Salvatore “Totò” Riina Sicilian mafia’s ‘boss of bosses’ dies at 87

The Guardian – By Stephanie Kirchgaessner/Rome & Lorenzo Tondo/Corleone – Nov 17, 2017

Photo: Salvatore ‘Toto’ Riina is led handcuffed into Bologna’s bunker-courtroom by Italian paramilitary police in January 1996. Photograph: Gianni Schicchi/AP.

One of Italy’s most feared mobsters, who led powerful Cosa Nostra, dies in hospital while serving multiple life sentence.

Salvatore “Totò” Riina’s son was 17 years old when his father ordered him to strangle a kidnapped businessman in the countryside – a killing that would mark the boy’s formal entry into the Cosa Nostra.

It was just one example of the murderous reign of terror that Riina, who died in a prison hospital bed early on Friday morning, inflicted on Italy for nearly four decades as the “boss of bosses” of the Sicilian mafia.

Nicknamed “the Beast” because of his cruelty, Riina was an unrepentant criminal who not only assassinated his criminal rivals on an unprecedented scale in the 1980s and 90s, but also targeted the prosecutors, journalists, and judges who sought to stand in his way.

In the end, it was Riina who was defeated.

The Sicilian mafia is far weaker now, left in disarray by Riina, who sought unsuccessfully to lead it from his prison cell in Parma. The crime syndicate still exists, and still shapes people’s social and economic lives in parts of Sicily, but it is a shadow of what it once was, undermined by the relentless scrutiny of Italian police and prosecutors and unable to regain its dominance of the illegal drug trade.

If anyone beat Riina, it was the legacy of his most famous victim, Giovanni Falcone, the anti-mafia judge murdered in a car bomb Riina ordered in 1992.

“Riina’s death marks the end of an era,” said Federico Varese, a mafia expert at Oxford University. “You can compare him to [the Colombian drug lord] Pablo Escobar. Both launched a direct attack against the state and that created a backlash.”

Riina was serving multiple life sentences after convictions for ordering 150 murders, though experts believe the true figure was much higher. He died while he was in a medically induced coma following cancer treatment.

In his birth city of Corleone, immortalised as a mafia stronghold by The Godfather book and film trilogy, responses to Riina’s death were mixed. While young people saw the death as a chance for the town to escape its corrupt reputation, elderly people recalled Riina with fondness, describing the mafia boss as a gentleman.

Photo: Riina was a native of the small Sicilian town of Corleone, made famous by the Godfather films. Photograph: Reuters.

“When Riina was around, everybody had a job here in Corleone,” said Paolo, 77. “These men gave us jobs. I knew him. I knew him very well. It’s a day like the other as you can see. But not a day to celebrate.”

Riina rose to power in the mid-1970s, when he became the de facto leader of the Corleone crime family. Sicily had become a hub for the heroin trade into the US following the Vietnam war, and Riina became fixated on the narcodollars that he saw flowing to his rivals in Palermo.

Photo: A young Salvatore Riina.

He created new alliances and staged a bloody coup using his death squads, said John Dickie, a mafia expert and author of Mafia Republic. “He assassinated his rivals. He killed all of them, hundreds of them, he literally ethnically cleansed them out of Palermo,” Dickie said.

Mario Francese was the first journalist to expose the role of Riina and the Corleonesi within the Sicilian mafia and was killed in 1979. “I have never sought revenge for my father’s death, only justice,” his son Giulio, a journalist, said on Friday.

While other mafia bosses were also brutal, Riina was less invested in maintaining peace, and less closely linked to politicians. His rise marked a new level of violence: he ordered the notorious murder of a 13-year old boy who was kidnapped, strangled, and dissolved in acid, to send a message to those who might turn against him – and the Italian state was forced to respond.

The so-called Maxi trial, a series of cases beginning in 1986 that targeted the mafia, led to the indictment of nearly 500 mafiosi, many of whom who were sentenced to life in prison. The trials represented a formal acknowledgement of how pervasive the mafia was in Sicily.

Riina responded with brute force: ordering the murders of Falcone and, two months later, another judge, Paolo Borsellino. He also mounted more attacks on the Italian mainland in an effort to get the state to back down.

It did not.

Riina was arrested in Palermo in 1993. Counted among his official victims was Piersanti Mattarella, the president of Sicily, who was shot dead in his car in 1980. His brother, Sergio, now serves as Italy’s head of state.

Photo: Riina poses for a police photograph in 1993. Photograph: Reuters.

Although Riina was the subject of special measures to to cut off his ability to communicate from prison, he still made attempts, and never ceded his title of the boss of bosses.

