Brief Encounters – Giovanni Falcone

14 May, 2013

These are brief encounters with the lives of some of Sicily’s heroes: people perhaps only Sicily could produce.  Although they are stories that have been told many times before, they bear re-telling.  In Sicily, they will hopefully never be forgotten. 

The first thing you see when you fly to Palermo is the dramatic, rocky coastline of north Sicily; to me, even now, it is exciting and full of promise.  Then, in a wide bay, skirting the sea and ringed by mountains, the city itself.  Looking down, it is easy to imagine it as it once was:  one of the richest and most sophisticated cities of Europe;  a city of palaces and royal hunting lodges, surrounded by the dark-leaved citrus groves of the Conca d’Oro – blessed in both  location and climate.  

The picture changes as you reach the centre and images of the glorious city of the past are replaced by the reality of the city of today.  In places, the devastation caused by the Allied bombs of the Second World War is still apparent:  here and there the jagged, broken walls  of ancient palaces are silhouetted against the sky, and ornate plaster that once decorated  the interior of churches is exposed to the elements.  In many of the narrow alleys there is an air of neglect and resignation – and, all too often, piles of uncollected rubbish.     

But then, as you begin to discover the city’s treasures, the picture changes again: there is the overwhelming richness of decoration in baroque church interiors;  the patterns of  mixed marble floors – black, grey, red, yellow, green and blue; the unexpected whiteness and brilliance of Serpotta’s magical work in stucco; the shimmering gold and deep blue of the famous Arabo-Norman mosaics; and the unforgettable face of the ‘blue  Madonna’. 

It is only later that less tangible things begin to take hold: the rhythms and sounds of the city and, above all, its stories; in particular, stories of  the mafia, and of the men and women who have taken a stand against it.  These inspiring and heroic figures still dominate the city’s inner life.

Giovanni Falcone


I didn’t really want to start with the anti-mafia judge, Giovanni Falcone.  There are many others just as worthy, I thought, who are  not given their due, even though they too sacrificed their lives in the fight against the mafia.  But I kept coming back to  him – his particular qualities and achievements, combined with his considerable personal charisma, seemed to set him apart.  I decided it was appropriate to acknowledge that; and that doing so does not in any way detract from the achievements and contributions of others.

If you drive in to Palermo from the airport with a local, you will almost certainly have pointed out to you two red marble pillars, one on each side of the road, just a few kilometres from the airport.  They mark the spot where, at just before 6.00pm on 23 May 1992, Falcone, his wife Francesca Morvilla, and three escorts, Rocco Di Cillo, Antonio Montinaro and Vito Schifani, were killed as they drove from the airport to the city.  The explosion was massive, hurling cars through the air and completely destroying almost 500 metres of roadway.   On television footage of the scene a voice can be heard saying:  “How much explosive did they use – an atom bomb?”

For the mafia, Falcone had simply become too dangerous.   But mafiosi weren’t the only ones responsible for his death.   Falcone firmly believed that the mafia could be beaten by dedicated and competent investigation and his story shows that he was right.  But it also shows that the mafia will only ultimately be beaten with the full cooperation of the State.    In the words of one of the prosecutors after his death:  “The fight against the mafia begins in Sicily, but it’s won in Rome”.

There are two striking and conflicting things about Falcone’s life: on the one hand, his remarkably strong sense of duty and apparently calm acceptance of constant personal danger ; on the other, the enormous difficulties that were put in his way by the very people who should have been helping him.

When asked in an interview whether he ever had moments of doubt, of temptation to abandon the fight, he thought for just a moment and said with absolute conviction: “No.  Never!”, even though at the time he was constantly protected by bodyguards and working up to 16 hours a day in a concrete, windowless bunker.

One of Falcone’s early jobs was at Palermo’s bankruptcy court.  The experience he gained there would stand him in good stead when later he began investigating the mafia.  In 1979, he  joined the Investigative Prosecutors’ Office, which was being run by Rocco Chinnici, a prosecutor known to be adopting a strong anti-mafia policy.  It was a job that, privately and for good reason, Falcone’s mother hoped he would not take.

