"By knowing the men of honor, I have learned ……..that Mafia logic is the logic of power, and it always works towards a purpose. Sometimes those Mafiosi strike me as the only rational beings in the world populated by madmen." - Giovanni Falcone to Marcello Padovani
"You’re the Maradona of the law: when you get the ball no one can get it off you." - Michele Greco, Mafia boss Croceverde Giardini addressing Falcone.
As long as there has been the Mafia there has been a place called Corleone.
In order to understand the life and death of Judge Giovanni Falcone, we have to come to terms with this strange, little town in the middle of the Sicilian nowhere.
General Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa (right) the Prefect of Palermo, assassinated by Cosa Nostra in 1982, always believed that the one town that held the key to the Mafia’s mystery was Corleone, whose cosca, or clan, it is alleged, originated lupara bianca, white shotgun, where the victim is taken, killed and then disappeared so his family and friends can never mourn him at his burial. A crime of refined savagery. Where they killed each other with such savagery and determination, that at one time in the town’s history, on a per capita basis, it was the murder capital of the world. Where in a world of omerta, the vow of silence a Mafioso takes on induction, the Corleone clan were beyond secrecy to be almost invisible at times, even to the other Mafia families across Sicily. They were almost a sect of invisible men. (1)
They may have been viddani, coarse-mannered peasants, but they were smart ones. And cunning. And deadlier than a box of angry snakes.
Posted there as a junior officer in the paramilitary police, the Carabinieri, in 1949, as part of an anti-bandit squad, (to track down Salvatore Giuliano and his gang of thieves and killers who operated, seemingly with impunity in the wilds of the mountainous country near his birthplace, Montelepre, fifty kilometers to the north of Corleone,) the young officer was soon crossing paths with the local Mafia clan.
Its boss was the town’s medical doctor, fat and balding, Michelle Navarra, who ministered to the sick and when it suited him, killed the living. His father Giuseppe, a schoolteacher, had also been Mafioso and an informant to the men who chased down Mafia criminals for Cesare Mori, the Prefect of Palermo, sent to Sicily in 1925, by Benito Mussolini, the Italian prime minister, to destroy them. This information lay in a police file in Corleone for over thirty years without emerging and destroying the good doctor’s reputation. A father as a snitch would not have gone down well in his circles.
Navarra’s gang of indentured thugs, men of honor they called themselves, was made up of between fifty and sixty: sons and fathers, brothers, cousins, uncles, nephews and some wild cards. There were three Lo Bues and three Ferraras and three Bonannos and four Pomillas, two Marinos and three Bagarellas, multiple Crisciones and Strevas and originally, only two Riinas. Until Salvatore returned from prison in September 1955 and became one of the gang’s best killers.
Sometimes called Toto, a common diminutive of Salvatore, and U Curtu, Shorty, for his diminutive stature, barley five-three, he was best known through his later life as La Belva, the beast. He had killed a man called Domenico Di Matteo in a brawl, in May 1949, during the religious procession of San Giovanni Evangelista, through town, shooting him multiple times with a 9mm pistol, and then spent over six years serving a prison sentence.
Salvatore Riina had been exposed to extreme violence as a young boy when his father attempted to dismantle an unexploded bomb he had found in the countryside in the summer of 1943. It had been dropped by an Allied aircraft attacking targets in Palermo. Giovanni Riina, like most of the town, lived hand to mouth and could use the casing for his plowshare, and the gunpowder to reload cartridges. As he attempted to open it, there was a massive explosion which killed him, his son Francesco and the family mule. Salvatore’s other brother, Gaetano was badly injured. Salvatore, standing in the corner of the room the family shared on Via Rua del Piano, was untouched. He saw half his family disintegrate and somehow maintained his hold on life. His impassivity and will-power would serve him well, in the years to come.
He was thirteen years old.
Dalla Chiesa came across Toto Riina when he was investigating the disappearance in 1948 of Placido Rizzotto, secretary of the Corleone Trade Union Headquarters, and thirty-four years later, the police officer and his wife would be shredded all over their little Fiat as they returned home from dinner, by a squad of killers wielding Kalashnikovs. Men working under Riina’s orders. The policeman and the Mafioso La Belva were linked by a long and torturous degree of separation which had started in Corleone and finished on Via Carini in Palermo on a dark and bloody night in September.
