Dell’Utri and Berlusconi: a long friendship born in the shadow of the First Republic

When in the 90. Berlusconi was setting up Forza Italia, he had certain men around him as well as interests to represent. And the party was not created ex nihilo, but rather – from the ashes of the old system, dying in the convulsions of terrorist attacks and anti-corruption scandals. Death of the so-called First Republic – with its heritage and Cold War tough alliances with the mafia and anti-democratic, far-right opposition, composed of former fascists and their postwar followers – gave way for new parties and political organisations. The new post-modern political stage, centred around populist figures, not values and stable political camps, seemed perfect for the many coming from the old system. The ones behind the scenes, wearing murky sunglasses, members of the infamous Cosa Nostra and their acolytes. 

Couple of months after Italian newspapers published first articles and analysis of the Tangentopoli – literally: Bribe City – mafia’s bombe di Palermo started exploding. Prosecutions from 1992-94 uncovered a system of links between politicians and businessmen and a significant scale of bribes at the very top of the Italian elite, entirely worth of the name Tangentopoli. More than 150 companies and dozens of politicians were investigated, most of them representatives of the Italian Socialist Party – which in the Cold War era belonged to the Western camp, centred around Christian Democracy – and the Christian Democrats. Bettino Craxi, a former Socialist prime minister, became the symbol of the affair.

Finding out the links and networks between all the normalisation, or status quo parties, was a true shock. A true corrupt octopus united everyone from Italian Socialist Party to Christian Democracy, against reformist and anti-NATO Italian Communist Party during the Cold War. However, with the end of the huge conflict between West and East, the new had to be born in Italy.

Corruption scandals and the lack of purpose among both communist parties and parties of the old regime set a stage for new political organisations. One of them was Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, aiming at a new liberal revolution – at least this was her main slogan.

However, the other important political aim, also vocally stated by its leader, was to prevent post-communist parties from reaching the power over post-Cold War republic. A scenario not impossible at all: in Poland, post-communist Alliance of Democratic Left claimed power over new-born democratic republic just a few years after the fall of ‘actually existing socialism’.

The main vehicle of the party, the economic and cultural power behind it was Fininvest, a holding of the Berlusconi family. In its hands were TV stations Canale 5, Italia 1 and Rete 4, and from 1986 to 2017 also the football club A.C. Milan. Not to mention publishing companies in the press and book market, film and production agencies. 

Amico di cuore 

Among those gathered around Silvio, was his old amico di cuore, pal from university years, Marcello Dell’Utri.

Born in Palermo in 1941, he met Silvio Berlusconi at the University of Milan, where he graduated in law. At the age of 23, he worked as a secretary for Berlusconi, who, with his Edilnord, sponsored Torrescalla, a small junior football team linked to the Rui Foundation, of which Dell’Utri was also a coach.

Later in 1965 he moved to Rome, where he directed for a couple of years the ELIS Sports Group in the Tiburtino – Casal Bruciato district, at the International Centre for Working Youth – an initiative of the Catholic Church that the pope entrusted to Opus Dei. Two years later he returned to Palermo to the Athletic Club Bacigalupo; during this experience, by his own explicit admission, he met Vittorio Mangano and Gaetano Cinà, both mafiosi belonging to Cosa Nostra.

After three years he started working for the Cassa di Risparmio delle Province Siciliane in Catania and the following year he was transferred to the Belmonte Mezzagno branch. After two years, in 1973, he was promoted to the general management of Sicilcassa in Palermo, agricultural credit department. 

Next year he returned to Milan to work at Edilnord at the request of Silvio Berlusconi, for whom he also acted as secretary; in particular, he followed the renovation work on the villa in Arcore after Berlusconi bought it from the marquise Annamaria Casati Stampa. Cesare Previti, the future lawyer of Berlusconi and his pals in legal disputes to come, was her legal guardian.

It is exactly from this year when the story of Ambasciatore della Mafia starts. It is said that from this year Marcello Dell’Utri provided a linkage between the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, who has hands all over Italian gray zone business and corruption schemes, and Berlusconi family.

Was he a made man? We do not know. However, in Berlusconi’s government to come, as well as in the Fininvest S.p.A. holding, he did a lot to take care of the mafia’s interests.

