…Dies in jail- with at least 150 murders to his name
NICKNAMED ‘ The Beast’, he ordered at least 150 murders during a life of crime which saw him rise through the ranks to become the multi-millionaire ‘boss of bosses’ of the Sicilian Mafia.
Salvatore Riina spent 23 years on the run, during which he ruthlessly reigned over the mob’s drug trafficking network, ordered the assassination of two leading anti-Mafia judges, and was called ‘the world’s most diabolical criminal’ by the FBI.
Last week, it was confirmed that the mobster, barely 5ft tall and known as ‘Shorty’ by his criminal colleagues, had died from cancer aged 87 while serving 26 life sentences.
He died in a prison wing at a hospital in Parma, northern Italy, where he had recently been placed in a medically induced coma. His death came hours after the Justice Ministry allowed family members to visit him on Thursday, his birthday.
Anti-Mafia prosecutor Franco Roberti said Riina had never repented his crimes. ‘He was still considered the “boss of bosses”, even in prison,’ he said. An association for victims told an Italian newspaper: ‘God have mercy on him, because we won’t.’
Riina was born the son of a farmer in the mountain town of Corleone in central Sicily. Author Mario Puzo borrowed the town’s name for the main character in his Godfather novels.
Riina’s father was killed when he was 13, and at 19 he joined the local Mafia, committing murder to gain entry. In 1969 a court acquitted him, for lack of evidence, of murdering three Mafia bosses. He was sent in exile, and under surveillance, to a village near Bologna – but disappeared the following month and went into hiding.
Investigators believe Riina jockeyed his way to the top of the Mafia by pitting rivals against each other, then standing out of the way of the bloodshed that felled one boss after the other in the 1970s. His ascent saw him become the governor of Cosa Nostra – the elite ‘knights’ of the Italian-American crime syndicate who control prostitution in the US and elsewhere, as well as drug and arms trafficking and the laundering of kidnap money.
During his decades on the run, Riina lived with his wife Antonietta, a school teacher from Corleone, whose two brothers were leading Mafia figures, and their four children in the Sicilian capital Palermo, where he laughed at Italian justice from behind a myriad of disguises and massive armed protection. Despite his violent activities, Riina was docile and humble in his manner, according to one Mafia defector.
‘I’ve never seen him angry,’ he said. According to John Dickie, author of Cosa Nostra – A History of the Sicilian Mafia, it was ‘a practice of deceit’ that he tried to pass on to his followers: ‘They always had a smile on their lips. Riina chose people like that and taught them that they had to smile – even if there was an earthquake.’
But Riina’s calm persona belied an uncompromising brutality, particularly in relation to those who broke the mob’s code of silence. He was once overheard saying: ‘If it wasn’t for them [the defectors], not even the whole world united could touch us. That’s why we’ve got to kill them, and their relatives to the 20th remove, starting with children of six and over.’ Another informant said: ‘ His philosophy was that if someone’s finger hurt, it was better to cut off his whole arm just to make sure.’
But after he began a campaign known as ‘the slaughter’ in 1981 to eliminate his rivals, many gangsters, fearing for their lives, began to co-operate with investigators. Hundreds of Mafia members were convicted in a breakthrough case.
Riina responded by ordering the murder of Judge Giovanni Falcone and his magistrate wife Francesca in May 1992, and the assassination
‘God have mercy on him, because we won’t’
of Judge Paolo Borsellino two months later. When riina’s luck ran out in 1993 and he was arrested in his car in Palermo, he stayed calm. ‘Gentleman, you are making a big mistake,’ he said softly. The only photograph authorities had of him at the time was more than 30 years old.
While he was in detention, riina ordered the kidnap and murder of an 11-year-old boy to try to prevent his father revealing information about the Mafia. The boy was strangled and his body dissolved in acid. riina told prosecutors he was an innocent, God-fearing family man, who ‘scraped by’ on £150 a week working for building firms.
He steadfastly refused to collaborate with law enforcement. Earlier this year, he was reportedly recorded on a wiretap saying he ‘regrets nothing… they’ll never break me, even if they give me 3,000 years in jail’.
Moves were made to claw back his vast fortune, and by the end of 1995, about £125 million, mostly in property, had been confiscated.
riina was imprisoned in Milan under a law that requires strict security for top mobsters, including isolation and limited time outside their cells. In July, a court denied a request by riina’s family to transfer him to house arrest because of his ailing health.
Police say riina’s death will lead to a power struggle at the top of the Cosa Nostra. It has been marginalised in recent times in comparison with the Calabrian-based ’Ndrangheta crime syndicate that has spread into Italy.
‘We are now seeing an increase in activities on a financial level by Cosa Nostra subjects,’ Mr roberti said. ‘We are monitoring this.’
Michele Pennisi, archbishop of Monreale, which includes Corleone, said riina’s death ‘ends the delusion of the Cosa Nostra boss of bosses’ omnipotence’.
But he added: ‘The Mafia has not been defeated, and therefore we should not let down our guards.’