Africa.

The document shed more light on Palazzolo's transition from a Ciskeian to South African resident. He legally changed his name in the Ciskei to Robert von Palace-Kolbatschenko, born in Burgersdorp. On the strength of a new passport in this name, he obtained resident status in South Africa - but all files relating to the application were missing.

Palazzolo returned to South Africa in late 1989 to testify against De Pontes, who was convicted in November 1990 for "fraudulently" helping Palazzolo obtain South African residence. After testifying about his own cooked residence application, Palazzolo stayed in South Africa until late 1991, when he was ordered out of the country by the Department of Home Affairs.

In 1992 Palazzolo was reportedly living in a Ciskeian residence belonging to then-military ruler Oupa Gqozo, but soon he was back. The Cabinet, headed by former president FW de Klerk, approved a new South African residence application in March 1993. After the 1994 elections he gained South African citizenship on the strength of citizenship he had already gained in Ciskei.

Investigations into Palazzolo restarted in 1995 when police in the Cape received inquiries from Italian police, who were after Mariano Tullio Trioa, a Sicilian wanted for the murder of an associate of former Italian prime minister Guilio Andreotti.

A March 1998 briefing compiled by Western Cape police intelligence says Italian police claimed Troia was being harboured by Sicilian Salvatore Morettino, a naturalised South African citizen living in Houghton.

The Italian police also gave information of contact between Palazzolo and a prominent Sicilian mafia boss, Giovanni Brusca, sought in Italy for the murder of an anti-mafia judge and an Italian police chief.

The document alleged that Palazzolo was believed to head a mafia "family" in South Africa, and recommended the arrest and extradition of "members", including Palazzolo, Troia and Morettino. It questioned how Palazzolo could have obtained South African citizenship after 1994 and asked: "How did he come to be associated with past and present politicians?"

A related January 1997 Italian briefing document to South African police says Italian police started tapping Palazzolo's South African cellphone and fax lines a year earlier, and "the importance of the role played by Palazzolo within the mafia organisation named Cosa Nostra was soon and thoroughly confirmed".

It said two mafia suspects linked to Brusca were harboured by Palazzolo in South Africa and Namibia after they escaped arrest in Italy. Italian police travelled to South Africa, where they confirmed the presence of a number of mafia suspects and "the existence of a well-knit network of corrupted South African officials that protect the Italian fugitives".

The Italian report also referred to Palazzolo's links with South Africans he called "general" and "minister". In one 1996 conference call an unnamed person said: "The minister's brother is here with me - black as the night - we have had soup together."

A "top-secret" South African police information note last year to Mbeki and others tells more about Palazzolo's alleged criminal activities. It claimed Palazzolo was the "brain behind organised crime in the Western Cape [but] doesn't get his hands dirty himself".

It claimed his right-hand man was Cyril Beeka, a Cape Town security company owner who allegedly ran an extensive "protection racket" at nightclubs. Beeka was arrested earlier this year on a murder charge.

Palazzolo's attorney, Norman Snitcher, this week maintained his client's innocence, saying "misinformation and misinterpretation based on other agendas" fed rumours.

He confirmed police had made allegations about Palazzolo's criminal activities, but said if they had evidence they should charge him, which they had not done. "It's been a long history of harassment to cause him embarrassment in his ordinary business activities," Snitcher said.

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