Marcello dell’Utri. Photo by Giuseppe Nicoloro

The very top of the Italian elite 

One could think that he was doing this from the shadows? The answer might surprise you: no!

After he founded Forza Italia with Berlusconi and Cesare Previti in 1994, he was elected to the Italian Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Italian Parliament, as early as 1996. He was elected to the European Parliament in 1999. In the 2001 general election, he was elected senator and was also succesfully re-elected to the Italian Senate in 2006 and 2008.

As early as 1996, Mafia pentito, Salvatore Cancemi, stated that Berlusconi and Dell’Utri were in direct contact with the infamous Mafia boss Totò Riina. The alleged contacts, according to Cancemi, were supposed to have led to the enactment of legislation favourable to the Cosa Nostra, particularly as part of the legislation on the so-called 41-bis harsh prison regime. The basic premise was that the Cosa Nostra would support Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party in exchange for political favours. Cancemi claimed that the mafiosi were helpful on the ground during political campaigns, supporting candidates through their channels, as well as disturb campaign of the opponents. 

However, after a two-year investigation, no charges were brought. There was no strong enough evidence to support Cancemi’s allegations. However these rumours were not isolated. Another two-year investigation, also launched on the basis of Cancemi’s evidence, into Berlusconi’s alleged connection with the Mafia was closed in 1996. Berlusconi was always a couple steps ahead of the judiciary. 

According to Cancemi, Fininvest, through Marcello Dell’Utri and mafioso Vittorio Mangano, was paying Cosa Nostra 200 million lire (€100,000) a year. Another pentito, Antonino Giuffrè – arrested in 2002 – claimed that the Mafia turned to Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party to look after Mafia interests, following the aforementioned collapse of the Christian Democrats in the early 1990s.

Grey Zone Agreement

It was said that it had been one of the most lucrative agreements in the political grey zone of Italy. According to Giuffrè, Dell’Utri was an intermediary, one might even say a lobbyist, in a series of legislative actions aimed at easing the pressure on the Mafia in exchange for electoral support. However, this testimony too was rejected. Nonetheless, even if there hasn’t been enough evidence to jail Berlusconi, in the end some evidence came up to jail Dell’Utri. Since 2004, Dell’Utri was successively convicted by successive instances of the Italian judiciary.  

The first clause made it clear that Dell’Utri had contributed in a deliberate, willing, and precise way to the goals of the Cosa Nostra. He was referred to as a link and even an ambassador for the Mafia’s objectives. Palermo Court of Appeal gave him a seven-year prison term. He was also discovered to have served as a conduit between Silvio Berlusconi, Bernardo Provenzano, Toto’ Riina, and Stefano Bontade. One of the exacerbating conditions was Berlusconi’s mansion in Arcore hiring Mafia boss Vittorio Mangano as a stable boy. According to reports, Mangano was actually there to defend his family from the actions of competing crime organisations. 

Marcello Dell’Utri has finally been given a seven-year prison term by the Italian Supreme Court. This time the court stated that Sicilian mafia and Milan’s business elite, including Berlusconi’s businesses, were connected by Dell’Utri – between 1974 and 1992. 

But Dell’Utri was able to escape to Lebanon before the sentence was read. He had already been apprehended at the time of the most recent court session thanks to a joint operation by Interpol and the Lebanese police. He was found and followed to a posh hotel in Beirut.

Shocking Normality of Bel paese

In April 2018, Dell’Utri, aged 76, received a new first-instance sentence of 12 years’ imprisonment in a trial on links between the state and the Mafia, only to be acquitted on appeal in September 2021. He spent sometime in prison, but now he is a free man.

And again, his name is on the lips of millions of Italians.

And as we read in one of the Italian newspapers: “When the notary called me this morning, I was shocked by this news,” commented Dell’Utri himself. “I didn’t expect it because he didn’t owe me anything (…) The feeling remained even without this material gesture, which shows the greatness of this man,” – commented the former senator, who then added: “For me, he was like a brother. We knew each other for over sixty years. He always helped me. Even at university, he shared his notebooks with me”. This is how a former politician, one of the best friends of Berlusconi, reacted to being granted 30 million euros inherited from Silvio. 

As one of my friends asked me: can Bel paese digest everything? 

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