A Lesson from Sicily

Italian judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, who took on the Sicilian Mafia. Photo: i-Italy


In the land of “The Godfather,” criminals are not revered; judges are. The memory of two of them has remained etched in the Italian popular imagination: Their names were Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. In Palermo, children make regular pilgrimages with their teachers to the Church of Santo Domingo, where their remains lie. In Italy, judges are not just civic heroes; they are lay saints.

Up until 1986, the extortions, robberies and murders of the Sicilian Mafia were prosecuted as individual crimes and not as the concerted action of a criminal organization. But everything changed that year, when the so-called “Maxi Trial” — the largest anti-Mafia trial history — took place in Palermo, a trial that brought 475 members of the Cosa Nostra before the court. The testimony of the repentant mobster Tommaso Buscetta, which were obtained by Falcone and Borsellino, were crucial in the prosecution of the case. As a result, 360 defendants ended up behind bars. It was the first major coup against organized crime in Sicily.

Despite everything, the prisoners had hoped for a speedy release. This had always been the case, thanks to threats from the Mafia and their blatant complicity at all levels of government. But Falcone and Borsellino insisted on complying with the sentences: They protested against efforts to overturn some of the sentences, and for five years they were in charge of processing the appeals of the convicts. And so they managed to annul the acquittals. The mobsters who had been released were returned to prison, many to remain there for life.

The victory of these two judges was much more profound than the mere condemnation of the criminals. It led to a change in public perception, in the social mood of Sicily. In the words of Falcone, it had been possible to “deprive the Mafia of its aura of impunity and invincibility” (Cose di Cosa Nostra, 1991).

Naturally, the judges were targeted by the Mafia for what they had accomplished. Falcone moved to Rome in 1991 to head the Justice Ministry’s criminal-affairs department, where he continued his work under tight security. But on a visit to his homeland, on May 23, 1992, a load of 500 kilograms of TNT and ammonium nitrate placed under the highway leading to the Palermo airport exploded in front of him. The judge, his wife and three guards died in the attack. The order to assassinate him came from the so-called “Boss of Bosses,” Salvatore Riina, who was sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment in the “Maxi Trial.”

Paolo Borsellino also knew that he would die at the hands of the Mafia. As an “anti-Mafia judge,” he had energetically denounced the isolation in which politicians left judges to fend for themselves, as well as the state’s lack of will to support the fight against organized crime. Less than two months after Falcone’s assassination, on July 19, the threat against Borsellino was fulfilled: When he was coming to visit his mother on Via D’Amelio in the Sicilian capital, a car bomb loaded with 110 kilograms of TNT exploded in front of the house, causing his death and that of five escorts.

The crimes against the judges filled the whole of Italy with indignation. Thousands of Sicilians took to the streets to express their rejection of organized crime, an unprecedented act on the island, where silence had once prevailed in the face of Mafia acts. Although Borsellino had a private funeral, at the funeral of his guards, held in the Palermo Cathedral, a tense crowd broke through the security cordon and entered the temple to rebuke the police chief and the Italian president.

The assassination of the judges backfired on the Mafia. Faced with social pressure, the Italian government’s response was energetic. Thanks to a large police deployment, Salvatore Riina was arrested at the beginning of the following year. Thus ended his two decades of command over the Cosa Nostra. He remained in prison for 24 years, until his death in 2017. Dozens of other participants in the attacks were also brought to justice.

The Mafia has not been defeated on that prodigious island, through which all the cultures of the Mediterranean have passed. The Mafia, which, like a locust, devastates everything it touches, still keeps Sicily in a state of backwardness. But in Sicily, the citizens have no doubts about the distinction between good and evil. In Sicily, the citizens continue to protest, sometimes only symbolically, against the Mafia.

In Sicily, crime is not treated with hugs or answered with bullets: It is prosecuted with justice, and the law is applied.

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