SHARE
COPY LINK

MAFIA

How murdered judge Giovanni Falcone shaped Italy’s fight against the mafia

Thirty years ago, the murders of anti-mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino shook Italy and inspired a new generation of anti-mafia crusaders. But judges today warn that the same threat still exists.

How murdered judge Giovanni Falcone shaped Italy's fight against the mafia
Italian judge Roberto Di Bella, flanked by two bodyguards, on a ferry crossing the Messina strait on July 7, 2020. Threats to judges' lives continue today, 30 years after the infamous murders of Falcone and Borsellino. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP

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.

READ ALSO: Italy marks 30-year anniversary of anti-mafia judge murder

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.

Giovanni Falcone (2nd left) surrounded by his bodyguards on October 21st, 1986. Photo by GERARD FOUET / AFP

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.

READ ALSO: The life and death of Sicilian anti-mafia judge Paolo Borsellino

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.”

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.

CRIME

Italy remembers murdered anti-mafia judge Falcone

Italy commemorated the death of Italian judge Giovanni Falcone on Monday, thirty years after the brutal Capaci bombing.

Italy remembers murdered anti-mafia judge Falcone

The entire country paid tribute on Monday to anti-mafia judge Giovanni Falcone, killed by the Sicilian mafia 30 years ago in a car bomb murder that shocked the country.

Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese laid a wreath at the memorial at the site of the blast at Capaci, near Palermo, that killed Falcone, his wife, and three members of his police escort on May 23rd 1992.

Another ceremony in Palermo was attended by Italian President Sergio Mattarella, whose brother Piersanti, then Sicily’s regional president, was also murdered by the mafia.

In a statement, Prime Minister Mario Draghi hailed the legacy of Falcone, saying that thanks to his “courage, professionalism and determination, Italy has become a freer and fairer country”.

He said Falcone and his colleagues – one of whom, Paolo Borsellino, was killed by Cosa Nostra two months later – “dealt decisive blows against the mafia”.

“Their heroism had rooted anti-mafia values in society, in new generations, in republican institutions,” he added, saying the “relentless fight against organised crime and […] the search for truth” must continue.

The mob used a skateboard to place a 500-kilogramme (1100-pound) charge of TNT and ammonium nitrate in a tunnel under the motorway which linked the airport to the centre of Palermo.

Falcone, driving a white Fiat Croma, was returning from Rome for the weekend. At a look-out point on the hill above, a mobster nicknamed “The Pig” pressed the remote control button as the judge’s three-car convoy passed.

The blast ripped through the asphalt, shredding bodies and metal, and flinging the lead car several hundred metres.

READ ALSO: How murdered judge Giovanni Falcone shaped Italy’s fight against the mafia

On July 19th, Borsellino was also killed in a car bomb attack, along with five members of his escort. Only his driver survived.

Falcone posed a real threat to Cosa Nostra, an organised crime group made famous by The Godfather trilogy, and which boasted access to the highest levels of Italian power.

He and Borsellino were later credited with revolutionising the understanding of the mafia, working closely with the first informants and compiling evidence for a groundbreaking ‘maxi-trial’ in which hundreds of mobsters were convicted in 1987.

“Thanks to Falcone and Borsellino, the Sicilian mafia became a notorious fact, not something that had to be proved to exist at every trial,” anti-mafia prosecutor Marzia Sabella told AFP.

SHOW COMMENTS