Source: Guardian, The (UK)
Pubdate: Mon, 31 Aug 1998
Author: Duncan Campbell


Once Maltese gangsters such as Big Frank Mifsud, the Messina brothers and
Victor Spampinato ran Soho's vice rackets. These days the island's drug
traffickers provide a key staging post on the smuggling route to Britain.
Now a policeman called Michael Cassar means to stop them.

The young man giving evidence in Hall Number 8 of the Courts of Justice in
Valetta is sweating profusely. It is not just his unsuitably thick maroon
jacket, or the 33 degrees heat outside in Republic Street, nor even the
painful bullet wound in his leg, that makes his shirt stick to the
intricate tattoos on his arm but the nature of what he is being asked and
the person against whom he is giving evidence.

Emanuel Camilleri, who sits before him in court, is charged with wounding
the young man, with running a major heroin and cocaine trafficking
operation for the last four years and, most crucially, with trying to blow
up Assistant Commissioner Michael Cassar, head of the police's anti-drugs
operations in Malta.

Camilleri, who owns one of the island's largest quarries, is a well-known
figure who has a nickname which does not require a masters in linguistics
to translate from Malti: "Il-Bully." His younger brother and father sit in
the public gallery just behind him and he smiles as he adjusts his
uncomfortable, borrowed tie, which Maltese court etiquette requires all men
to wear. As he waits to hear what his accuser has to say, he offers bonbons
to the officers of the Special Assignment Group who guard him and to the

Not that too much of what is about to be said will appear in the
newspapers. Magistrate Noel Cuscheri asks all the journalists to leave his
court so that the sweating young man can say his piece behind closed doors.
And, anyway, the papers are preoccupied. Malta, this most political of
countries where 96 per cent of the population vote, has other swordfish to
fry: September 5 is election day and one of the most closely fought
campaigns since independence in 1974 is under way, for the election could
decide whether Malta enters the EU and what future economic direction the
island takes.

And yet it is the election, called mid-term by Prime Minister Dr Alfred
Sant after the collapse of his Labour Party's tenuous majority, that adds a
special frisson to this case and gives it a significance far beyond the
walls of Hall number 8.

First, a brief criminal history lesson. In the thirties, a small group of
Maltese - the "Epsom Salts", as London villains knew them in rhyming slang
- - ran the vice rackets in Soho and the West End. But Joe Spiteri, one of
their number, was so innocent when he arrived in 1952 that, when he saw
prostitutes in the West End, he thought they were well-dressed beggars
because why else would they be approaching people on the street? He learned
fast. Spiteri claimed that the Maltese were able to take over prostitution
because the women preferred them to the less hot-blooded Englishmen.
Whatever the reason, Spiteri, the Messina brothers, Big Frank Mifsud,
Victor Spampinato and George Caruana all featured heavily in the gang and
vice wars of the era. Some were jailed, some died, some fled. Some are back
in the Maltese sun but still running prostitutes, albeit more discreetly
than in the sixties, when the women had to hustle for work on the streets
rather than through photocards in public phone booths.

The old fascination with London gangland remains in Malta. In the Wise Guys
bar in Bugibba, for example, you can drink the locally-brewed Hopleaf pale
ale beneath a photo of the Kray twins. "Be there, or sleep with the fish,"
says the bar's publicity material.

And the connections between British and Maltese organised crime have also
remained. Malta is a popular place for law- abiding Britons too, of course,
and some 500,000 will go there on their holidays this year, not put off by
the recent court case when holidaymakers sued the holiday firm Malta Sun,
because their Maltese hotel served cold toast and the judge in the case
flew to the island to investigate himself.

At least 4,000 Britons have settled there, saved from homesickness by such
familiar trappings of home as red pillar boxes, overcooked vegetables and
driving on the left, legacies of the island's time as a British dependency.
British appreciation of the islanders' heroic stand against the Luftwaffe
during the second world war - Malta was awarded a special George Cross -
endures, and a major tourist attractions is the war room where Eisenhower
and Montgomery planned the invasion of Axis-occupied Europe.

Malta is a fairly peaceful country: there are no more than half a dozen
murders a year and there are only 280 people in jail, half for drugs
offences. Most of the ex-pat Britons lead blameless lives but in the last
few years Malta has again been placing a marker on the criminal boardgame.
In July, an international gang was jailed at Manchester Crown Court for one
of Britain's largest ever cannabis smuggling operations. Seven tonnes of
the drug (from Cambodia) had been found in a container in Malta. Drug
traffickers on the island now have active criminal links with London,
Liverpool and Amsterdam. Malta is a useful transit point, accessible by sea
and air.

