An impressive resume: His “career” began in the ‘50s with a string of crimes. After a prison term, he was on the lam for 24 years. He was responsible for thousands of murders. Then he was in jail for 24 years serving 26 life sentences. He transformed Sicilian organized crime into a terrorist organization. He remained “Capo dei capi” (the boss of the bosses) of the Mafia until his death in a prison hospital in Parma at the age of 87. He had lived in a high-security prison for the most hardened criminals.
Totò Riina never repented. Omertà until the end. On the day of his death in November 2017, one of his daughters left a Facebook message: A photo of a black rose superimposed on a face of a woman half obscured. Her forefinger, tattooed with “shhh,” in front of her lips. Silence.
The story of Riina is above all the story of a group of cruel and ruthless thugs from the town of Corleone in Sicily, who climbed the hierarchy of Cosa Nostra, which had its own rules, its own laws, its own distorted morality. Riina’s criminal baptism began at the age of 18 when he killed a guy during a brawl. As was common then, he was recruited by the Mafia by the time he got out of prison. During the ‘70s and ‘80s when he was on the lam, he ordered thousands of deaths, many of which he executed himself. In 1979, the summer of terror, he unleashed a war that devastated Sicily. By 1981 his military force enabled him to openly eliminate all the heads of families that resisted him, making him the Capo dei capi.
Riina killed or had killed carabinieri, magistrates, union members, journalists, doctors, and regional and political officials. Among the most notable were Piersanti Mattarella, the president of the region and brother of Sergio Mattarella, the current president of the Republic; and Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa, who had been sent to Sicily to curb the mafia. Most were innocent victims in a conflict to solidify power and territory.
Then the Maxi trial began in 1986 led by two courageous magistrates, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino (see posts “The Courage to be Heroes” from August 2017). Still at large, Riina was sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment. When his sentence became definitive (after appeals), Riina declared war on the State and on the two judges who had sentenced him. Falcone and Borsellino were killed by car bombs in 1992.
Riina was captured in January 1993 in Palermo. He had never left Sicily. There are those who say that Bernardo Provenzano, a fellow Corleonese, “sold” him to the authorities. When his face appeared for the first time on television the day of his arrest, everyone was surprised. No one could imagine that a person so awkward and small and wild-eyed could be the brutal Mafioso that the judicial chronicles had painted.
Over the course of Riina’s incarceration, public officials arranged to wiretap him in order to understand better his thoughts, methods, and connections to people inside and outside of the mafia. What emerged were strange ramblings. He managed to say everything and the contrary of everything. In prison, Riina talked and jabbered with his companions during walks in the open air. Not surprising, in front of a judge, he had not opened his mouth. Silence.
Without a doubt, he had delusions of grandeur: “I became a huge thing, I became a king” and “I was always a man of honor…a great thinker…I am proud of everything that I did.” And he boasted about his murders. About the death of Falcone, “I put an end to ‘the tuna.’” He bragged about the murder of general Dalla Chiesa, and he claimed responsibility for the massacre of Borsellino in one of his last intercepted wiretaps.
It will be interesting to see how the Mafia evolves after his death. It is believed that neither the Camorra nor the ‘Ndraghetta wish to imitate Riina. Before him, the Mafia operated in secrecy and did not wish to attract the spotlight. In this way, people could conceive of the Mafia as loose bands of thugs without much coordination and power. But when Riina unleashed terror on the State–his brand of exerting power–he turned the spotlight on the Mafia and caused an immense backlash.
But much remains mysterious about Riina’s dealings and his connections. He will take his secrets with him to the grave. But the investigations into the murders of Falcone and Borsellino are ongoing…even after 25 years. The latest state-of-the-art investigations are being conducted on evidence recovered near the crater of Capaci where Falcone’s car blew up: Two gloves, a flashlight, and a tube of mastic. A mysterious couple apparently were present near the attack on the afternoon of May 23, 1992. So far, there are no DNA matches.
The mysteries continue….