ROME -- Judge Giovanni Falcone was a friend of mine. He was also a brave and decent man who had taken on an extraordinary job: prosecuting the Mafia on its home turf in Sicily. He was the closest thing Italy had to a living symbol of resistance to organized crime.

I last saw Judge Falcone on May 21 at dinner in my home. Two days later he was dead. He, his wife and three Sicilian special anti-terrorist agents assigned to be with him at all times were brutally murdered by the Mafia -- killed by a huge bomb while traveling on the autostrada near Palermo.

Through the 1980s, Judge Falcone spearheaded the efforts of Sicily's renowned anti-Mafia pool of magistrates. He built extensive and complex legal cases against notorious Mafia figures, and brought them to court in "maxi-trials" involving hundreds of Mafiosi at a time. His investigative abilities and indefatigable work habits, his sincerity, honesty and bravery were an inspiration not only to his colleagues but to those members of the Mafia who were ready to "talk." It was these qualities that enabled Judge Falcone to penetrate the Mafia code of silence and expose the workings of a sophisticated, complex and vicious organization. Through it all, he remained a man of honor.

Gianni Falcone was also a true friend of America. He worked closely with U.S. officials against those operating the notorious "pizza connection," which distributed heroin all along the East Coast of the United States. His efforts, cooperation and invaluable experience in this difficult arena were instrumental in the convictions of 21 of 22 defendants on charges of trafficking, racketeering and money laundering.

Judge Falcone's death was front-page news everywhere in Europe. His funeral, televised nationally, saw him mourned by an array of government leaders. At the services in Palermo, I felt the emotional distress of thousands of mourners as they crowded into the basilica, while more than 10,000 people lined the streets outside to pay their last respects to the Sicilian judge who had come to symbolize their hopes of escaping the Mafia.

The most moving moment came in a tearful public plea by the widow of one of Falcone's slain bodyguards. She forgave the men who killed her husband, but pleaded with them to change their ways.

But among other Sicilians, who have suffered for generations under the yoke of the Mafia, it was clear there was a feeling of deep anger, a desire that justice be done at last. There were cries for liberation from a system that enslaves the Sicilian people and forces them to sell their souls. It is a system that funnels taxes from working people to the construction of buildings that are never completed. It is a system that controls the water supply of the people of southern Italy and Sicily, and that dictates to farmers what can and cannot be produced.

This tyranny cannot last. The Mafia must be destroyed. As the Italian government was able to defeat the Red Brigade terrorists of the 1970s, so Italy will also defeat the Mafia. It was the murder of Prime Minister Aldo Moro that galvanized the population in its fight against terrorism. We can only hope that the murder of Judge Falcone will do the same for the fight against the Mafia.

Gianni Falcone's mission was to engage the Mafia and defeat it. It is up to us -- both Italians and Americans, for the Mafia is an evil that exists in both Sicily and America -- to take up where he left off, and to continue his battle. This is a battle in which more than power will be decisive. An essential element in winning it will be a change of attitude among the people.

Hollywood must stop portraying the Mafia as an honorable, romantic and somehow quaint fraternity and show it for what it is: an organization of crude, dangerous people who will not hesitate to kill the best among us if they stand in its way. It showed this most clearly in its assassination of Giovanni Falcone. I hope his death will not go for naught.

The writer is U.S. ambassador to Italy.