Wednesday 21 August 2019

Obituary: Salvatore Ri'ina

Sicilian farmer's son who became Italy's most violent Mafia boss - and spent much of his life behind bars in prison

Died in jail: Salvatore Ri'ina, Mafia boss. Photo: AP
Died in jail: Salvatore Ri'ina, Mafia boss. Photo: AP

Salvatore 'The Beast' Ri'ina, who died last Friday of cancer aged 87 in the maximum security prison at Parma in northern Italy where he had been held in solitary confinement for more than two decades, was the most violent Sicilian Mafia boss in history. He killed at least 40 people personally and is thought to have ordered the deaths of hundreds more.

He was only 5ft 2in tall and yet during the 1980s rose from obscurity to become head of Cosa Nostra (the Sicilian Mafia), after provoking a bloody civil war between the Mafia families of Sicily in 1981-82.

Once Ri'ina became Capo di tutti i capi (Boss of Bosses) he compelled Cosa Nostra - against the wishes of the older Mafia families - to add to the traditional core business of protection and construction, heroin and cocaine trafficking. The sickening violence Cosa Nostra unleashed in the 1980s and 1990s compelled the Italian state to destroy it once and for all.

Salvatore Ri'ina was born on November 16, 1930 in Corleone, a picturesque agricultural town 60km south of Palermo that was immortalised by The Godfather films. He was the second of six siblings - three boys and three girls. His mother Maria Concetta and father Giovanni owned three hectares of land. He left school aged eight to work in the fields.

Salvatore soon began to work for Luciano Leggio, a young local Mafioso, stealing cattle and grain. At 18 he was sworn into the Honoured Society, like so many Sicilians, at a secret initiation ceremony.

But in 1950, aged 19, he shot dead another man in Corleone during a brawl and was sentenced to 12 years in prison for manslaughter. He served six years. On his release, he became engaged to Antonietta Bagarella, who was still only 14 and would go on to graduate from university and become a school teacher. (The couple married in 1974.)

Immediately, Ri'ina took up where he had left off with Leggio, who by now was determined to take over the Corleone Mafia. To do this, Leggio had to kill its undisputed boss, Michele Navarra.

On August 2, 1958, Navarra's car was ambushed by 14 of Leggio's men armed with sub-machine guns who opened fire, killing him and his passenger, a young doctor.

The assassins included Ri'ina, who was 27, and Bernardo Provenzano, who was 25. These two young men would later become the leaders of Cosa Nostra in Sicily during the 1980s and remain so for some 20 years.

The murder of Navarra caused a five-year-long civil war within the Corleone Mafia which was won by Leggio and his more violent faction. In 1963 Ri'ina was once again imprisoned for several years and after his release condemned to house arrest. In 1969, however, he decided to go into hiding.

Being on the run did not hinder him. Far from it. For it was now that he began his bid to take power. He, Leggio and Provenzano formed an alliance with Vito Ciancimino, the Mayor of Palermo, who had like them been born in Corleone.

Together the four Corleonesi subjugated the old Palermo Mafia families. In 1974, when Leggio was eventually arrested and jailed for life for the murder of Navarra, Ri'ina became the boss of the Corleonesi and swiftly escalated the use of violence.

This led to the so-called Second Mafia Civil War of 1981-82, which the Corleonesi won and which crowned Ri'ina Capo di tutti i capi. The carnage left more than 1,000 people dead, mainly Mafiosi, but also General Carlo Dalla Chiesa, who had been sent to Sicily to deal with the Mafia. Ri'ina and his number two Provenzano - both still in hiding - were later given life sentences in absentia for ordering these murders.

In 1984, Tommaso Buscetta became the first senior Mafioso to become a supergrass and break the Mafia code of silence (omerta). His testimony was crucial to the first Mafia Maxi Trial, which took place inside a purpose-built, rocket-proof bunker court house in Palermo in 1986/87.

Cosa Nostra reacted to Buscetta's betrayal of omerta by ordering the bombing of a Florence-Milan train on December 23, 1984; killing seven and wounding 267. The Maxi Trial went ahead regardless and as a result 360 of the 474 Mafiosi put on trial were convicted (many, such as Ri'ina and Provenzano, in absentia) and in January 1992 the convictions were upheld by the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court's decision enraged Ri'ina, who immediately ordered the assassination in rapid succession of the Christian Democrat Euro MP Salvatore Lima - the right-hand man in Sicily of seven-times prime minister Giulio Andreotti, he was shot dead - and then two of the two top anti-Mafia judges: Giovanni Falcone, whose wife and three police officers died with him when a bomb hidden under the road was remotely detonated as he and his police escort passed over it; and Paolo Borsellino, plus five police officers, killed by another bomb hidden inside a parked car at the entrance to the Palermo apartment block where his mother lived - this detonated when Borsellino pressed the door bell.

These deaths caused such outrage in Italy that the country's political class united to launch a massive crackdown on the Mafia. Within less than a year, on January 15, 1993, police arrested Ri'ina, thanks, said prosecutors, to a tip-off from another supergrass.

Ri'ina was tried and convicted of more than 100 murders. About ¤105m worth of his assets were confiscated.

His two sons, Giovanni and Giuseppe, became Mafiosi: Giovanni Francesco, born in 1976, was arrested in 1996 for the murder of four people and sentenced to life. He has been in jail ever since and is held in Terni prison where his father's successor as the boss of Cosa Nostra, Provenzano, was initially held after his own arrest in April 2006; he died in prison in 2016. Ri'ina's youngest son, Giuseppe Salvatore, born in 1977, was jailed for eight years for Mafia association, extortion and money-laundering, released on parole in 2012 and confined to live in Padua in north-east Italy. In a magazine interview in 2012 he said his father loved music, growing vegetables and keeping animals.

Ri'ina's two other children are daughters.

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