Salvatore “Toto’” Riina, the unrepentant “boss of all bosses” of the Sicilian Mafia, has died aged 87 after spending the last 24 years of his life in prison for committing some of the most gruesome crimes in postwar Italian history.
Through a campaign of violence in the late 1970s and early 1980s with his wingman Bernardo Provenzano, Riina — known as ‘u curtu’ or ‘the short one’ — established himself and his fellow ‘Corleonesi’ as the dominant force in Cosa Nostra rooting out traditional Mafia families from Palermo.
Riina also adopted a strategy of head-on confrontations and attacks on the Italian state, putting the fight against the Mafia at the top of the national political agenda and triggering a backlash from police and judicial authorities that ultimately led to his capture.
At the time of his death, Riina was serving 26 life sentences for his role in directing the 1992 assassinations of Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, two of the leading anti-Mafia judges, as well as a string of other high-profile murders over the years. He was also found guilty of the murder of Piersanti Mattarella, the brother of Sergio Mattarella, the Italian president, who was killed in 1980.
Riina had been held in a maximum-security prison but was transferred in his last days to the detention unit of the Parma hospital. Riina was in coma after undergoing two surgeries, and Andrea Orlando, the justice minister, allowed his family members to visit him and be at his side while he died.
After Riina’s capture, Provenzano took on the mantle of the boss of the Sicilian Mafia, but adopted a more low-key strategy aimed at drawing less attention from the Italian authorities and focusing more on economic crimes such as extortion. Provenzano himself, however, was captured in 2006 and died last year in jail.
At the moment, Matteo Messina Denaro, a fugitive since 1993 from the province of Trapani in western Sicily, is considered the leading — if extremely shadowy — figure in the Sicilian Mafia. Since the early 1990s, the Sicilian Mafia is considered to have lost some of its punch, particularly compared with the Calabrian ’Ndrangheta, which has come to dominate the international drugs trade. Among Sicilian society, too, the veil of silence — or omertà — about Mafia crimes has been lifted to a certain extent, as locals have rebelled against the violence as well as the corruption that went hand-in-hand with Cosa Nostra’s reign in Sicily. However, the Sicilian Mafia is by no means extinguished. During his time in jail, Riina never showed any signs of remorse for his actions.