Dalla Chiesa was not the first officer in the carabinieri that Riina killed. In 1977 he had Colonel Giuseppe Russo murdered, one hot, August evening, in the forest of Ficuzza, near Corleone, using his brother-in-law, Leoluca Bagarella and his godson, Giovanni Brusca as part of the killing team. There were at least nine more officers in the force who would die at the hands of the Mafia before Riina was finally caught and imprisoned for life in 1993.
He went after magistrates and judges as well.
One would be Giovanni Salvatore Augusto Falcone.
He was born on May 18th, 1939, to a family who lived on the Via Castrofilippo near the seaport district of La Kalsa, a neighborhood in central Palermo that suffered extensive destruction by aerial attacks during the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943. His father, Arturo Falcone, the director of a provincial chemical laboratory, was married to Luisa Bentivegna. The boy’s family was solid, professional middle class. Very religious, attending church every Sunday, where, for a time, Giovanni served as an altar boy.
Like all the local kids, he loved playing soccer on the Piazza Magione, a grassy square surrounded by war-damaged, ruined buildings and a 12th-century church. One of his best friends was Paolo Borsellino, who would grow up to be a judge, just as Giovanni would. He also excelled at ping-pong and often played against Tommaso Spadaro in the local Catholic Action recreation center. Tommaso would grow up to be a Mafioso and come to be called The King of the Kalsa. First a cigarette smuggler then a major player in the burgeoning heroin trafficking business of the 1970s. At his appearance in the famous Maxiprocesso, or Maxi-Trial of 1986, it was claimed he laundered US$500 million through a Swiss bank in Lugano, Switzerland, between 1981 and 1983.
Falcone once said that he breathed the smell of the Mafia since he was a boy, although no one really knew just what these people were at this time. It would be almost a quarter of a century before Italy became aware of them as a malignant national force rather than a localized criminal anomaly. Sicily and its problems had been a dilemma for Rome since unification. In 1900, Alfredo Oriani, a writer and social critic, had painted the island as “A cancer at the foot of Italy. A province in which neither custom nor civil laws were possible.”
Giovanni studied hard and diligently and after a brief spell at the naval academy in Livorno, northern Italy, graduated from the University of Palermo with a degree in law in 1961 at the age of twenty-two. He practiced privately before being appointed a judge in 1964. (2)
His first position was as an auditor at the Palermo Palace of Justice, before transferring to Lentini, in south-east Sicily, where he came face to face with the realities of working at the coal-face: a construction worker killed in an accident; his first lupara shooting; a couple murdered by their grandson and dumped in a pigsty.
In 1966 he was transferred to Trapani as a deputy prosecutor. By this time, he was married to Rita Bonnici, a beautiful brunette he had met at a party, in 1962.
Trapani. A sleepy, provincial city in western Sicily, with as many banks as Switzerland. A place where everybody knew everybody and everybody knew that the Mafia and the Salvo brothers were the power behind everything that happened.
Falcone would serve twelve years in western Sicily, before returning to Palermo. It was here, that he received his first death threats from the local Mafia which he threw into his waste-paper basket. He grew to hate the concept of the Mafia’s invincibility, and strongly believed it could be destroyed by strong-willed and dedicated investigators.
In 1976, he was at the center of a full-scale emergency. When on a visit to the penitentiary on Favignana Island, about 24 kilometers south-west of Trapani, while taking a deposition from a prisoner, the man, Vincenza Oliva, serving a long sentence for many crimes, produced a shank, a home-made knife and held it to Falcone’s throat. After four hours of tense negotiation, the judge was released unharmed. According to witnesses, Falcone maintained a relaxed and calming disposition which helped the authorities pacify the agitated prisoner and ultimately, release his hostage, unharmed. This stoic, imperturbable bearing, would come to be a cornerstone of Falcone’s essentially fatalistic outlook on life in the years he would be fighting the Mafia.
His wife left him in 1978, as she was having an affair with Cristoforo Genna, the President of the Trapani Tribunal, and Falcone’s boss. It was an untenable position, and Giovanni applied for a posting back to the capitol.
