A Trial Tests Sicily’s Dark Soul

Decrease Font Size Increase Font Size Text Size Print This Page

Ceremonies in Italy have been marking 20 years since the murder of anti-Mafia prosecutor Giovanni Falcone.

Prime Minister Mario Monti joined thousands gathered in Palermo, Falcone’s birthplace, capital of the autonomous region of Sicily, and the centre of his fight against organised crime.

The anniversary comes less than a week after a bomb attack on a vocational school in Brindisi, on the southern Italian mainland, in which a 16-year-old girl was killed and several others were wounded.

The school was named after Falcone’s wife, Francesca Morvillo. Although authorities have said the Brindisi attacker was probably an individual with no links to the mafia, mourners for the victims demanded gang members be arrested.

Falcone was killed by the Mafia on the 23 May 1992. A 500-kilogramme bomb under the Palermo Airport motorway detonated as his motorcade drove over it. His wife and three bodyguards were also killed.

Falcone’s work had led to a huge trial in 1986 and 1987. This revolutionised the fight against the Sicilian Mafia clans, and 360 mafiosi were convicted.

Below we reprint in full the article written during that time by Frank Viviano, then working as Staff Writer for the San Francisco Chronicle

Frank Viviano, Chronicle Staff Writer Monday, May 1, 1995
(05-01) 04:00 PDT Caltanissetta, Italy — It was inevitable, in Sicily, that the killing of Judge Giovanni Falcone would be understood as a profoundly religious drama rather than a mere criminal event. Three years ago, in a bomb blast that obliterated half a mile of autostrada west of Palermo, Italy’s most revered Mafia hunter was erased from the face of the Earth — allegedly on the orders of Salvatore (Toto) Riina, the Mafia’s most ruthless don.

Riina and 40 other defendants were arraigned for the murder in Caltanissetta on April 19, when the frenzied Easter rites that bring normal affairs to a standstill in Sicily were still in full swing. The trial, which opens tomorrow, is expected to last several months.

In the long annals of Italian organized crime, no two figures have ever been better cast for an updated passion play than Riina, 65, and Falcone, who was 53 when he died.

Falcone, born and raised in the crumbling medieval heart of Palermo, a fertile Mafia recruiting ground, was a poor man who dedicated himself to a relentless struggle against crime. Like Christ before Good Friday, he predicted his own death — during another Easter week, no less — announcing to a startled group of reporters that “Falcone will die in 1992.”

The bomb exploded a month later on May 23, killing Falcone, his wife, Judge Francesca Morvillo, and three bodyguards.

Toto Riina, a product of the mountain town of Corleone, is a strong candidate for evil incarnate.

Even his fellow mafiosi were shocked by his eagerness to kill. Riina rewrote the Cosa Nostra rule book, tossing out the sanctions against murdering mothers and children, bombing churches and museums, declaring open war on the entire edifice of civil society.

He has already been sentenced to nine life terms for murder and is believed to have personally shot or strangled at least 39 people and masterminded the assassinations of up to 1,000 others.

“If someone’s finger hurts, it’s better to cut off his arm than take chances,” Riina is said to have remarked after a particularly vicious episode.

judge was `horrified’

“As a child, I had breathed the air of the Mafia with every breath — the extortions, the assassinations,” Falcone once told an interviewer. “I was horrified by the brutality, the murders, the aggression. The Cosa Nostra was like an inexorable lava flow, responsible for all the evils in the world.”

The moral resonance of the Riina-Falcone clash — a collision of unmitigated darkness and uncompromising virtue — could hardly escape Sicilians, who have been bred on intense religious symbolism for more than a thousand years.

The paradigm is complete with the exception of a single — but crucial — detail.

Easter is about redemption, about the triumph of virtue. It remains to be seen whether the Riina trial will redeem Falcone’s hope for a new Sicily or plunge the island back into the murderous night.

The setting of the trial is the Malaspina Palace of Justice, a massive concrete structure that locals call “the bunker.” The proceedings were moved from Palermo to Caltanissetta, a sulfur-mining city in the center of the island, because Malaspina is regarded as bomb- proof.

