‘The Beast’ of Sicilian mafia, Totò Riina, dies in prison

Former "boss of bosses" Totò Riina, one of the most feared godfathers in the history of the Sicilian mafia, died early on Friday after battling cancer, the Italian government said.

'The Beast' of Sicilian mafia, Totò Riina, dies in prison
An early police shot of Salvatore 'Toto' Riina. Photo: public domain via Adri08/Wikimedia Commons.

Riina, who had been serving 26 life sentences and is thought to have ordered more than 150 murders, had been in a medically-induced coma after his health deteriorated following two operations.

The mobster, who turned 87 on Thursday, died in the prisoners' wing of a hospital in Parma in northern Italy just before 4:00am, a ministry of justice spokesman told AFP.

Nicknamed “The Beast” because of his cruelty, Salvatore “Totò” Riina led a reign of terror for decades after taking control of the island's powerful organised crime group Cosa Nostra in the 1970s.

“Riina will go down in history as the man who destroyed Cosa Nostra,” newspaper La Repubblica's mafia expert Attilio Bolzoni said.

“With his strategy of bloody massacres in Sicily and across Italy… he turned an invisible mafia visible, with hundreds, thousands of murders, carried out first with Kalashnikovs, then bombs”.

The most high-profile murders he ordered were those in 1992 of anti-mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, who had worked fearlessly to bring more than 300 mobsters to trial in 1987.

The remains of a police car destroyed during of the assassination of judge Giovanni Falcone, now a memorial in Palermo. Photo: Marcello Paternostro/AFP

He also famously ordered the brutal murder of a 13-year-old boy who was kidnapped in a bid to stop his father from spilling mafia secrets. The boy was strangled and his body dissolved in acid.

“God have mercy on him, as we won't,” an association for victims told the Fatto Quotidiano daily.

The Italian bishops conference ruled out a public church funeral for the mass murderer. Pope Francis declared all mafiosi “excommunicated” from the Catholic Church in 2015.

Riina, who was also dubbed “U Curtu” (“Shorty”) due to his 5-foot-2-inch height, for years denied all links to the crime group.

In 2009 he broke the mafia code of omerta – a vow of silence –and surprised those who thought he would take his secrets to the grave by admitting his link to the mob.

He was caught on a wiretap earlier this year saying he “regrets nothing”.

“They'll never break me, even if they give me 3,000 years” in jail.

Toto Riina after his arrest in 1993. Photo: Italian police handout/AFP

The son of a poor farmer, Riina was born on November 16, 1930 in Corleone, a village inland from Palermo and the birthplace of Don Corleone, the fictional Godfather in Francis Ford Coppola's popular movie trilogy.

He is believed to have first murdered for the Mafia aged 19 and followed that a year later by killing a man during an argument – landing him behind bars for a six-year manslaughter stretch.

Once out, he became a foot soldier for volatile boss Luciano Leggio, eventually taking over from him at the end of the 1970s when the cigar-puffing fugitive was caught and jailed.

Riina went on the run himself in 1969, but continued to lead the Corleonesi clan from hiding, increasing his influence by bumping off rivals such as Filippo Marchese, a hitman who garroted his victims in a “room of death”.

Riina would elude police efforts to snare him for almost a quarter of a century – without ever leaving Sicily – and took charge of Cosa Nostra's key businesses, from drug trafficking to kidnapping and racketeering.

His bloody victory in the Mafia War of the 1980s was to prove his undoing, however, as mobsters from defeated rival families began turning state witness against him, and police tracked him to a house in Palermo.

The village of Corleone, Sicily. Riina's land there was confiscated and turned into a B&B. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP 

In revenge for Riina's arrest and a new anti-mafia law that saw jailed mobsters kept in total isolation, the group launched a series of bombings in Rome, Milan and Florence that killed 10 people.

After years in which only his lawyers were allowed to visit him, an ageing and cancer-riddled Riina asked in July 2017 to be released from prison on the grounds of serious illness – a request that was denied.

On Thursday, days after he was placed into a medical coma by prison doctors, Italy's Health Minister Andrea Orlando signed a waiver allowing Riina's family to visit him and say their goodbyes.

The mobster was married to Antonietta Bagarella, a teacher from a mafioso family. He was father to four children, one of whom is behind bars for four murders.

“You're not Toto Riina to me, you're just my dad. And I wish you happy birthday dad on this sad but important day, I love you,” one son, Salvo, wrote on Facebook on Thursday.

The mobster's eldest daughter Maria Concetta mourned by posting a picture on Facebook of a finger pressed to the lips and the word “shhh…”, a likely reference to the mafia code of silence.


Costly flights, few trains: What’s travel like between Sicily and mainland Italy?

Sicily may be just a stone’s throw from mainland Italy but getting there and back is not always simple or fast, as Silvia Marchetti explains.

