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Remembering Judge Falcone
by Vincenzo Salerno

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Judge Falcone in court. Winding its way through Palermo under a light rain in the afternoon of 23 May 2012, a procession - something of a march - passed by the homes of Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. In it were thousands of local people as well as students from all over Italy, and at the end there were speeches by Italy's president and prime minister. The 20-year commemoration of the day of Falcone's death was marked by greater support from the people and the state than the judge ever enjoyed during his lifetime. Judge Falcone was fond of saying that you can kill a man but you can't kill his ideas. With the Mafia's power much diminished, time seems to have proven him right.

(We first published the following article ten years ago, in 2002.)

It has been twenty years since Sicily's most distinguished anti-Mafia crusader was murdered when his car and escort were blown up by a bomb planted beneath the road leading to Palermo's airport. Sadly, several of those who conspired to assassinate him were released from prison (in March 2002) in return for having cooperated as "pentiti" by turning state's evidence to convict other Mafiosi. Prominent among them is the infamous Santino "Little Saint" De Matteo of Altofonte. Yet, Falcone's memory lives, and the Palermo airport now bears his name and that of fellow magistrate Paolo Borsellino, also a victim of the Mafia.

Born in Palermo in 1939, Giovanni Falcone spent part of his youth in the Magione district which suffered extensive destruction during the Allied aerial attacks of 1943. He was the son of Arturo Falcone, director of a provincial chemical laboratory, and Luisa Bentivegna. After a classical education, Giovanni studied law following a brief period of study at Livorno's naval academy. Graduating in 1961, he began to practice law before being appointed a judge in 1964. In Italy, judges are appointed, never elected, based on a series of examinations. Falcone eventually gravitated toward penal law after serving as a district magistrate in Sicily at Lentini, Trapani and elsewhere. It was work that he found challenging but also rewarding.

By the 1970s, he was dealing with cases involving organised crime. Falcone's work was groundbreaking for several reasons. He began to dissolve the aura of mystique and myths surrounding the structure and culture of the Mafia, and by the 1980s, following years of bloodshed (and the murders of police officers and judges), he was making headway in this pursuit. It was as much a sociological task as a juridical one. Falcone was also an innovator in that he persuaded several important Mafiosi, most notably Tomasso Buscetta, to talk about the Mafia and provide useful information about its activities. Cooperation with American authorities was also important, since the Mafia is an international organisation. Before Falcone's efforts, little progress had been made in prosecuting Sicilian Mafiosi who moved about in the United States, particularly in the New York area, without being traced by Italian authorities or identified by American ones. Later, the success of the "Pizza Connection" trial in the United States owed much to Falcone's efforts in Italy.

The 1980s became the "Years of Lead" in Palermo as one judge or law-enforcement officer after another was gunned down or blown to pieces by the Mafia - Cesare Terranova, Rocco Chinnici, Emanuele Basile and Giuseppe Montana, to name just a few. Prominent Palermitan politicians, including several under investigation, bridled at the prospect of their own alleged or implicit ties to organised crime being alluded to by Falcone's frequent comments to the press, which they characterised as "overzealous." Another politico, a prominent mayor and grandstander who had garnered praise as an outspoken "opponent" of the Mafia, was known to make accusations of his own, yet in the late 1990s he invoked Falcone's name when it was politically convenient to do so.

Few Sicilians shared the more eccentric opinions of either personage. Clearly, however, there were magistrates and politicians, in Milan and Rome as well as Palermo, who took offence to Falcone's findings, perhaps afraid that these might hit too close to home. In 1988, Italy's highest court controversially ruled, in a particular case, against allowing any juridical procedures which presupposed a vertically organised structure of the Mafia at a national level (as opposed to a localised organisation), and this made further prosecutions difficult for the next few years. The move seemed contradictory in a nation that had enacted legislation against "criminality of the Mafia type," inspiring the practical application of the RICO statute in the United States. (The high court later rescinded on this point.) All the while, the intrepid and outspoken Rudolph Giuliani, then federal southern district judge for New York (and Falcone's American counterpart in almost every sense), applauded Falcone's efforts, which were echoed by the FBI's Louis Freeh, another American jurist of Italian ancestry.

In 1986 and 1987, Falcone and others presided over the "Maxi Trial" of 475 alleged Mafiosi in Palermo. The case, a parallel to the Pizza Connection trial, drew international attention by bringing the Mafia out into the open, but sadly, most of the 338 criminals convicted served little more than token sentences before being released under Italy's lax penal code, with its extremely high burden of proof. It did, however, result in the conviction of Mafia kingpin Michele Greco and, eventually, Salvatore Riina, Greco's successor from Corleone.

The Mafia's shadow, whether in the form of the drug trade, money laundering, political corruption (payoffs and kickbacks) or the pizzo (protection money), permeates every facet of the SicilianScene of the explosion near Capaci. economy, and statistically the problem is far worse in Palermo than in Catania. Giovanni Falcone knew this, and so do most Sicilians. Apart from cases of localised interest, Falcone dealt with important narcotics cases, then the Mafia's stock and trade internationally.

For all the press attention he was receiving, Falcone was becoming a lone crusader as the political establishment, having much to hide, now proved uncooperative, but the common folk regarded the Palermitan as a folk hero. Meanwhile, the Mafia was contemplating Falcone's murder, and actually attempted it several times. Despite languishing government support, Falcone and his staff continued their work in the Anti-Mafia Pool headquartered in Rome. This entailed a national position for Falcone as Italy's main prosecutor for Mafia cases, and extensive travel between Rome and Palermo.

Constructed in a climate of construction kickbacks, bribery and blatant Mafia opportunism, the Palermo airport, surrounded by steep cliffs, is quite distant from the city, but Falcone's speeding police escort could make the trip in twenty minutes. Along the autostrada on 23 May 1992, near the town of Capaci, Falcone's car was exploded by a mass of plastic explosive placed in a small underpass. Vehicles were destroyed, and so was a segment of road. Falcone's wife, Francesca Morvilio, also a magistrate, was killed with him and the members of his escort, police officers Rocco Di Cillo, Vito Schifani and Antonio Montinaro. Back in Palermo, the assassins were already plotting the murder of Paolo Borsellino, the judge who worked with Falcone.

Several important Mafiosi were arrested in Sicily in the years following, and the last decade has seen a marked reduction in Mafia-related crime. Falcone may not have defeated the organisation, which still thrives today (complete with websites published by the children of convicted Mafiosi), but he certainly hindered its growth. In the end, one can ask little more of a single courageous hero.

About the Author: Palermo native Vincenzo Salerno has written biographies of several famous Sicilians, including Frederick II and Giuseppe di Lampedusa.


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© 2002, 2012 Vincenzo Salerno