On Easter Sunday, when Riina arrived by armored car from Palermo’s Ucciardone Prison, the streets around the bunker were closed to traffic. Visibly nervous Alpini troops, drawn from Italy’s elite mountain infantry division, patrolled the area in full battle gear.

To apply for admission to the press gallery, reporters presented their credentials to an official enclosed in a solid steel guard box. The muzzle of his assault rifle, pushed through a small aperture in the box, was jammed into the applicant’s stomach until the transaction was completed.


Inside Malaspina, senior prosecutor Giovanni Tinebra waited, backed up by the largest mountain of evidence ever accumulated for an Italian trial: 60,000 pages of depositions, notes and documents.

Much of it is the work of Falcone himself, an immensely detailed portrait of the Cosa Nostra compiled by the judge over two decades as a magistrate and investigator.

Along with his closest associate, prosecutor Paolo Borsellino — killed by another Mafia bomb in July 1992 — Falcone persuaded hundreds of criminal pentiti, or Mafia turncoats, to turn state’s evidence. It is their testimony that identified Riina as the capo dei tutti capi, presiding over what was a $20 billion-a-year international empire by the late 1980s.

Falcone’s files chart the complex organizational hierarchy of the Cosa Nostra, outline its money- laundering links to respectable banks and eminent legislators, and name its hit men and bag men.

“What Giovanni discovered,” says the late judge’s sister, Maria Falcone, “is an enormous network of collusion that binds the Mafia to Italian society at every level and in every walk of life: in the professions, in many agencies of the state, in politics.”

Before justice is done, she told reporters the day before the arraignment, “a great deal more must be unearthed.”

The late judge was “the only person who was able to understand and explain just why the Sicilian Mafia is a logical, rational, functional and implacable social system,” says Marcelle Padovani, a leading organized crime expert.

Logical. Rational. Functional and implacable. Padovani might well be describing Falcone himself, whose utter absorption in the Mafia war was the stuff of astonished wonder in the Italian bureaucracy.

He had a mission, that was clear to everyone. And it went beyond simply putting the dons behind bars. If you knew what the Mafia was all about, Falcone often said — if you studied it and laid bare its hidden bones — the war could be pursued in the light. It could be won.

In a Sicily ruled since time immemorial by emotion and fear, he meant to plant respect for the documented fact.

killings down, then up

The gangland homicide rate in Italy, which approached 1,000 assassinations per year when Falcone and Borsellino died, fell precipitously after Toto Riina’s arrest in January 1993.

Two months ago, when a tentative date for Riina’s trial was announced, the toll suddenly mounted. By the end of March, shootings and bombings had again become a near-daily event in Palermo and the Mafia towns of the interior.

Virtually all the victims were relatives of the pentiti scheduled to testify in one of three trials: the Riina case, a companion trial now under way in Rome for the slaying of Borsellino, and the forthcoming trial of seven-time Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti for his alleged connections to the mob.

The bloodbath had two immediate effects: After Riina was arraigned April 19, the court postponed the trial. The government was unable to name substitute judges who would be ready to step in should something “happen” to the current magistrates.

Eventually, substitutes were found, and the May 2 date was set.

refusing to testify

The second effect was that key witnesses among the 899 pentiti began refusing to cooperate with the prosecution.

But the salient facts were already on the front pages of Italian newspapers, drawn from years of independent investigations, and hundreds of interviews with pentiti and government sources arranged by Falcone before his death.

“In a sense, both the prosecution in this murder case and the press coverage are led by the dead man,” says reporter Francesco Viviano of the newspaper La Repubblica. (That there were two reporters named Viviano covering this trial — respectively from Palermo and San Francisco — is one of those coincidences that Sicilians take for granted. A century of immigration has spawned four generations of lost cousins abroad.)

To be Sicilian is to bear the legacy of the Mafia as an inescapable curse. For Francesco Viviano, Toto Riina represents far more than just another criminal, and the dream of Judge Giovanni Falcone is more than another story angle.

