How the brutal murder of an anti-mafia hero altered Sicily

On May 23rd 1992, Sicilian judge and anti-mafia campaigner Giovanni Falcone was assassinated in broad daylight: a crime that marked a turning point on the southern island.

How the brutal murder of an anti-mafia hero altered Sicily
Anti-mafia judge Giovanni Falcone was murdered in 1992. Photo: Gerard Fouet/AFP

Falcone was killed by a bomb was placed under his car on a highway near the town of Capaci.

The bomb, placed there by a hit-man from the Sicilian mafia, also killed Falcone’s wife and three police officers.

Police officer Francesco Cerami, who was 16 years old at the time, last year spoke about his memories of the tragedy.

He remembered that an hour after the attack, Palermo’s typically bustling streets were muted with shock.

“There was almost complete silence,” Cerami said.

“The only sound was people asking, ‘Did you hear? Did you hear?’ It may have happened kilometres away, but for us it felt like the bomb exploded in the centre of the city.”

Falcone, who was 53 when he died, spent most of his life trying to fight the mafia, bringing about the so-called ‘maxi trial’ in 1986-1987, which led to the conviction of 342 mafiosi. His killing was ordered by the mafia godfather, Toto Riina.

READ ALSO: Mafia godfathers can't be church godfathers, bishop rules

Falcone's death marked a symbolic turning point in public opinion about the criminal organization, according to Carina Gunnarson, a researcher of modern mafia influence in Sicily.

“Many people refer to the assassination as something that changed their perception of the mafia,” Gunnarson said. “It revealed something about them: the attacks were just incredibly brutal, and everyone was watching the images on television.”

Addiopizzo, an anti-racketeering grassroots movement, has built on Falcone’s legacy as a campaigner for justice and reform. Since 2004, the group has developed a network of businesses which publically declare their non-payment of pizzo, or protection money, to the Sicilian mafia. 

A series of events took place in Sicily on Monday to mark the anniversary of Falcone's murder. Photo: Batul Hassan

Additionally, it promotes anti-corruption education, manages a fund for the victims of mafia violence and encourages the generation of a “clean economy” for locals and tourists alike in Palermo, where Falcone, the son of a state clerk, was born.

The initiative, which was founded spontaneously and anonymously by a group of seven friends unwilling to participate in the unofficial tax system, has since inspired spin-offs in Catania, Messina, and even Germany.

Addiopizzo in Palermo operates from an apartment formerly used by the mafia as a cigarette-smuggling headquarters. It was confiscated by the government in 2007, but the non-removable double-locked, iron entrance and barred windows remain as reminders of the space’s illicit history.

The payment of pizzo is a long-standing tradition in Sicily, used by the mafia to retain control of the market and the minds of the people in specific territories. The exchange allows the mafia to keep tabs on where they have allies and influence, and may be used to force businesses to engage in practices that aren’t necessarily beneficial to them, such as employing certain people or ‘choosing’ specific providers. 

Laura Nocilla, president of Addiopizzo, said one of the biggest challenges they face is changing the social norm of silence which surrounds the pizzo system.

“When we started in 2004, everyone knew about the pizzo system,” Nocilla said. “The mafia had always used this system to retain economic and social control. But nobody talked about it. So we had to strategize: how could we shift the behavior of people?”

READ ALSO: At least 5,000 restaurants across Italy thought to be mafia-run

Perhaps because of the covert nature of pizzo, Addiopizzo has found young people to be the most effective messengers of anti-corruption ideas.

Ermes Nocilla, from the movement, told the story of a child who learned about pizzo as a part of his classwork in elementary school. The child went home and asked his father, a shopkeeper in Palermo, if he payed the illicit tax. The father found himself unable to answer.

“This man came to our office the next day, in tears. He was ashamed,” Nocilla said. “For children, it’s easier to break down those barriers.”

Although accurate measurement of the pizzo is extremely difficult due to unreliable reporting in surveys, Addiopizzo’s efforts are visible in the growing prevalence of businesses declaring their non-payment.

The amount of businesses affiliated with Addiopizzo has expanded to more than 1,000. Meanwhile, shops place Addiopizzo stickers in their windows to indicate their refusal to pay, and the mafia seems to respects this signal. Addiopizzo said there have been no negative repercussions for business owners who have joined the movement.

The police have even wiretapped mafia conversations which included directions to avoid attempting to collect pizzo from businesses displaying the Addiopizzo symbol for two reasons: they know they won’t receive the money, and they run the risk of being reported.

The movement’s success is largely driven by its philosophy of collectivism: when business-owners proclaim their refusal to pay pizzo together, they exercise strength in numbers and can more effectively ensure judicial and police follow-through.

But despite these major advancements, much work remains. Gunnarson said the recent economic crisis has dulled some anti-mafia momentum in Sicily, with companies focused on their own problems instead of general wrongs in society.

She also said that accusations that several prominent government ministers and organized crime leaders collaborated during a period of intense violence in the 1990s, may be holding some Italian tongues on the matter.

“For as long as people are unsure about whether the mafia or the State will win, people will keep the ‘wait-and-see’ strategy before declaring they are on one side or the other,” Gunnarson said. 

By Batul Hassan in Palermo

A version of this article was first published in May 2016.

OPINION: 'Italian judges are right to remove children from mafia families'OPINION: 'Italian judges are right to remove children from mafia families'
Photo: atlanka/Depositphotos

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Italy’s president calls for ‘full truth’ on anniversary of Bologna bombing

President Sergio Mattarella said on Tuesday it was the state's duty to shed more light on the 1980 bombing of Bologna's train station, on the 42nd anniversary of the attack that killed 85 people and injured 200.

Italy's president calls for 'full truth' on anniversary of Bologna bombing

On August 2nd 1980, a bomb exploded in the railway station’s waiting room, causing devastation on an unprecedented scale.

Five members of terrorist groups were later convicted in relation to the bombing, the worst episode in Italy’s ‘Years of Lead’ period of political violence in the 1970s and 80s.

Most recently, in 2020, a former member of the far-right Armed Revolutionary Nucleus (NAR) was sentenced to life imprisonment for providing logistical support to those who carried out the attack.

But suspicions remain of cover-ups and the involvement of “deviant elements” within the nation’s security services, reported Italian news agency Ansa.

READ ALSO: Bologna massacre: 40 years on, questions remain over Italy’s deadliest postwar terror attack

“The bomb that killed people who happened to be at the station on that morning 42 years ago still reverberates with violence in the depths of the country’s conscience,” Mattarella said in a speech marking the anniversary on Tuesday.

“It was the act of cowardly men of unequalled inhumanity, one of the most terrible of the history of the Italian Republic.

A train compartment at Bologna station pictured following the 1980 bombing attributed to the neo-fascist terrorist organization Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari.

“It was a terrorist attack that sought to destabilise democratic institutions and sow fear, hitting ordinary citizens going about their everyday tasks.

“On the day of the anniversary our thoughts go, above all, to the relatives forced to suffer the greatest pain.

“The neo-fascist nature of the massacre has been established in court and further steps have been made to unveil the cover-ups and those who ordered the attack in order to comply with the Republic’s duty to seek the full truth”.

The bombing remains Western Europe’s fourth deadliest postwar terror attack, and one of the most devastating in Italy’s history.