Maltese voters are only too aware of all this - and of a recent series of
drugs-related deaths. On August 17, 17-year-old David Spiteri from Ghaxaq
fell ill at a party and has now been recorded as Malta's first Ecstasy
death. A number of young people on the isalnd - estimates vary between
three and a dozen - have died of heroin overdoses this year. Heroin sells
for A25 a gramme at 25 per cent purity but, heavily cut, can cost half
that. Cannabis - haxixa - is freely available as are klamanti (downers) and
stimulanti (uppers).

Malta is a small country of only 370,000 and the deaths of young people has
a particular impact. The drugs problem has to be part of the election
campaign. As the Sunday Times of Malta put it last week: "Enough words have
proceeded from our politicians' mouths on the scourge of drugs to fill
volumes...It is incredible that on a small island like this we cannot get
to grips with this modern plague." Labour is anxious to show it is active
against drugs and any corruption that may protect the traffickers.
Camilleri's arrest earlier this month features in a television clip that
demonstrates how the government is tackling law and order. Full-page
advertisements promise "New Labour - Clean Government" and claim that "Old
PN [the Nationalist Party] prefers closed cupboards". They hint that the
Nationalists, headed by Dr Eddie Fenech Adami, cannot be trusted.

In rather wilder political days in the past, the Nationalists used heavies
as bodyguards during campaigns. Just before the 1996 election, which Labour
won, a book on criminal connections on the island, called The Diary Of Ciro
Del Negro, appeared and - although essentially just a collection of court
documents - Camilleri was featured among them as being close to the
Nationalists. The documents have now been cited in evidence in open court
in the current case against him.

There are other echoes. In 1996, the son of the former head of the armed
forces in Malta, Meinrad Calleja, 36, was charged with contracting two men
to kill the assistant of the then prime minister and current leader of the
opposition, Dr Fenech Adami. He is pleading not guilty and still awaits
trial for this and for drugs trafficking and possession offences. So the
island awaits the results of two high-profile cases involving allegations
of attempted murders of senior public figures and men accused of being
major drugs traffickers. The cocktail is as heady as any offered in the
waterfront bars of Gozo.

The man with the task of pursuing the drugs trade on the island is
Assistant Commissioner Michael Cassar. Big and imposing, and the oldest of
four brothers in the police, he heads the unit targeting drugs, vice and
'economic' crime. At 1.35am on May 23, 1994, he was asleep at home with his
wife and two children, Melanie, 11, and Mark, three, when there was a
mighty explosion. A pipe bomb had been planted on his doorstep. "I ran
outside but the coward had not stayed long enough to show his face," he
says. No one was injured but it was the fourth such attack on a senior
police officer.

Cassar likes his work as head of the 50-strong drugs squad. "There's job
satisfaction. But you get a lot of ups and downs. Mostly downs."
Camilleri's name was soon mentioned as the perpetrator of the attack on him
but, Cassar has told the court in Valetta, no one was prepared to give
evidence against him. Then a heroin addict, the sweating young man, was
arrested. He claimed he had been shot by Camilleri because he owed him
A50,000 in unpaid drugs bills and was now prepared to testify. He signed a
statement. Camilleri was arrested and his handcuffed image was splashed
across the papers just as the election campaign got under way.

As far as Camilleri's defence team is concerned, he has been arrested in
order to make Labour look good just before the election. The case against
him is weak, it says, and his protestations of innocence on all charges are
genuine. That was the gist of his case when he arrived in court this month.
Then came the twist. He asked the magistrate to take personal control of a
tape that was to be found in his wife's car. He was anxious that the police
should not hear it. The magistrate agreed. It has not been played to the
court and is now to form a key part of his defence. It is, Camilleri's
friends say, his ace in the hole.

So what is on it? The police say they have not heard the tape and therefore
cannot say. Others say it contains material damaging to politicians. If it
is as explosive as Camilleri hints, then he not surprisingly wants to keep
his powder dry. Do shivers go down the spine of any politicians at the
possibility of what the tape might contain? Or is this a bluff? The trial
of Camilleri will not be resolved for many months. He is being defended by
two of Valetta's smartest young lawyers, Dr Michael Sciriha and Dr Ian
Farrugia. Last week, they applied for Camilleri to be bailed before the
election. The magistrate turned them down.

The election will come rather sooner than his trial. As government
supporters handed out red roses and advertised themselves as New Labour in
a harbour-side rally last week, the Nationalist Party was warning of the
dangers to the island of not entering the EU and of allowing Labour another
term of office. Each side accuses the other of dubious practices. Labour is
mocked for an image-led campaign that shows young women with mobile phones
and the Nationalist Party is chided for its lacklustre performances.

No one is predicting with any certainty either the election result or what
will happen to Il-Bully. As one senior police officer, commenting on the
small, tightly-knit nature of the island, says: "It can be very difficult
to get people to give evidence in cases here. They know that whoever they
have spoken against is only a nine-mile walk away from where they live."

Copyright Guardian Media Group plc.1998

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Checked-by: Mike Gogulski