Organised crime and terrorism Part II: Negotiating with bombs – The Sicilian mafia’s attempts at intimidating the Italian state

This is the second piece in Strife’s four-part series exploring the relationship between organised crime and terrorism in a 21st century security environment. The First part can be found here.

By: Martin Stein

The devastating effects of the Milan car bomb, 28 July 1993. Source: Wikimedia.

In the night between 26 and 27 May 1993, a wide deflagration stuck Florence, seemingly from its medieval centre. A car bomb, loaded with 277kg of explosives, had detonated in via dei Georgofili, a narrow road behind the world-known Uffizi art gallery. The bomb destroyed the Torre dei Pulci, a tower built during the Renaissance. There were five victims: in the Torre, in fact, Angela Fiume (36 years old), the warden, lived with his husband, Fabrizio Nencioni (39), and their two daughters, Nadia (9) and Caterina (2 months). The bomb also, in addition, caused a fire that killed Dario Capolicchio (22), a college student. There were 48 injured alongside heavy damages to the nearby Uffizi building. Around 25% of the paintings in the area were damaged, some of them beyond any possibility of repair[1].

Three other bombings occurred exactly two months after the Florence attack. Two car bombs detonated in Rome, in front of two different churches (San Giorgio al Velabro and San Giovanni in Laterano), injuring 22 people but with no casualties. A third car bomb was placed in Milan, Italy’s financial centre. The blast damaged the Contemporary Art Pavillion and killed a traffic inspector, three firefighters and a Moroccan migrant. In Italy, the shock from the incidents was immediate. Most of the population were unprepared, as Italians believed that terrorism had ended in the “Seventies” otherwise known as the “Lead Years”[2].

Bloodshed, however, was not uncommon in those years. In 1992, three events stood out for importance: this time, they all happened in Sicily. On 12 March, the passenger of a passing motorbike shot the Christian Democrat politician Salvo Lima in Palermo. On 23 May, a bomb exploded under the official car of Judge Giovanni Falcone, one of the recent protagonists of the struggle against the Sicilian Mafia. The explosive device killed Falcone, his wife and his three police-officer escort. Finally, on 19 July, a car bomb placed under the house of Judge Paolo Borsellino, the other protagonist of the recent Mafia prosecutions. The blast killed the Judge and five police servicemen.

These assassinations could have been the ultimate setback for the struggle against the Mafia. It had taken decades, for Italy at large and for the Sicilian society in particular, to acknowledge openly even the existence of this criminal organisation[3]. Its workings and its activities were, for most of the Cold War period, secret and unnoticeable. Mafiosi composed local disputes, imposed their protection racket, and collected their own taxation (the pizzo)[4]. Most importantly, local Families controlled a sizeable portion of votes. This meant that they were able to strike a deal with local politicians, mostly from the Christian Democrat party, to exchange electoral success for state inaction and distribution of public money[5]. Thus, Mafiosi and their political allies were often in charge of providing key public services, including hospitals and transportation. Then, even if Mafia violence sometimes exploded in savage wars for internal predominance, until the 1980s, its overarching infiltration of the local authority went largely unnoticed.

This began to change in the 1970s. The Mafia Families had suffered a backlash from the State in the previous decade, due to a massacre occurred during the first Mafia war. The “Lead Years”, instead, brought a new opportunity: the heroin trade. Some Mafiosi had already been engaged in smuggling[6], but, after the start of the “War on Drugs”, prominent bosses turned their organisation to trafficking on a larger scale, also by exploiting their connections with the American Cosa Nostra. Important leaders like Stefano Bontate and Tano Badalamenti started making estimated millions of dollars. In the meantime, however, they ignored a dangerous menace to their domination. From the town of Corleone, near Palermo, a group of prominent killers rose up. Their first leader was Luciano Leggio, who then transmitted his power to two main associates, Totò Riina and Bernardo Provenzano. The Corleonesi, as they were known, started encroaching on the whole organisation, by investing money in making allies and acquiring loyalties, instead of buying luxury goods. Even if Bontate and Badalamenti were much richer, the Corleonesi rapidly became militarily more powerful. By 1977, they managed to expel Badalamenti from the Commission, the general ruling organ of the Mafia. In 1981, they started the second Mafia war, by directly killing Badalamenti and Bontate[7].

In the following three years, the Corleonesi successfully achieved the Mafia equivalent of a coup d’état. They showed that military power and support from the Families was more important than wealth and drug trade connections. They stepped up the number of killings, eventually murdering more than 200 affiliates to the rival families. They effectively turned a war into a slaughter, as their enemies were too astonished by the series of attacks to react in any manner. The Corleonesi also showed a never before seen eagerness to inflict harm and with that guiding mentality they irredeemably damaged the old Mafia tenets. Mafiosi from Corleone spared no relative, when they carried out their assassinations. In one case, a “man of honour” managed to escape from an assassination attempt, and they retaliated by killing 35 of his relatives.