In July, as his cancer worsened, a court denied his family’s request to transfer him home to Sicily. Doctors said he was still lucid, and he was caught on wiretap this year saying he regretted nothing.

“They’ll never break me, even if they give me 3,000 years,” he said.

Many rivals of Riina fled to the US during his years of terror, some of whom have came back to try to re-establish the Cosa Nostra’s dominance.

The last time the crime network’s governing committee met was in 1993. “To the best of our knowledge they have tried twice and everyone trying to attend has been arrested both times,” Dickie said.

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From the New York Times Obituaries – By Jason Horowitz – Nov 17, 2017

ROME — Salvatore Riina, the Mafia’s murderous “boss of bosses,” who earned multiple life sentences and the nickname the Beast for his cruelty and for unleashing a war against law enforcement that claimed the lives of Italian prosecutors and police officers, died early Friday in a hospital in the northern Italian city of Parma. He was 87.

As the head of Sicily’s infamous Cosa Nostra crime syndicate sincethe 1970s, Mr. Riina, known as Totò, had a long criminal reach that spilled blood across Italy and extended a black hand of extortion and trafficking across the globe.

He retaliated against the Italian government’s campaign to crush the Mafia by striking back hard, ordering in 1992 the bombing assassinations of two leading anti-Mafia magistrates, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. He also orchestrated the kidnapping, strangling and dissolving in acid of the young son of a mob informer.

In 1993, the Italian authorities captured Mr. Riina in Sicily’s capital, Palermo, and judges ultimately gave him 26 life sentences. He spent a good deal of the next quarter-century in isolation, with little time outside his cell in Milan.

Photo: A car bombing ordered by Mr. Riina killed Paolo Borsellino, Sicily’s top anti-Mafia investigator, and his bodyguards in 1992. Credit Alessandro Fucarini/Associated Press.

The Italian justice minister, Andrea Orlando, allowed family members to visit Mr. Riina in the hospital on Thursday, his birthday. He had four children, one of whom, Salvo, wrote on Facebook, “You’re not Totò Riina to me, you’re just my dad.” Another of Mr. Riina’s sons is in prison for committing four murders.

Mr. Riina, who was rife with nicknames — he was also called U Curtu, or Shorty, because of his 5-foot-2 height — came from Corleone, a town in the Sicilian hinterland made famous as the birthplace of the fictional character Vito Corleone in the “Godfather” movies.

But Mr. Riina’s butchery was all too real. After serving time in his youth for killing a man in an argument, he became a soldier under the Mafia boss Luciano Leggio. He rose through the ranks, eliminating competitors and at times running his gang in hiding, though apparently always from Sicily. By the early 1980s, Mr. Riina had solidified his dominance over the island and its global criminal activities.

Photo: Former Mafia boss Luciano Leggio.

His organization’s tentacles reached deep into all facets of Italian life, from small businesses forced to pay for protection, to large sectors of commerce, where they skimmed millions of dollars. In Sicily, the mob had a reputation for delivering votes in exchange for favors. And nationally, Italy’s leading politicians were often accused of entanglements with the sticky, and often invisible, Mafia web.

Mr. Riina’s onetime driver, who became a state informant, alleged that Giulio Andreotti, a former prime minister who dominated postwar Italian politics, once exchanged an embrace and kiss with Mr. Riina. Mr. Andreotti denied it.

The codes of omertà, or silence, that governed the Mafia and protected its bosses began to erode in the 1980s as rival families and informants turned state’s evidence. Enormous trials in the early 1990s resulted in the arrest and jailing of more than 300 gangsters.

Photo:  Salvatore Riina was placed behind bars in the courtroom during a trial in Rome in April 1993. Credit Giulio Broglio/Associated Press.

Tommaso Buscetta, a crucial Mafia turncoat living in the United States under witness protection after losing out to Mr. Riina in Sicily, began to testify in such trials in 1984. He eventually mapped out a criminal organization presided over by Mr. Riina. In response, Mr. Riina is said to have ordered the murder of Mr. Buscetta’s two sons, his brother and 33 of his other relatives.

But it was the bombing murders in Sicily of the two anti-Mafia magistrates, Mr. Borsellino (and five of his bodyguards) and Mr. Falcone (along with his wife and two bodyguards) that shook Italians the most and doomed Mr. Riina. Subsequent bombings in Rome, Milan and Florence in 1993 led to the crackdown on the Mafia and also contributed to the collapse of an old political guard corroded by corruption.

Upon Mr. Riina’s arrest in 1993, the mayor of Corleone at the time proclaimed it “a moment of liberation for us.” Children were let out of school to celebrate.

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Posted by Teri Perticone


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