His first appointment was in the bankruptcy court, and within two years he transferred to the Office of Instruction (Ufficio Istruzione), the investigative branch of the Prosecution Office of Palermo.
In 1979, at the home of a mutual friend, he met Francesca Laura Morvillo (right), a judge in the juvenile court of Palermo. Her marriage had also foundered. They formed a relationship and in 1983, moved into an apartment at 23 Via Notarbartolo in the city of Palermo. Following their divorces, they marry in May 1986. Their lives are irretrievably linked to the process of law and order. As will be their deaths.
Following his second marriage, Falcone is deeply immersed in the complex investigation of and struggle against the Mafia. He was part of a team of judges, set up in the early 1980s in the investigative branch of the Palermo prosecutor’s office. The pool had been set up by Judge Rocco Chinnici before he was assassinated by a Mafia hit squad in 1983.
By this time, Salvatore Riina had gathered together cosche (Mafia families) from across Sicily, under his banner, and these became known generically, as Il Coreleonesi. Using their collective strength, La Belva waged war within Cosa Nostra.
In the beginning, the Palermo families had nothing but scorn for Shorty from the hills. The big, tough clans of Cinisi and Santa Maria di Gesù and Passo di Rigano and Ciaculli referred to him as un picciuttunazzi, a little thug, from Corleone. They would learn, to their cost, he was all that, but much more. In four years, he would stand Cosa Nostra on its ear and the tough clans would all crumble before his cunning and savagery. Palermo, the fifth biggest city in Italy became a no-go area for the victims of the Corleonesi.
Attilio Bolzoni saw it as a prisoner of its own shadows.
Riina (left) began killing everyone who stood in his way. The Corleonesi were like hyenas who ate everything they could find. They displayed at times, a form of psychopathic nihilism that would not be matched until the emergence of ISIS twenty-six years later. Their spies were everywhere: In the police, among politicians, in local and regional government, even in the church. In a three-year period, Riina supervised the murder of three magistrates, the Sicilian Regional Assembly President, three Carabinieri officers, six state police officers, eight businessmen, General Dalla Chiesa, a journalist, dozens of witnesses, and up to a thousand men from within the Mafia. He was, according to Attilio Bolzoni, the investigative reporter, the most dangerous man ever born in Sicily.
The great Mafia war was over by 1982, and now it was the turn of the state to suffer.
In a world that was turning so bad, it was hard to decide whether to run or go blind, Giovanni Falcone and his team, Paolo Borsellino, Leonardo Guarnotta and Giuseppe Di Lello tried to make sense of the incomprehensible. Working under the direction of Antonino Caponnetto, the Anti-Mafia pool was created to attack organized crime as a specific target. In this almost Sisyphean struggle, they understood that they were fighting an enemy of truly evil dimensions; one guided by deadly capriciousness and guile and ferocious in its unlimited energy, violence on a Grand Guignol scale.
If only they could connect the dots that linked all the Mafia dead across Palermo City and the countryside to their source. Understand the hieroglyphics that made up the landscape of something they could sense but not yet understand. One thing they did know: they were fighting a power system which through its pathology of oppression was taking control of institutional and political energy and as a result of its widespread and deeply embedded culture, was turning into a second state.
A big problem Falcone and his team found was that not only were they fighting the Mafia, in a macabre and disturbing way, they were fighting themselves.
As Alexander Stille points out (4) the problem with the Italian system of law was its extreme fragmentation. There were over 150 separate judicial departments across the country, each supporting its own police investigators and prosecutors. There was no centralized data bank to link their inquiries into a common source. No organized crime strike forces, no FBI or Drug Enforcement Agency as in America. Their equipment was basic and often dated. The Mafia, on the other hand, was fast and agile and moving increasingly on a national and international front. Italian law enforcement was the 7th Cavalry, lumbering along on big, heavy horses, and Cosa Nostra was the Sioux, running rings around them, riding bareback on agile and nimble ponies.
So Falcone became a discipline, without knowing it, of Kodawari, the Japanese mindset of determined and scrupulous attention to detail, motivated by a sincere passion and self-discipline; knowing that some of these efforts will go unrecognized, and also introduced an innovative investigative technique-- following the money trail, to build his cases.