By the end of 1983, Totò Riina, then the leader of the Corleone group, had taken over the whole organisation. The Mafia came under the dominion of this aggressive and harsh élite, which spelled its subsequent crisis. Riina, in fact, did not stop with the utter defeat of the rival Families. Soon, he started ordering killings based on suspects only, and he quickly ended up eliminating his own allies and associates. By those years, however, a new group of judges had united in Palermo, including judges Falcone and Borsellino[8]. The climate of fear established by the Corleonesi ultimately convinced some of the most desperate Mafiosi to surrender to the State, exchanging insider information for a reduced sentence. These figures were the pentiti, “repented ones”. In September 1984, Tommaso Buscetta decided to turn into one of them. This decision was critical, as he became the highest-ranked Mafioso collaborating with justice[9].

Buscetta’s witnessing, along with the contribution from other pentiti, helped the team of Judges to set a “maxi-trial” against 474 Mafiosi in February 1986. This trial ended on 31 January 1992 with a judgement by the Court of Cassation. The Court upheld the sentences and, for the first time, declared the Mafia to be a single organisation, with the Commission responsible for its murders. Riina used to scorn the Italian state, as it did not support those who tried to fight organised crime[10]. With the maxi-trial final sentence, however, the authorities had inflicted a significant blow on his affiliates. He answered in the way that he knew best: by murder.

Riina and some of his followers believed that the Italian State would ultimately back down. They felt betrayed by the Christian Democrat party, their old partner for embezzlement and corruption operations. They even felt betrayed by the Catholic Church, which had begun to denounce in earnest the Mafia’s violence. They were convinced that they could coerce the Christian Democrats and the Church into submission and force them to ignore the Mafia, as it happened before. This, however, was not possible anymore. The Corleonesi succeeded in killing Falcone and Borsellino and in enacting the bombings in Florence, Milan, and Rome. However, the very political system that had protected them was tumbling down. The collapse of the Soviet Union spelled the end of the Communist Party; a wave of corruption scandals effectively dissolved the Christian Democracy and the Socialists. In this atmosphere of unforeseen political transformation, the tide turned against the Mafia. The years of the car bombs were the years when fundamental legal measures were approved. Among them, pentiti started to enjoy a witness protection scheme, a new anti-Mafia authority was established, the police were given the option to infiltrate the organisation, and tougher prison conditions were made available for high-ranking Mafiosi[11].

By the mid-1990s, the bombing campaign had largely receded. Far from intimidating the Italian state, terrorist tactics had backfired tremendously. As the Italian political system changed, the Sicilian Mafia had decided to act violently in the moment when their erstwhile protectors were disappearing. The whole organisation seemed hijacked by its Corleonesi core. This exercised an immense pressure on the Mafia, and many of its affiliates turned to cooperating with the state. The syndicate had lost its ancient rules and most importantly, its lost focus of its main reason to exist, – making money. After the arrest of Riina, in 1994, Bernardo Provenzano became the new “boss of bosses” and, as he was a more cautious man, he patiently tried to regain control of the Sicilian territory. After its imprisonment, in 2006, Matteo Messina Denaro, a relatively young leader, has probably decided that preserving the protection racket and getting a share of the drug trade was more than enough. Without car bombs and targeted killings, the Mafia transformed into a wider, untraceable organisation, whose laundered money has reached all of Italy and the wealthiest parts of the European continent.

Martin Stein is an LLM (Master in Laws) student from University College London. His research interests include transnational organised crime, international illicit trade, and international police cooperation.



[1] F. D’Emilio, Car Bomb Blast Damages Florence’s Uffizi Gallery; Explosion Kills 5; Glass Shields Save Most Paintings, Washington Post, May 28, 1993, p. A31.

[2] Longrigg, C., Boss of Bosses. A Journey into the Heart of the Sicilian Mafia, New York, NY, Thomas Dunne Books, pp. 120-121.

[3] Stille, A., Their Thing, The American Scholar, Vol. 64, No. 2 (Spring, 1995), p. 292.

[4] Gambetta, D., The Sicilian Mafia: the business of private protection, Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press, 1993.

[5] Shelley, L. I., Mafia and the Italian State: The Historical Roots of the Current Crisis, Sociological Forum, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Dec., 1994), pp. 668-669.

[6] Antonino Calderone, a “repented” member of the Mafia, writes in his memoirs of the transformation from smuggling cigarettes to dealing heroin. In P. Arlacchi, Men of dishonor: Inside the Sicilian Mafia, New York, NY, Morrow Pub., 1995.

[7] Dickie, J., Cosa Nostra. A History of the Sicilian Mafia, NY, Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, pp. 284-289.

[8] Dickie, pp. 298-9.

[9] He, in fact, was one of the founders of the Commission, back in 1957. Dickie, p. 236.

[10] Dickie, p. 297.

[11] Dickie, p. 315.

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