Costly flights, few trains: What’s travel like between Sicily and mainland Italy?

Transport connections between Italy’s largest island region and the main Italian cities are expected to improve in the long run, with the government hoping to use European pandemic recovery funds. But infrastructure investments take years to bear fruit. 

Taking a flight is of course the easiest and quickest way to reach Sicily, where there are three main airports – Palermo, Catania, Trapani – plus two minor ones on the southernmost Pantelleria and Lampedusa islands. But there are mounting ticket costs. 

The recent investigation launched by Italian authorities into alleged price-fixing on flights to and from Sicily during Christmas holidays by many low-cost airlines shows how fliers might have been left with little choice. Unless one is a Sicilian resident with access to privileged fares, the round trip is often costly.

I recently did an online search and found flights to Sicily are still quite expensive, costing roughly 300 euros for a return trip from Rome, even if booked well in advance. And not all Italian airports serve the destination. 

READ ALSO: Trains and planes: Italy’s new international travel routes in 2023

Paradoxically, it is often easier to reach Sicily from a European city such as London or Brussels than from an Italian one, and I often envy foreign friends who quickly find a much cheaper flight than I can from Rome. Others hop on ferry boats in southern France to land in Sicily. 

For those already in Italy, other options are traveling by train or car, which can still be hellish. Even though the A1 autostrada del Sole, the country’s backbone, has been completed, driving down the length of the country takes 12 hours – inclusive of meal and toilet stops – roughly 1,500 kilometers. I did it once, and it is crazy, but it depends on how much one loves driving.

All train connections end in Reggio Calabria or other southern regions, even the high-speed Italo takes 10 hours from Milan to the tip of the boot. The journey by train is less stressful than by car or plane, and costs roughly 280 euros for a round trip from Milan.

Travel to and from Sicily can often turn into a nightmarish odyssey. I’ve spoken to lots of Sicilians and foreigners who often embark on a 24-hour trip to get to Sicily from Rome and Milan. 

I remember once going to Linosa island for the summer holidays and having to take the plane to Palermo, then a long bus ride to Porto Empedocle to catch the midnight ferry, sleeping on a bench and waking up the next morning to stunning volcanic black scenery. I could have taken the plane to sister-isle Lampedusa and then a quick ferry boat, but the air fare was way over my budget. That trip lasted 28 hours, exactly the same amount of time as my past flights to Jakarta from Rome – but with added stress.

The ferry connecting Messina, Sicily with Villa San Giovanni, Calabria. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

The government aims to revive the Messina bridge plan, an idea which has been floating in the air since 1866. I doubt things would change much. Many people would still drive their cars along the bridge rather than take the ecological high speed railway expected to be built on it.

To improve connections, transport must shift from the road to the railway tracks by increasing high-speed train services, as well as ferries, thus curbing CO2 emissions. High-speed sea connections to and from Naples, Civitavecchia, Livorno and other key mainland ports should also be increased.

READ ALSO: Yes, train travel across Europe is far better than flying – even with kids

The Messina bridge, which I seriously doubt will be built during this government’s five-year legislature, would just end up increasing road traffic. Locals and tourists in Calabria will be tempted to drive their car or motorino just three kilometers to grab a cassata cake in Messina. 

However, the real issue is not getting to and from Sicily, but getting around Sicily once you land there.

I had the chance to meet several Sicilian commuters who travel almost daily from a rural village to Rome, Naples or Milan for meetings. They wake up at three in the morning and return home at 11pm, up to four times a week. 

Island train and bus connections are rather poor so the car is their best option to get to the airport. However, bar the main highways, most Sicilian roads are a work-in-progress or in bad condition.

You never know where a Sicilian road trip might take you. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

I happened to experience an ‘adventurous’ road trip once from Catania airport to a tiny village in the province of Caltanissetta. According to the satellite map it was meant to take roughly two hours, but it turned out to be five, and I literally found myself in the middle of the countryside surrounded by sheep and ravines. Not quite the idyll I had dreamt.

Some highways were shut due to maintenance so I had to cut across unpaved rural roads without street lights, or deviate elsewhere which lengthened my trip (ravenous, I took five minutes to stop for a quick cannolo on the way).

It all depends on what degree of adventure travelers are seeking. Distances seem shorter for some foreigners than they do to Italians. Americans in particular and others from non-European Union countries are excited to drive from Milan to Sicily, for they can catch a glimpse of Italy in its entirety, or tour Sicily’s main archaeological sites in eight hours.

But many others I know, because of the poor state of Sicilian roads and regional connections, prefer to fly in and rent cars with drivers to take them to their destinations. 

The future of Sicily’s transport connections must be affordable and more frequent flights, high-speed railways and eco-friendly boats. Not new bridges and even more cars on the road.