Nino Salvo, one of the many suspects Falcone and his team tracked, said, “That magistrate (Falcone,) did some crazy things. He went and looked at the banks that the money goes through. Crazy things.”
The judge also accomplished something no other Sicilian prosecutor had done: built a wall of relationships with other law enforcement agencies around the world. He connected to his counterparts in Belgium, Switzerland, France, Turkey and the United States. In December 1980, he made the first of many trips to America, beginning a relationship with the Federal Government that would last the rest of his life. He became a close friend of the director of the FBI, the Manhattan District Attorney, and the New York Criminal Prosecutor. The Feds thought so highly of him, in 1995 a statue to his memorial was unveiled at their National Academy in Quantico, Virginia.
He came to realize that in the world of Cosa Nostra, every detail has a precise meaning, and is related to another detail in a logical pattern. In a world of violence, seemingly lacking any form of explanation, everything was a message, and everything had a reason. In their world. The magistrate’s investigations uncovered that Mafia secrecy lies less in what it hides than that what it affirms: membership of a class or a status, elevating and isolating its members into an almost secular universe based on a ritual of honor and omerta, the criminal code of silence. They are obsessed with symbolism, arcane structures and codes, sometimes through the copula of freemasonry, and the formation of a vassalage system and dyadic bonding throughout its kinship.
Judge Falcone developed an almost religious conviction that the Mafia could be beaten by dedicated and competent investigators.
Like a band of anthropologists, he and his team began reconstructing all their Mafia knowledge from the inside out, as networks deepened, and data mined moved from myth to reality. By examining family structures, rituals of acceptance, killing techniques, local and state political corruption control, the Anti-Mafia pool was slowly revealing to the world the very system they were determined to destroy.
According to Marcello Padovani, “Serious and perfectly organized, Cosa Nostra is all the more formidable because it functions as a modern state, with its control systems and its mechanisms of repression. Cosa Nostra is, in its own way, a legal society or organization, which requires effective penalty mechanisms in order for its regulations to be respected and applied. Given that inside the Mafia State, there are neither courts nor law enforcement agencies, it is essential for each of its ‘citizens’ to know that punishment is inevitable and the sentence will be executed immediately. Those who break the rules know they will pay with their lives.”(3)
In perhaps one of his most revealing discoveries, Giovanni Falcone realized, perhaps to his horror, maybe to his astonishment, that by confronting the Mafia State, he came to understand just how much more functional and effective it was than his own government. The Mafia dominates by controlling territory, which inevitably also means influencing localized bureaucracy and political opinion. The two had become so deeply embedded in each other, it was impossible to consider Sicily as a functioning entity without the support of Cosa Nostra.
He was a man who understood only too well the problems of fighting organized crime. "I'm not Robin Hood," he once said. "I'm not a kamikaze pilot. I'm not a Trappist monk. I'm just working for the state in enemy territory."
Ignazio De Francisci, a magistrate who served as Falcone’s deputy between 1985 and 1989, remembered “He was like Christopher Columbus. He was the one who opened the way for everyone else.”
And then came Tommaso Buscetta.
A soldier in the Porta Nuova family of central Palermo, he was a simple combinato, a made man of honor, although he was often referred to as the boss of two worlds. Born into abject poverty in 1927, he left school, married and was a Mafioso by the time he was eighteen. He was a proficient hit man for Angelo and Salvatore La Barbera who ran the clan in which he was a soldier; he was into cigarette smuggling, drug trafficking and life was good until 1963 when he came under suspicion for two lupara bianca killings. It is also highly possible he may have in some way, been involved in the car-bomb killings of five police officers and two soldiers in Ciaculli in June, which also might have been the trigger for his departure.
He fled Sicily and spent the next ten years moving between the United States and South America. In 1971, he met and married, his third wife, Cristina de Almeida Guimares. A year later, arrested on drug trafficking charges in Rio de Janeiro, he was deported to Sicily to serve the sentence, imposed in absentia, for the 1963 killings.
While on parole, in June 1980, he did a bunk for the second time, leaving Sicily for Brazil. In October 1983, arrested yet again, this time at his home near Sao Paolo, he was being held in prison, when eight months later, Giovanni Falcone traveled to Brazil to interview him. Buscetta knew if he was extradited back to a Sicilian prison his lifespan would be measured more in hours than days and so he turned cop as they say in Palermo’s mobs.
