Could body found on Italy’s Mount Etna help solve long-standing mafia mystery?

Half a century after investigative journalist Mauro De Mauro disappeared in Sicily, the discovery of a body in a cave has raised fresh hopes of cracking one of Italy's mafia mysteries.

People hike on Mount Etna volcano in Sicily, Italy
Sicily's Mount Etna volcano, where a body was found last September. Photo: Guillaume BAPTISTE / AFP

Crime laboratory analysts are expected to perform a DNA test on the corpse, which was found in September on the slopes of Mount Etna by a sniffer dog during a mountain rescue exercise.

Investigators have long believed De Mauro, who had been looking into the suspicious death of powerful businessman Enrico Mattei, was kidnapped and killed by Sicily’s Cosa Nostra organised crime group.

The journalist disappeared on September 16th, 1970, in Palermo.

His daughter Franca, one of the last people to see him alive, called a police hot-line after reading news reports about the recently found body, which dates to the 1970s and has a distinctive nose — just like her father.

The man on Etna, in his 50s, was wearing dark trousers, a light striped shirt, a wool jumper, a black tie, a dark green coat, a winter hat with a pom-pom on it, and black boots, the reports said.

“We expect they will do a DNA test,” the De Mauro family’s lawyer Giuseppe Crescimanno told AFP.

A coin from 1977 was discovered next to the remains, along with a piece of a newspaper from 1978, according to La Sicilia daily — both of which date to after De Mauro’s disappearance.

Franca does not recognise the clothes, nor the comb or watch found with the body, the paper said.

“She is not sure they are not his, she doesn’t rule it out, she just cannot remember them — except perhaps the hat with the pom-pom,” Crescimanno said.

The journalist may have been held by kidnappers for years and have been given different clothes. If the body is a DNA match with De Mauro, he may have died after managing to escape.

Police mountain rescuers can be seen in a video published on their Facebook page this week climbing down a steep, narrow tunnel to the cave, the entrance to which is almost hidden from the outside.

The dog had been supposed to be sniffing out a fictitious missing person for training purposes — but found the real remains instead.

Investigators believe the man, who was in his 50s and about 170 centimetres tall (five feet, six inches), entered the cave voluntarily but found it impossible to climb out again.

His death is not believed to have been violent, the reports said.

De Mauro had been doing research for award-winning director Francesco Rosi’s film about the death of Mattei, who founded the ENI oil company, and who died in a 1962 plane crash likely caused by a bomb.

Mafia boss Salvatore “Toto” Riina was tried over De Mauro’s murder, but found not guilty for lack of proof.

The journalist was kidnapped a few days before Franca’s wedding. After having returned home together from an outing, Franca went inside while her father parked the car.

She turned to see two or three men appear, and get into the car. De Mauro then drove off quickly, never to return, according to the Giornale della Sicilia daily.

The lead investigators on the case would be killed in turn by the mafia years later.

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Italy marks 30-year anniversary of anti-mafia judge murder

Thirty years ago, the Sicilian mafia killed judge Giovanni Falcone with a bomb so powerful it was registered by experts monitoring volcanic tremors from Etna on the other side of the island.

Italy marks 30-year anniversary of anti-mafia judge murder

The explosion, which ripped through a stretch of motorway near Palermo at 5.56 pm on May 23rd 1992, sent shockwaves across Italy, but also signalled the start of the mafia’s decline.

Anti-mafia prosecuting magistrate Falcone, his wife, and three members of his police escort were killed.

The mob used a skateboard to place a 500-kilogram (1,100-pound) charge of TNT and ammonium nitrate in a tunnel under the motorway which linked the airport to the centre of Palermo.

Falcone, driving a white Fiat Croma, was returning from Rome for the weekend.

At a look-out point on the hill above, a mobster nicknamed “The Pig” pressed the remote control button as the judge’s three-car convoy passed.

The blast ripped through the asphalt, shredding bodies and metal, and flinging the lead car several hundred metres.

The three policemen on board were killed instantly.

READ ALSO: Could body found on Italy’s Mount Etna help solve long-standing mafia mystery?

Falcone, whose wife was sitting beside him, had slowed seconds before the explosion and the car slammed into a concrete guard rail.

His chauffeur, who was sitting in the back, survived, as did the three agents in the convoy’s rear.

A “garden of memory” now stands on the site of the attack. Oil from olive trees that grow there is used by Sicilian churches for anointing children during baptisms and confirmations.

‘Mafia massacre’

Falcone posed a real threat to the Cosa Nostra, an organised crime group made famous by “The Godfather” trilogy and which boasted access to the highest levels of Italian power.

It was he who gathered evidence from the first mafia informants for a groundbreaking trial in which hundreds of mobsters were convicted in 1987.

And at the time of the attack, he headed the justice ministry’s criminal affairs department in Rome and was working on a package of anti-mafia laws.

His murder woke the nation up. The Repubblica daily attacked the “mafia massacre” in its headline the next day, with a photo of the famous moustachioed magistrate, while thousands of people in Palermo protested in the streets.

All eyes turned to fellow anti-mafia magistrate Paolo Borsellino, Falcone’s close friend and colleague, who gave an interview at the start of July saying the “extreme danger” he was in would not stop him doing his job.

On July 19th, just 57 days after his friend, Borsellino was also killed in a car bomb attack, along with five members of his escort. Only his driver survived.

Amid national outrage, the state threw everything it had at hunting down Cosa Nostra boss Salvatore (Toto) Riina, who was involved in dozens of murders during a reign of terror lasting over 20 years.

Riina was arrested on January 15th, 1993, in a car in Palermo.

The truth?

The murders of Falcone and Borsellino “in the long term turned out to be a very bad business for Cosa Nostra, whose management team was decapitated by arrests and informants’ confessions”, Vincenzo Ceruso, author of several books on the mafia, told AFP.

Dozens of people have been convicted for their roles in the assassinations.

But Roberto di Bella, now an anti-mafia judge at the Catania juvenile court in Sicily, said that while “the majority of the perpetrators have been tried and convicted”, there remained “a part that is still not clear”.

Survivors insist there are still bits of the puzzle missing and point to Falcone’s belief there could be “possible points of convergence between the leaders of Cosa Nostra and the shadowy centres of power”.

“We still don’t have the truth about who really ordered the murder of Giovanni Falcone, because I don’t believe that ignorant people like Toto Riina could have organised an attack as sophisticated as that in Capaci,” Angelo Corbo, one of the surviving bodyguards, said in a documentary.

He said he was not alone in believing there were “men in suits and ties” among the mobsters.

However, an investigation into possible “hidden orchestrators” of the Capaci attack was thrown out in 2013.

“There is no evidence of the existence of external backers. There is no doubt that these are mafia acts,” author Ceruso said.