6th Jun 2023


Remembering Falcone: How Italy almost became a narco-state

  • Judge Giovanni Falcone (second from right) (Photo: Albertocardillo)
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In an extremely brutal attack on 23 May 1992, the Sicilian mafia killed one of Italy's most prominent anti-mafia investigators, Giovanni Falcone, his wife, and three officers of their police escort as their cars passed near the small town of Capaci, in western Sicily.

The powerful bomb that exploded under the highway was detonated by a mobster responsible for over 100 murders: Giovanni Brusca, aka "U Verru" ["the pig" in Sicilian dialect] or "Scannacristiani" ("the people-slayer"). He was a member of the Corleonesi mafia clan, which hated the investigator.

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  • Killing took place in Sicily 30 years ago (Photo: Cyril S)

The assassination of Falcone, an internationally renowned anti-mafia prosecuting magistrate, shocked Italy. But that was just the beginning of the "bomb season" that would sweep the country for more than a year and a half.

In July 1992 a car bomb killed Falcone's colleague and friend, Paolo Borsellino. In the summer of 1993, bombs exploded in Florence, Milan, and Rome.

The locations were symbols of Italy's cultural heritage, such as the back of the world-famous Uffizi Gallery, or the basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano.

Brusca was one of the mobsters in favour of the bomb attacks strategy; the goal was to destabilise the Italian state and bend it through a "war" that was meant to spread as far as the rich cities of the country's north.

"Seen from abroad, Italy appeared to be under tremendous pressure. It was certainly going through an epochal crisis, similar to the terrorism [by the Red Brigades and Neo-fascists] of 15, 20 years earlier," says Federico Varese, a professor of criminology at Oxford University. "There was uncertainty about how, and if, Italy would overcome the crisis. We feared it was the beginning of the end of democracy in our country."

Images of the crater created in the highway by the 23 May bomb ended up on the news around the world.

In the Rome-based weekly magazine L'Espresso, reporter Gigi Riva recently wrote that on that day in 1992 he was in besieged Sarajevo to interview the president of the newly independent Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Alija Izetbegovic; in his office the president was shocked by the images from Sicily that he saw on CNN, and before starting the interview he told him that Italy was also at war — just like Bosnia.

The risk that Italy, one of the EU founding countries, would turn into a kind of Mediterranean narco-state was real.

The political parties that had ruled the country for decades were weak and discredited, and demagogic, right-wing political groups had emerged in the north calling for the secession of the richest part of the country.

The Sicilian mafia, the Cosa Nostra, was the most powerful criminal organisation in Italy back then. It wanted to take advantage of the central government's weakness to demand the abolition of the anti-mafia laws adopted by Rome in previous years, also thanks to Falcone's hard work.

It enjoyed the support of chunks of Italian political and business elite, in the north as in the south, happy to cash in on mafia bribes or launder drug-trafficking money in sectors such as construction.

In the view of Antonio Nicaso, historian of criminal organisations, and professor of the social history of organised crime at Queen's University in Canada: "Judges Falcone and Borsellino were killed by individuals who acted under cover offered by a part of a political-economic system that has always considered them 'dangerous,' harmful to the stability of an economic bloc compromised by the choice of tranquility adopted with regard to mafia power."

Funeral turning-point

The mobsters were confident that Sicilians, terrorised by Falcone's murder, would realise that it was they, not the state, who was in charge on the island. They were wrong.

During Falcone's funeral in Palermo (the capital of Sicily), citizens' anger against the mafia, and against impotent or complicit politicians, exploded. Outrage grew further throughout Italy after the killing of anti-mafia investigator Borsellino two months later.

"Borsellino's death truly seemed like the end of all hope," says Nicaso. "But on that occasion the state in its various articulations was able to react. The Corleonesi clan, responsible for that horrendous massacre season were almost all arrested and convicted. Unfortunately, the whole picture of those massacres is still not entirely clear. There were institutional cover-ups and diversions. We do not know what other 'entities' were involved in that terrible 1992."

Four years after Falcone's assassination, on 20 May 1996, the Italian police arrested Brusca, just as he, hiding in a villa, was watching a film about the investigator he had assassinated.

A few weeks later, the mafia boss began cooperating with the prosecutors. Ten years later, police also arrested Bernardo Provenzano, then head of the Cosa Nostra.

Today, the Sicilian mafia is still strong, but struggling. It has not succeeded in bringing down the Italian state as it dreamed in 1992.

It has realised that it is better to avoid resorting too much to violence. It prefers to rely on corruption, money laundering, and infiltration into the legal economy and local government.

Meanwhile, Falcone's sacrifice has inspired a generation of young Italian jurists, journalists, activists and scholars who detest the mafia.

One of them is a young criminologist, Silvia Civitella, from Milan, who says: "Judge Falcone still represents an example of courage, dedication and intelligence. He devoted and sacrificed his life to fighting the mafia; he had to deal with a world that did not support him and often left him alone. For me he will always be a unique personality, who did not give up despite everything and everyone."

Author bio

Valentina Saini is a freelance journalist specialising in Italian social issues and politics, gender issues and the Middle East and North Africa region.


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