The best of the Sicilian journalists who regularly cover the Mafia — which necessarily means the bravest — take the judge as their conscious model. The details in their articles are minute, precise, like Falcone’s own investigations.

how it happened

This is what readers learned in the dispatches of Francesco Viviano and his colleagues, as Toto Riina sat in the Malaspina bunker:

The car carrying Falcone and Morvillo on May 23, 1992, was traveling at more than 100 miles per hour when it passed over 1,100 pounds of explosives that were buried under the autostrada near the town of Capaci. The two judges were returning to Palermo after what was intended to be a secret trip to Rome.

Riina’s men on the mainland sent word the instant Falcone’s plane lifted off from Rome. Riina’s men at Palermo’s Punta Raisi Airport signaled its arrival 55 minutes later.

The explosives had been delivered to Sicily from a warehouse in Tuscany, hidden in a shipment of skateboards. Corleone gunman Giocchino La Barbera — now one of the reluctant pentiti — drove behind the judge’s convoy, providing information on its progress by cellular phone.

On a hillside above Capaci, two other Riina underlings, Antonino Gioe and Giovanni Brusca, prepared an electronic triggering device.

The bomb went off at exactly 5:58 p.m. Giuseppe Constanza, Falcone’s driver, somehow survived. Riina is said to have complained that Gioe and Brusca detonated the explosives five seconds late.

“It is commonly believed that the Mafia prefer certain techniques of assassination to others,” Falcone once wrote. “This is not true. The Mafia always chooses the shortest and least dangerous path. That is its only principle.”

good friday

At 3 p.m. on Good Friday, Christ is proclaimed dead on the Cross, and two processions wend their way through the streets of every Sicilian city, town and village. In the fishing port of Cefalu, roughly 6,000 of the 14,000 citizens are in one procession, a priest says. An equal number are in the second.

They march, separately, behind two images: a wooden Christ, prone on a funeral bier, and a terra cotta Virgin.

The two statues are carried to opposite ends of the town’s central piazza. Heedless of a drenching rain, the crowd parts between them, leaving a long, empty corridor across which the terra cotta mother gazes at her dead son.

Then 12,000 people fall absolutely silent. For half an hour, the silence reigns. It is broken only by the murmur of public weeping, until the church bells sound a dirge and the two processions set forth once again.

They will march, almost silently — the marchers beating chains on the ground, some throwing themselves against the bier in an effort to halt it — until past midnight.

Death and mourning have a millennial hold on Sicilians. The cool logic of pure, documented fact that mattered so much to Giovanni Falcone confronts a wall of emotional silence here, a deep resignation in the face of endlessly repeated loss.

“The culture of death does not belong solely to the Mafia,” the judge wrote the year that he was killed. “All of Sicily is impregnated with it.”

The hope is that the memory of Falcone, in life and death alike, has planted a new seed in this terrible soil.

In Termini Immerese, a longtime Cosa Nostra stronghold between Palermo and Cefalu, Antonino DiVittorio is among those who have embraced facts. He is in his mid-30s, a candidate of the center- left Progressive Coalition for the municipal council. DiVittorio is also a leader of Libera, a nationwide association that is trying to collect 1 million signatures for a campaign to seize the financial assets of convicted mafiosi and corrupt politicians.

Like everyone in Sicily, he clings to each detail in the prosecution of Salvatore Riina, reading each article over and over. “People are frightened,” he admits. “They don’t know when or where the next bomb may explode.”

DiVittorio hands out Libera brochures to a group of passers-by. “The truth is our only protection,” he says, echoing Falcone.

a visit to corleone

The road to Corleone climbs out of the lush valley of the Conca d’Oro, where Palermo sprawls away from a turquoise sea, into a moonscape of arid hills and sheep pasture.

There is no sign, in Riina’s hometown, of the vast tidal wave of money that has passed over Sicily since he became capo dei tutti capi and the Mafia expanded into a multibillion-dollar global enterprise.

Corleone is Third World poor, a hodgepodge of cinder-block houses and shuttered churches, set amid bare rocky peaks 35 miles south of the capital.

A few men stand in the piazza before the carabiniere post, where ribbons of black crepe from the Holy Week procession still hang on a palm.

When Toto Riina’s name is mentioned, people turn their backs and walk away.

Leave a Reply

Please Login to comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Notify of