At 5pm on Sunday, July 19, 1992, the blast of a massive car bomb ripped through the torpor of a sultry Palermo afternoon. In the explosion, anti-Mafia judge Paolo Borsellino and five members of his bodyguard squad were literally blown apart. In May, a bomb had exploded along the motorway linking Palermo airport to the city, killing judge Giovanni Falcone, his wife, Francesca, and three bodyguards. For thousands of Italians who wept before the horrific scenes of carnage transmitted all that Sunday evening, Italy's last hope of winning the battle against the Mafia had been buried under the smoking piles of rubble. Falcone had been killed just after a general election, when Italy had neither a head of state, nor a Prime Minister, nor a government, and when the new national anti-Mafia police force and prosecution service created six months previously were barely functioning. By killing first

Falcone, then Borsellino, it seemed as if the Mafia had stepped into the institutional

vacuum and brought off its coup d'etat.

Yet only a year later, thanks to an extraordinary mobilisation by all sectors of society, Italy had dragged itself out of the abyss: law enforcement capabilities had been reinforced and professionalised, new legislation had been passed, and 19 of the country's 30

most wanted criminals had been

arrested, including the three highest-ranking Mafia bosses, captured after decades on the run.

But was it enough? And could it last? Statistically, the law enforcement data for the past few years look good: Mafia murders fell from 718 in 1991 to 190 in 1997, while arrests for membership of a Mafia-type organisation increased from 874 in 1991 to an all-time high of 2136 in 1994 and 1324

in 1997. Those materially responsible for the 1992 atrocities and the mainland bombings of 1993 have been arrested and brought to trial; during 1990-1997, nearly #2bn worth of Mafia assets were seized.

None the less, organised crime is far from defeated: new leaders have emerged, extortion and racketeering are on the rise, and the suicide rate among small to medium entrepreneurs in the southern regions, unable to face continuing hikes in usury rates or pay protection money, is increasing. The share

of Mafia assets actually confiscated probably amounts to less than 1% of annual turnover.

Positive signs of change are most evident in Palermo, a city blessed with exceptional examples of courage and civic commitment. To quote Leoluca Orlando, Euro-MP, re-elected mayor of Palermo for the fourth time in 1997, and the city's ''renaissance prince'': ''Palermo is no longer a silent swamp, but is more and more open to the outside world.'' Churches are being restored and re-opened, baroque villas are being restored for community use, the glorious Teatro Massimo, re-opened last year after 25 years of darkness, has begun a full season of opera, concerts, and ballet. The decrepit city centre is still decrepit, but its colourful markets and architectural delights invite the tourist to stroll without fear. A major force for change has been a ''cartel'' of Palermo anti-Mafia associations called ''Palermo Year One'', formed in 1993 to organise the first anniversary of the judges' murders.

Since then it has been responsible for a broad range of initiatives aimed at educating children to respect legality, at environmental improvements to the city, and the repossession of neglected city property.

One of its most successful projects, now in its fourth year, is ''Schools Adopt a Monument - Palermo Opens the Gates''. In 1997, several thousand children in 124 Palermo schools ''adopted'' 121 monuments - buildings, parks, fountains, or churches, which were then grouped into 13 different itineraries. During each of the four weekends in May, visitors could choose between two itineraries in central Palermo and two more outside the city boundaries, taking in eight or 10 monuments along the way. At every stop groups of pupils led visitors round the site, providing a historical, archaeological, or botanical description as appropriate. As a model for involving children in the conservation of their historical patrimony this simply cannot be bettered. One of the properties I visited, the eighteenth-century Villa Uscibene and park, had just been confiscated from an important Mafia boss, and scouts

were already at work to turn it into a cultural centre and botanical garden. In such cases the ''monument'' is chosen precisely because it has been neglected or abused - this has taught the children a sense of indignation and an awareness of the destructive force of the Mafia.

The inner-city itineraries took visitors meandering through streets where until recently only the intrepid tourist would have dared to venture, such as the old quarter of Albergheria. The community centre of San Saverio in Albergheria, run by priest Father Cosimo Scordato, is proof of how individual effort can transform a neighbourhood. On Sundays the magnificent baroque church of San Francesco Saverio offers a welcome to all-comers; during the rest of the week it serves as a meeting hall for trade unionists, pensioners, or citizens' groups, an art gallery, or concert hall. Benches and potted plants in the square outside make it an attractive place to sit and watch the world go by; a bar and trattoria serve splendid home-made ice cream and local specialities; a travel agency offers tours of the city (in English) and youth hostel facilities.

Local co-operatives provide services such as cleaning and assistance to the old. All these init- iatives, which have stimulated work and a sense of pride among local residents, owe their existence to the San Saverio centre. Father Cosimo, who also

teaches theology at Palermo University, insists that the Church must teach struggle, not hatred, must communicate solidarity and tenderness through humility, not with arrogance. However his attitude to the city's administra-

tors is neither tender nor humble,

and his determination to wrest funds

for restoring local housing and to

create stable employment in Alberg-heria is formidable.

In terms of economic stimulus and job creation, the centre-left government under Romano Prodi has done precious little for Sicily, according to the major-ity of voters in May's local elections. Nor has it been capable of steering the anti-Mafia fight out of the emergency of 1992 into a comprehensive, long-term political strategy that tackles not only the repressive but also the socio-

economic aspects of the Mafia phen-omenon. Poor political results are not the only evidence of this lack of attention: in May one of Italy's richest

heroin traffickers was able to stroll out of prison and on down to Malaga, whence a combination of luck and good detective work brought him back in handcuffs; a relaxation of harsh prison rules imposed on Mafiosi in 1992 means they can still command from their top security cells - in one case a smuggled mobile phone was used to issue assassination orders; in another, a 10-year-old boy was given a murder instruction to carry to his father's henchman. Two Mafia prisoners rec-ently escaped through a tunnel from a supposedly secure courtroom leaving a cheeky message of ciao ciao for the red-faced authorities. Urgent legislative reforms have been neglected. And the chief anti-Mafia prosecutor in Reggio Calabria has resigned because the manpower and resources he has requested for five years have not been forthcoming.

Some believe that 1992 marked the beginning of the end for Cosa Nostra, and a turning point in the national consciousness. Others, more cynically, feel the changes have been cosmetic and the politicians took a firm stand when it was electorally imperative to do so, salving their consciences with a package of harsh measures to obtain quick results. Nowadays a continuing pre-occupation with the Mafia is almost discouraged, an unpopular reminder of the past at a time when future prosperity beckons through Brussels's welcoming doors. Yet the message from the four southern regions is an urgent one - without constant attention to the Mafia phenomenon the successes so far obtained will go for nothing, and the sacrifice of the judges and their loyal bodyguards will have been in vain. The politicians ignore it at their peril.

n Alison Jamieson is the author of The Antimafia to be published in 1999 by Macmillan Press.