Returned to Italy under armed guard, Buscetta sat down in an office in Rome, in the EUR district, above a police station, in July 1984, and started talking to the judge about the Mafia.
Falcone had first heard about Buscetta a year before when he had interviewed a drug courier called Francesco Gasparini who was in prison in France. The two criminals had known each other while serving time in Palermo’s Ucciardone Prison on the Mafia Wing. All Mafiosi were contained on the third floor, known as Section 7. Gasparini claimed Buscetta was held in the same esteem by other inmates as Luciano Leggio, the infamous Corleone boss and alleged leader of the Sicilian Mafia at that time.
When he decided to become an informant, nine of Buscetta’s family had already been murdered by the Corleonesi and he himself had been banned from Cosa Nostra because of his matrimonial cupidity. Although the Mafia killed without conscience, they looked down their noses at marriage dissolution. Sicilian Mafiosi are said to be permitted unlimited mistresses but are expected never to formally abandon their families. Kettle. Pot. Black. One of the many strange and incongruous analogies found in the anthropology of Sicilian organized crime.
Pino Arlacchi, the famous Italian sociologist, came to believe that Buscetta was “a witness to a vanishing world. A general in a ghost army.” Buscetta considered himself a true man of honor, The Corleonesi to him, were the dregs of Cosa Nostra as they had abandoned the rules of the game. His account of the Sicilian Mafia as a hierarchical, monolithic, highly rational enterprise became known as the Buscetta Theorem.
On the first day of their interview, as they sat in that small room, Buscetta looked across the table at the judge and said, "First they'll try to kill me, then it will be your turn. And they won't give up until they succeed." Giovanni Falcone was well aware that this was probably his destiny. He once remarked, fatalistically, “In Sicily, the Mafia kills the servants of the State that the State has not been able to protect.”
There were two phases to Falcone’s Mafia investigation: before and after Buscetta. “Before him, I had—we had—only a superficial idea of Mafia activity. With him we began to look inside,” reported Falcone. And “He gave us an essential key for interpretation, a language, a code. For us, he was like a language teacher who makes it possible for you to go to Turkey without needing to speak with gestures…. Other pentiti have perhaps had greater importance than Buscetta in terms of the content of their revelations. But he was the only one who taught us a method…”(3)
Buscetta talked for 45 days through the sweltering heat of summer, as Falcone recorded his testimony on hundreds of pages. The Mafioso who was no longer, would become the principe dei pentiti, the prince of turncoats, and would help Falcone and his team to start connecting all those dots that had been eluding them for so long. The language of repentance is deeply ingrained in Catholicism, dominant in Italian culture for centuries. In the lexicon of organized crime, it would take on a whole new meaning. One of the mysteries Buscetta unraveled concerned Michele Greco.
Long thought to be a respectable businessman based in Ciaculli, with many interests in farming, property, and commerce, he was, in fact, the head of the Mafia cupola, since 1978, the commission set up in the late 1950s to help organize and coordinate activities between the various families across Sicily. The Mafia bosses of the nine Sicilian provinces would meet at La Favarella, his country estate in Croceverde Giardino, to sort out their problems.
Buscetta knew who he really was.
“He’s a puppet,” he told Falcone, he stabs everyone in the back and hands Sicily over to Toto Riina.”
As a result of his revelations and the testimony of another Mafioso, Salvatore Contorno, as well as the groundwork they had created over the previous four years, the Anti-Mafia pool were able to draw up arrest warrants against 475 defendants and all but fifteen were taken into custody following a massive police raid, under the control of Flying Squad Chief Ninni Cassarà, mounted at dawn on September 29th, 1984, code-named San Michelle, By the end of October all the suspects were contained and Falcone and his judges were ready to draw up what became known as the Maxi-Trial indictment. The prosecutorial documents including appendices runs to 12607 pages.
Researchers who have viewed these, call them “a black novel that grips the bones and freezes the blood.......a frightening tangle of terror, iniquity, ferocity, and death.......criminal modernity in which murder rules.”
