When anti-mafia judge Giovanni Falcone was killed by a car bomb 30 years ago in one of Italy’s most infamous murders, his death – and that two months later of fellow magistrate Paolo Borsellino – marked a sea change in the fight against organised crime, prosecutors say.
“It was war and we all felt called up. No-one could afford to look away any longer,” says Palermo prosecutor, Marzia Sabella, remembering the murder of Falcone, his wife and bodyguards by the notorious Cosa Nostra mafia in Sicily on May 23, 1992.
The murders inspired a new generation of anti-mafia crusaders who, decades on, risk their own lives daily to carry on Falcone’s and Borsellino’s fight.
Sabella, then 27, was training to become a notary but after the massacre in Capaci, a small town in the province of Palermo, “I suddenly swerved off course towards Palermo’s prosecutors’ office”, she told AFP. “I have never regretted it.”
The deaths of Falcone and Borsellino stunned the country and resulted in tough new anti-mafia laws.
The judges were attributed with revolutionising the understanding of the mafia, working closely with the first informants and compiling evidence to prosecute hundreds of mobsters at the end of the 1980s in a groundbreaking ‘maxi trial’ – with similar trials involving hundreds of defendants still being carried out today.
“Thanks to Falcone and Borsellino, the Sicilian mafia became a notorious fact, not something that had to be proved to exist at every trial,” Sabella said.
Judge Roberto Di Bella – who obtained his first posting the day before Borsellino and his police escort were blown to pieces on July 19, 1992 – said the murders “prompted nationwide protests… and a decisive cultural change”.
The 58-year-old, now a judge at the juvenile court in Catania, was assigned an armed escort in 2016 after threats to his life, “which was very difficult, particularly at the start”.
The mob felt able to target Falcone because he was perceived to be isolated after being snubbed for the post of chief magistrate in Palermo in 1988, according to judges, who warn of repeating the same mistakes today.
Those concerns prompted a backlash this month over the failure to name Nicola Gratteri, Italy’s foremost ‘Ndrangheta combatant, as national chief anti-mafia prosecutor.
Choosing someone else “would come across as a dangerous institutional distancing from such an exposed magistrate in the eyes of the mafia”, judge Nino Di Matteo argued before the vote.
It risked creating “the conditions for isolation, the most fertile ground for murders and massacres”, he warned.
Giovanni Melillo, an institutional favourite from Foggia, home to Italy’s fourth-largest mafia, was picked instead.
Security services have reportedly just stumbled across fresh plans to assassinate Gratteri, who has been under police guard for 30 years.
Amid fears that not enough is being done, a trade union called last week for a “civilian escort” to help protect and support him.
Falcone’s murder was just one of a string of deadly attacks which abruptly stopped in 1993.
Since then, the Cosa Nostra has been hit repeatedly by mass arrests – but though it has lost much of its power, it is far from vanquished.
And while investigators concentrated on Sicily, other underworld groups flourished, most notably the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta.
Sabella compared the mafia to coronavirus: “If you drop your guard it spreads like before or worse than before.
“If we dropped our guard even for just one month, we’d have to start all over again, collecting the dead from the streets.”