By Silvia Martelli
He went to prison for the first time shortly after turning 18. The charge: killing a peer during a fight. This marked his premature ‘baptism’ into the Italian criminal world, earning him a sentence of 12 years. Nothing compared to what the encounter with Luciano Leggio, a then rampant Mafia boss, led to – it was Leggio who introduced him to Cosa Nostra, the criminal Sicilian syndicate.
Totò Riina, called Totò U Curtu (‘Totò The Short’) due to his height of 1.58 m, died of cancer in a prison hospital bed on 17 November, after damaging Italy for nearly four decades as the ‘boss of bosses’ of the Sicilian Mafia. He was serving multiple life sentences after convictions for ordering 150 murders, although experts believe the true figure is much higher.
Nicknamed ‘the Beast’ for his cruelty and ruthlessness, Riina was an unrepentant criminal. Not only did he assassinate his mafia rivals on an unprecedented scale in the 1980s and 90s, he also targeted the journalists, prosecutors, and judges who sought to stop, denounce, and punish his abominable actions.
Riina was given a life sentence during the Maxi Trial, after being proved guilty by the revelations of the first pentito (a mafioso who decides to collaborate with the police following his own arrest), Tommaso Buscetta. To avenge himself, he killed 11 of Buscetta’s relatives. When the trial was over and many others were also given life sentences, the Godfather declared war on the Italian State. He killed, among many, the anti-mafia judge Giovanni Falcone (his most famous enemy, murdered in a car bomb in 1992), and shortly after Paolo Borsellino, the Maxi Trial’s judge. The list of those he wanted to cease to exist was painfully long, and led to what history now remembers as the ‘Season of the Massacres’. Finally, in 1993, Riina was arrested after being on the run for 24 years.
Totò U Curtu, and more generally the organization he headed, made Sicily tremble and bleed for decades. The beautiful island in the Mediterranean Sea is the motherland of the Mafia, a term that now loosely refers to many criminal associations with similar purposes and methods to those of Cosa Nostra (e.g. the Russian Mafia). For years, the Italian region was infested with an unlimited series of assassinations, crimes and vendettas that newly-formed subordinate bodies, such as the Sicilian Mafia Commission, did not manage to annihilate for a long time. Portraying themselves as ‘protectors’ and ‘employers’ in a state that was not protecting nor employing its Southern citizens, the powerful Mafia families were deeply rooted in the territory. So much so, it was nigh on impossible to eradicate them. Even in the 1950s, many Sicilians still saw the Mafia not as a criminal organisation but rather as one that stood for defense of all rights.
Riina transformed Cosa Nostra (Our thing) into ‘his very own thing’, thanks to a personal list of dishuman massacres. In the end however, he was defeated. The criminal organization is now in decline and disarray, despite his vain attempts to preserve it whilst in prison. Although it still exists – controlling the territory, shaping business, sneaking into politics – it has become a shadow of what it used to be, unable to regain its dominance of the illegal drug trade, once a major scourge of the region. True recovery will however take time.
Undoubtedly, Riina will be forever remembered as the emblem of a period that many Italians want to forget – a time of growing power of the Mafia, numerous murders, a bloody fight against the state and many life sentences. The Mafia wars marked the lowest point in Sicily’s history, turning the beautiful region into a battlefield. Last March, in an interview with the Guardian, Palermo Mayor Leoluca Orlando highlighted that “today Palermo is the capital of culture, but back then it was the capital of the mafia. You found the mafiosi everywhere, on the streets, in the shops, in the banks”. Explaining he used to feel like a war correspondent, he continued: “I had been in Afghanistan, the Balkans, Iraq, but I had never felt so afraid as I did in Palermo during those years. I had to watch my back all the time. Every time the phone rang at my desk I was afraid they had killed the umpteenth journalist, policeman or judge”.
Although Cosa Nostra is now under under the vigilant scrutiny of the Italian police and prosecutors, the death of the Godfather leaves many questions unanswered: the relationship between Mafia and politics, the so called ‘perfect murders’, and on corruption and illegality. The criminal, who used to relentlessly repeat “I have become something immense, I am a king” and inexplicably define himself as an ‘honorable man’, has indeed taken all his secrets with him to his grave – nothing different should have been imagined from an individual who has never showed any sign of remorse. We now wonder who – or if anybody at all – will replace Riina, in the scenario of a current Mafia made of lonely wolves rather than of a precise, vertical structure of criminal power.