On December 16th, 1987, almost two years after the trial started, the judges declared their verdicts. It was the most stunning victory ever, against the Mafia. The dons and soldiers, all equal under the laws of Cosa Nostra, were just as indistinguishable within the rules of the criminal code and were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. After twenty-two months of trial, 349 sessions, 475 accused, 8,000 pages of minutes,1,314 interrogations, 635 defensive arrests, 900 witnesses, 200 criminal lawyers, and over 500 journalists attending, who had arrived from all over the world, on December 16, 1987, President Alfonso Giordano read the sentence that concluded the Maxi First Instance trial: 346 convicted and 114 acquitted; 19 life prison terms and further sentences for a total of 2,665 years of imprisonment.
Giovanni Falcone had four years and five months left to live.
The Maxi-Trial devastated Cosa Nostra. Shorty had promised it would be okay. Now that it patently wasn’t, something had to be done. Riina’s honor was at stake. For almost thirty years the Mafia had proclaimed, Ccca semu nuatri: “We’re in charge here.”
Now, they were no longer.
When the Italian Court of Cassation, the final appeal process, confirmed the sentences in January 1992, the Mafia was stunned. The court also confirmed and accepted the status of the Mafia as outlined by Tommaso Buscetta and his Theorem and affirmed by Giovanni Falcone.
Gaspare Mutolo, a high-ranking Mafioso who became an informant later that year, confirmed. “The verdict of the Supreme Court was a disaster. After this verdict, we felt lost. It was like a dose of poison for Mafiosi, who felt like wounded animals. That’s why we carried out the massacres. Something had to happen.”
Riina decided there were at least four people who needed to be killed in order to send a lesson to Rome. The sovereign territory of the Mafia was Sicily and nothing should be allowed to change that.
He had become not just the man who ruled Cosa Nostra, but also the one who controlled a mysterious intersection between Palermo and Rome, big business and organized crime, linking mysteriously to Salvatore Lima, perhaps the most powerful politician on the island, Ignazio and Nino Salvo, perhaps the richest men in Sicily, and Giulio Andreotti, undoubtedly the most notorious senator in Italy.
Early in March, the Mafia boss called a summit. A group of men met in a U-shaped farmhouse near a pine forest, somewhere beyond the village of Valguarnera Caropepe, in Enna Province, Western Sicily. They sat around a table in a room looking out over rolling countryside and talked about murder.
Head of the table was Riina, and seated, listening intently to him were Bernardo Provenzano, Benedetto Santapaolo, Piddu Madonia and Michelangelo La Barbera. They worked out a matrix that would evolve into a carefully planned and orchestrated register of victims and their method of removal that they believed would convince the authorities to come to heel. They would kill two judges a politician and a man richer than God. Riina would have his personal bodyguard and close friend, Salvatore Biondino, coordinate and manage the operation from day one.
When he had finished, Riina looked at his men and said, “Now, we have to get moving.”
By the time Riina had extracted his revenge against the state, there were 39 conspirators working their individual parts of the plot. These men were all convicted of the murder of Judge Falcone in April, 2000.
First to go was Salvatore Lima. Member of the European Parliament, Member of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, Mayor of Palermo for three years, allegedly a man of honor, (pentiti Francesco Mannoia, the only Corleone to turn cop, claimed he was in the cosca of Matteo Citarada on Via Lazio,) and undoubtedly the Mafia’s connection to the Social Democrats, helping to maintain their stranglehold on the Sicilian vote. He had promised Riina the verdicts would be fixed. They weren't.
He died on March 12th, 1992, shot multiple times by two men on a Kawasaki motorbike, on Via delle Palme in the Palermo suburb of Mondello on his way to a political meeting at The Palace Hotel. Lima had been submerged in Mafia politics most of his career. In 1962 when he was arranging a visit to New York, Buscetta gave him a letter of introduction to two of the most powerful Mafia dons in the city, Joe Bonanno and Carlo Gambino. On the day he died, Andreotti was prime minister of Italy. The DNA of Cosa Nostra is embedded in the epidermis of Italy like virulent psoriasis.
The next target was Giovanni Falcone.
- Go to part 2 of Three good men and their fight to the death against the Sicilian Mafia: Giovanni Falcone
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