Obituary: Salvatore ‘Toto’ Riina, mafia ‘boss of bosses’

Salvatore 'Toto' Riina in 1993 (Picture: AP Photo/Giulio Broglio)
Salvatore 'Toto' Riina in 1993 (Picture: AP Photo/Giulio Broglio)
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Salvatore “Toto” Riina, gangster. Born: 16 November 1930 in Corleone, Italy. Died: 17 November 2017, aged 87.

Mafia “boss of bosses” Salvatore “Toto” Riina died early yesterday in a hospital while serving multiple life sentences as the mastermind of a bloody strategy to assassinate Italian prosecutors and law enforcement trying to bring down the Cosa Nostra.

Riina died hours after the Justice Minister had allowed family members bedside visits on Thursday, which was his birthday, after he had been placed in a medically induced coma at a hospital in Parma, northern Italy. Italian media said his health had deteriorated after two recent surgeries.

Riina, one of Sicily’s most notorious Mafia bosses who ruthlessly directed the mob’s criminal empire during 23 years in hiding, was serving 26 life sentences for murder convictions as a powerful Cosa Nostra boss. He was captured in Palermo, Sicily’s capital, in 1993 and imprisoned under a law that requires strict security for top mobsters, including being detained in isolated sections of prisons with limited time outside their cells.

Prosecutors accused Riina of masterminding a strategy, carried out over several years, to assassinate Italian prosecutors, police officials and others who were going after the Cosa Nostra, when he allegedly held the helm as the so-called “boss of bosses”. The campaign ultimately backfired, however, and led to his capture.

Salvatore Riina was born in the mountain town of Corleone in central Sicily. The town’s name was borrowed for the main character in the Godfather novels by Mario Puzo, written years before Riina rose in the Mafia ranks.

Investigators believe Riina, the son of a Corleone farmer, jockeyed his way to the top of the Mafia by pitting rivals against each other, and then standing out of the way of the bloodshed that felled one boss after the other in the 1970s.

He went into hiding in 1969 after being ordered by the state to leave Sicily after he had finished serving a five-year prison sentence for Mafia association. During his decades on the run, the only picture authorities had of the fugitive was more than 30 years old.

More than one Mafia defector had said Riina had come and gone as he pleased during his years as Italy’s top fugitive. Riina was handed his first life sentence in 1987 after being tried in absentia on murder and drug trafficking charges.

For decades, Riina seemed to mock law enforcement as he reigned from underground over the mob’s drug trafficking network and ordered the deaths of top anti-Mafia fighters. But after bombs killed Italy’s two leading anti-Mafia magistrates, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, two months apart in 1992, the state stepped up its crackdown on Sicily’s Mafiosi.

Investigators worked with turncoats to zero in on the “capo dei capi”, locating Riina and blocking his car on a Palermo thoroughfare on 15 January 1993. Riina steadfastly refused to collaborate with authorities after his capture.

The archbishop of Monreale, which includes Corleone, said Riina’s death “ends the delusion of the Cosa Nostra boss of bosses’ omnipotence”. “But the Mafia has not been defeated, and therefore we should not let down our guards,” Archbishop Michele Pennisi said.

Pennisi did not know if family members intended to transfer Riina’s body to Corleone, but he said a public funeral would not be allowed since Riina was a “public sinner”. “If the family members ask, a private prayer in the cemetery will be considered,” he added.