Each year, Italians take part in a midsummer ritual to honor the victims of the Mafia and speak out against the scourge of organized crime. From Palermo to Torino, politicians, church leaders and youth groups gather to mark the July 19, 1992, assassination of anti-Mob magistrate Paolo Borsellino, who was killed along with five bodyguards in a meticulously planned car-bombing outside his mother's apartment in the Sicilian capital.
For this year's anniversary, a most unlikely voice spoke out. Salvatore (Toto) Riina, the Mafia's notorious former boss of bosses, has broken his silence from his prison cell near Milan, where he is serving a life sentence for dozens of homicides, including the masterminding of the Borsellino hit and one three months earlier of another crusading Sicilian prosecutor, Giovanni Falcone.
Riina, who'd led the bloody takeover of the Mafia by the Corleone faction in the early 1980s, had never made more than a passing (and indecipherable) allusion about the crime to the authorities since his arrest in Palermo a year after the Borsellino killing. His longtime partner in crime and successor as capo dei capi, Bernardo Provenzano, has also stayed mum since his capture near Corleone in 2006. Known as Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian Mob has long maintained power on the island (and beyond) with the help of omertà, a vow of silence and absolute refusal to cooperate with authorities. Most had expected Riina, 78, to take his secrets to the grave.
But leading Italian newspapers have reported that in two separate instances over the past few weeks, Riina has weighed in on open questions surrounding the Borsellino assassination. His surprise decision to talk comes as investigators in Caltanissetta, in central Sicily, have reopened a probe into lingering suspicions that members of the Italian intelligence services may have played a role in the July 1992 plot. Riina, communicating in the typically oblique language of Mafiosi, authorized his lawyer to pass on to reporters his claims that in fact the state was involved. Florence-based attorney Luca Cianferoni told La Repubblica newspaper on July 19 that Riina said, "They killed him," referring to Italian authorities. "Don't always look only at me. Also look inside yourselves."
The late 1980s and early 1990s were a tumultuous period in Italy. Bribery scandals eventually brought down much of the postwar political class. In Sicily, political corruption mixed with murder, as the Falcone and Borsellino assassinations were followed by Cosa Nostra's deadly bombings in Rome, Florence and Milan. Some Mafia experts believe the Mob's decision to take its battle to the mainland was a response to the breakdown in longstanding attempts by certain government authorities to negotiate a truce with mob leaders. Indeed, after Riina's years on the lam, his arrest, in broad daylight in central Palermo, was itself a sign to many that someone had been playing a double game.
According to newspaper reports, Riina has said little and maintains his vow of omertà by offering few hard facts. But the old boss clearly wants to influence the current probe and has met with investigators, to whom he reportedly promised to provide more detailed testimony on both the Falcone and Borsellino cases.
The reopening of the Borsellino case has prompted others to talk as well. Several top Italian government and law-enforcement officials involved in the early 1990s probes have given their version of events in interviews. Also speaking out was the son of the former mayor of Palermo, Vito Ciancimino, who was the local political link for the Corleonese clan. Massimo Ciancimino has reportedly revealed a portion of the contents of his late father's secret archives, which investigators hope can help solve a series of Mafia mysteries, including the state's alleged role in the Borsellino killing.
La Repubblica also reported that two former colleagues of the murdered magistrate recounted to investigators a meeting with Borsellino in Palermo shortly before his death during which he broke down in tears saying, "A friend has betrayed me, a friend has betrayed me."
But perhaps the most telling statements come from the family of the victim. Since his brother's murder, Salvatore Borsellino has kept his own poignant vow of silence. But the Milan-based engineer has now spoken out in a July 17 video interview on the website of Corriere della Sera, a Milan-based daily. Displaying a striking resemblance to his martyred kin, Borsellino says he is convinced the Mafia did not act alone. "My brother knew about the negotiations between the Mafia and the state, and this is why he was killed," Borsellino says. "There were government authorities who worked to prepare and carry out [the assassination]." The final history of this brutal chapter in Italy's past is in the hands of neither Borsellino's surviving relatives nor his convicted killers, of course, but his successors among the corps of Sicilian prosecutors.