The May 23, 1992 assassination of Italy’s most famous anti-Mafia magistrate, Giovanni Falcone, was a watershed moment in the country’s decades-long fight against organized crime.
His spectacularly brutal murder – he was blown up by a massive 400-kilogram bomb along with his wife and three policemen – shocked a nation. Two months later, his best known colleague, Paolo Borsellino, was killed in another blast.
“Most people remember exactly where they were when they heard the news [of Falcone’s death], and in its aftermath several public figures declared themselves ashamed to be Italian,” historian John Dickie wrote in “Cosa Nostra – A History of the Sicilian Mafia.”
Francesco La Licata, a journalist and author who has written extensively on the Mafia, says the killings of Falcone and Borsellino traumatized Italy just as the 2001 Twin Towers attacks devastated the United States.
“1992 was our September 11,” he recently told RAI state radio.
The murders triggered a grass-roots swell of outrage and pushed authorities to finally get serious about fighting the mob.
As solemn 25-year anniversary commemorations loom, the Sicilian Mafia, or Cosa Nostra, appears on the retreat.
Cosa Nostra has seen most of its leaders end up behind bars, but other Italian crime syndicates – notably the ‘Ndrangheta from Calabria – have gained formidable strength, extending their reach to far flung places like Canada and Australia.
“In the last 25 years, thanks to the sacrifice of Falcone and Borsellino, we took enormous steps forward, [but] the defeat of mafia groups will come only when Rome, or even Europe, acts,” Anti-Mafia and Anti-Terrorism Chief Prosecutor Franco Roberti told RAI.
Falcone is credited for leading the so-called maxi-trial of the 1980s, conducted in a specially constructed underground bunker in Palermo’s prison, in which for the first time hundreds of mafiosi were convicted.
“Until the late 1970s, early 1980s, people used to say, even in the institutions, that the mafia did not exist, that it was an invention of the media,” retired Palermo magistrate Leonardo Guarnotta said to RAI.
Falcone spearheaded a new approach to Mafia investigations, based on financial leads, testimonies from defectors and cooperation with foreign law-enforcement agencies, and laid the groundwork for the creation of an FBI-style national agency against the Mafia.
Italy now claims to have the world’s toughest anti-Mafia legislation, including provisions allowing the state-seizure of Mafia-linked assets, protection programmes for defectors and incommunicado prison regimes to stop bosses communicating with accomplices.
But many Italian officials warn that the lack of similar legislation in countries in Europe and beyond have turned them into safe havens for Italian Mafia groups, while local authorities fail to realize how much these syndicates have infiltrated their societies.
In Germany, alarm bells rang in 2007, when six men were shot outside a pizzeria in the western city of Duisburg in a ‘Ndrangheta revenge murder.
In 2015, the Federal Criminal Police Office BKA recognized the Calabrian mob as Germany’s dominant crime syndicate.
According to a European Parliament resolution from October, EU governments should follow Italy’s lead in criminalizing the act of mafia association, which allows prosecutors to indict suspects even if they have not been caught committing a specific crime.
Italy is also pushing for the fledgling EU Public Prosecution Office – expected to be launched later this year – to be given powers to investigate serious cross-border crime, as well as financial crimes against the EU.
More controversially, chief prosecutor Roberti says Italy should legalize cannabis to take a lucrative business out of the Mafia’s hands, and concentrate law enforcement resources on its other criminal endeavours.
The prospects of such recommendations becoming law remain uncertain, and there is other work to be done on Italy’s domestic front, namely against rising ‘Ndrangheta power and in the management of confiscated Mafia assets.
So can the Mafia ever disappear? In one of his most famous quotes, from 1991, Falcone said it “is not at all invincible.
It is a human phenomenon and like all human phenomenon it has a beginning and it will also have an ending.”
But recent data suggests we are not there yet: An April nationwide poll by the Centro Studi Pio Latorre found that 47 per cent of high school students consider the Mafia to be stronger than the state, and less than 30 per cent believe in its eventual defeat.