Courage under fire

Courage under fire

Thu 24 Jan 2008 1:00 AM

The crater in the highway near the turnoff to a town called Capaci, about 20 kilometres between the Palermo Airport of Punta Raisi and Palermo itself, was about 30 meters wide and 8 meters deep. On May 23, 1992, a remote-controlled device triggered the explosion of a ton of TNT strategically placed in a passageway running under the road.


The blast destroyed six cars, including that of its assigned victim—anti-mafia prosecutor, Giovanni Falcone. In addition to Falcone, the bomb killed his wife Francesca and three of his police bodyguards.


During the course of the decade between 1981 and 1992, Falcone had become the symbol of the fight against the Sicilian mafia, known as Cosa Nostra, and, according to them, had to be eliminated.


During the 1980s and early 1990s, Cosa Nostra waged a virtual war against the Italian state. It assassinated judges, lawyers and police officers, and even went as far as attacking not only the churches of San Giovanni in Laterano and San Giorgio al Velabro in Rome and the Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea in Milan, but also the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence where, on 27 May 1993, in via Georgofili, a bomb killed five people and injured 41 others. After the courageous anti-mafia magistrate at the court in Palermo, Cesare Terranova, was assassinated in 1979, Falcone began working as an investigative judge at the prosecutor’s office in the Sicilian capital.


Falcone was born in Palermo on May 18, 1939, and after graduating in law in 1961, became a judge in 1964. In May 1980, he was appointed by the chief of the Antimafia Pool in Palermo, Rocco Chinnici, to investigate a major heroin-trafficking network linking the Sicilian mafia to the Gambino crime family in New York. This operation, in which Falcone used the innovative technique of following the drug-money trail, became universally known as ‘the pizza connection’.


When Judge Chinnici was killed in July 1983, Falcone became, under Chinnici’s successor, Antonino Caponnetto, one of the major organisers of the Maxi Trial against 474 members of Cosa Nostra. The accused were charged with over 120 murders, drug trafficking, money laundering, extortion and other mafia-type activities. The trial lasted from February 10, 1986 until December 16, 1987. When it ended, 360 of the defendants were convicted, 119 of them in absentia. Its star witness, Tommaso Buscetta, whom Falcone had persuaded to collaborate, was one of the first members of the Sicilian mafia to ever become an informant.


By now almost a folk hero, Falcone continued to break new ground in his investigations as he discovered the existence of a ‘third level’ within the ‘cupola,’ or high command of the mafia, evidencing collusion between mafia bosses and important Italian politicians. Therefore, after Caponnetto left the Pool due to ill health, it was expected that Falcone would take his place.

However, the Consiglio Superiore della Magistratura, the body governing the judiciary in Rome, thought differently. This led to speculation that forces were at work aimed at destroying the Pool. In fact, the Pool was gradually dismantled and another magistrate was appointed as head of the Court in Palermo. Falcone was subsequently called to Rome as director general of criminal affairs at the Ministry of Justice. Many saw this not so much as a promotion, but as a way to remove him from Palermo—a way to isolate and neutralise him. It was in this climate that the mafia plotted what was to be its successful attempt to assassinate him, something it had failed to do on other occasions.


On July 19, 1992, less than two months after Falcone’s death, his closest collaborator and friend, Judge Paolo Borsellino (born in Palermo on January 19, 1940) met the same terrible fate. Borsellino and the five members of his police escort were killed by a car bomb left by Cosa Nostra in via D’Amelio, outside his mother’s home in a suburb of Palermo.


Although Falcone and Borsellino lost their lives in the struggle against organised crime without defeating their enemy, they nonetheless proved what individual courage can achieve. Their lives have become an example for thousands of young people, like those in Gela, in southern Sicily, who, whilst they live in places where the mafia still inspires fear through murder, intimidation and the code of silence, make their voices heard in protest. As Borsellino once said: ‘If young people refuse to give it their consent, even the all-powerful, mysterious mafia will disappear like a nightmare’.



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