Salvatore Riina, Sicilian Mafia’s ‘Boss of Bosses,’ Is Dead

  • Godfather ordered killings of judges Falcone and Borsellino
  • Took control in internal war which cost some 1,000 lives

Salvatore “the Beast” Riina, the Sicilian mafia godfather who ordered the killings of judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, as well as politicians and mobsters, has died. He had turned 87 the day before his death.

Riina died in the early hours of Friday at the section for prisoners in Parma’s hospital, in northern Italy, according to newswire Ansa, which did not say where it got the information from. Ansa said he had been in a coma since the second of two operations in recent weeks. Serving a series of life sentences following his arrest in 1993, he had long suffered from heart problems.

Salvatore Riina in 1993.

Photographer: Franco Origlia/Getty Images

The head of the Corleone crime family bludgeoned his way to the top of Cosa Nostra, as the Sicilian mafia is known, in internal wars in which about 1,000 people were murdered between 1981 and 1983. His brutal policies nearly put the criminal conglomerate out of business, disgusting once-complicit local potentates and terrifying some mobsters, prompting them to turn state’s witnesses.

The most notorious crimes of the so-called “boss of bosses” were the highway bomb killing of judge Falcone, and the car-bomb murder of Falcone’s friend and colleague Borsellino, in 1992. The two murders spurred a state crackdown in which many mobsters were captured and jailed, including Riina himself.

‘Don Corleone’ Birthplace

Riina was born Nov. 16, 1930, to a peasant family in the small town of Corleone south of the island capital Palermo -- a birthplace later introduced to the world in Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel “The Godfather” featuring fictional mob boss Don Corleone, played by Marlon Brando on screen. As a teenager, Riina helped mobster Luciano Liggio steal cattle and wheat from local farmers, and was recruited as a member of Cosa Nostra.

After serving jail sentences for crimes including murder, Riina went on the run in 1969, organizing in that year the killing of four people in a mob hit which marked the start of the Corleone family’s rise to prominence. His accomplice Bernardo Provenzano led a five-man squad wearing police uniforms to kill rival boss Michele “the Cobra” Cavataio with machine guns and sawed-off shotguns.

“The murders showed the ferocious face of the mafia, and in some ways marked the Americanization of the mob here in Sicily,” said Salvatore Lupo, professor of history at the University of Palermo. A Palermo court convicted Riina and Provenzano of the killing in 2009 and gave them life sentences.

‘White Shotgun’

The mafia wars Riina and his clan fought to win supremacy over the syndicate claimed the lives of rival bosses in Palermo and across Sicily, several of whom disappeared without trace in “white shotgun” killings -- bodies were burnt or dissolved in acid. Riina became the head of a new commission ruling Cosa Nostra in 1982, infiltrating Sicilian politics and businesses with drugs, extortion and kidnapping rackets.

Officials seen as hampering Riina or his corrupt political allies were eliminated, including anti-mafia campaigners Piersanti Mattarella, head of Sicily’s regional government and the brother of current Italian President Sergio Mattarella, and Pio La Torre, local head of the Italian Communist Party.

After a Palermo court imposed heavy sentences on more than 400 mobsters in 1987, including Riina who was convicted in absentia to life imprisonment, the godfather ordered a vendetta against that verdict’s chief architect, prosecutor Falcone.

Falcone, his wife and three police bodyguards were killed by a bomb containing an estimated half ton of explosives detonated on a highway outside Palermo in May 1992. Fifty-seven days later in July, Falcone’s colleague Borsellino and five police bodyguards died when explosives packed into a car parked outside the home of Borsellino’s mother’s were detonated.

Vat of Acid

As mafiosi turned informers in the wake of the judges’ killings, Riina ordered the murder of the mobsters and their families. When Mario Santo Di Matteo, who took part in Falcone’s killing, turned state’s evidence, the mafia’s revenge was particularly chilling. Di Matteo’s son Giuseppe was kidnapped in November 1993, held and tortured for a year and a half, and then thrown into a vat of acid in an attempt to convince Di Matteo not to testify.

The betrayal of Riina’s former driver Baldassare Di Maggio led to the godfather’s arrest on Jan. 15, 1993, outside a Palermo house he had been living in -- after more than two decades on the run. Fellow Corleone native Provenzano took over as undisputed leader, but was himself captured by police in 2006 in a shepherd’s shack outside Corleone.

Riina and his wife, Antonietta Bagarella, had four children: Maria Concetta Riina, Giovanni Riina, Giuseppe Riina and Lucia Riina. Giuseppe Riina served almost nine years in prison for mafia association until his release in 2011.

— With assistance by Kevin Costelloe

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