By the early  ’80s, there was a mafia killing in Palermo every three days as the power struggle between the old Palermo mafia families and the ‘redneck’ Corleonesi  intensified.  While at first it was mafia killing mafia, soon it was mafia killing anyone in the institutions who opposed them.   Chinnici was an obvious target and in 1983, he was killed by a car bomb outside his house as he left to go to work.  The concierge of the building and two bodyguards were killed with him.  Over the next few years, Falcone would see many of his colleagues, including some of his closest friends, meet the same fate.

Several months after Chinnici was killed, a high-ranking Sicilian mafia figure, involved in international drug trafficking in the Americas and known as ‘the boss of the two worlds’, was arrested by Brazilian police on his 65,000 acre farm in Brazil.  This was Tommaso Buscetta, a figure as elevated and respected in the mafia world as Falcone was in the anti-mafia world.  Buscetta was a Palermitano, which meant that he was on the losing side of the mafia war.  The Corleonesi had  gunned down  many members of his family, including his brother, nephew and son-in-law.  When, in 1983, he found he was to be extradited to Italy, he decided to speak out against the mafia and asked to speak to Falcone.

In his initial meeting he warned Falcone: “They will try to destroy you physically and professionally.  Never forget that you are opening an account with Cosa Nostra.  Are you sure you want to go ahead with this?”  Falcone was sure, and the revelations that Buscetta made  proved to be a turning point.  For the very first time,  prosecutors began to understand  how the mafia was organised, and who were its leading figures.

The exchange between these two men is revealing – there is a high level of  trust and respect on both sides and, on Falcone’s part in particular, great tact and sensitivity.  Had Falcone not been the person he was, it is unlikely that Buscetta would have made the revelations he did.  Many have noted the similarities that existed between Falcone and Buscetta:  they had the same Sicilian reserve, the same refined and subtle intellect, the same ability to communicate without words.  The statement in Falcone’s book Cose di Cosa Nostra:  “… someone who lives in constant danger needs to understand the meaning of even the most apparently irrelevant clues and to interpret them through a constant effort at decodification”,  applied to them both.  A close friend and colleague said “If Falcone had been on the other side, he would have been a great Mafioso”.

Falcone  had an extraordinary capacity for work and a strong memory for detail.  “[He] … was unique”, one of his colleagues said, “He had a capacity to work that was simply on another level from everyone else.”  A secretary in the Investigative Unit recalled that he would regularly work from 7.00 in the morning, without going home for lunch, and still be fresh at 7.00 in the evening. Then he would turn up again at 7.00 in the morning ready to do it again – and again.

With this extraordinary capacity for work, the knowledge and experience of Sicily’s banking and economic world gained during his time at the bankruptcy court, and Buscetta’s evidence, he began preparing a case against hundreds of mafia defendants.  It would come to be known as the maxi-trial.

The prosecution’s preparation was meticulous, its final stages being undertaken by Falcone and Borsellino in the island prison of Asinara, off the north-west coast of Sardegna.  The government had decided it could no longer guarantee their safety and transferred them, and their families, there by helicopter in the middle of the night. Meanwhile, a special missile-proof bunker was being built under the Ucciardone Prison in Palermo for the trial itself.

Despite much opposition and criticism, the maxi-trial commenced in February 1986 and lasted for almost two years.   When judgment was given in December 1987, there were 344 convictions, including 19 life sentences for many important mafia bosses.  This was victory on an unprecedented scale.  It seemed that Falcone was right: the mafia could be defeated.  But there were other forces at work.

First, when the head of the anti-mafia pool resigned  to return to his family in Florence after several long years in Palermo, Falcone seemed the obvious person to take his place.  He had, in fact, been assured that he had the numbers, but when the votes were counted, it was clear he had been deceived.   Subsequently, much of the anti-mafia pool’s momentum was lost and many of its initiatives dropped.  Falcone’s position within the pool was considerably weakened.  Then anonymous letters began to circulate, accusing him of all sorts of impropriety, even  of having used mafia witnesses for his own purposes.  Although his name was cleared, the letters, worryingly, appeared to have been  written by someone from within the  prosecution offices.  Then, in 1989, a bomb was planted on the rocks in front of a beach house that Falcone and his wife had rented for the summer.   Although it was found in time by security men, it was clear that Falcone was now a definite target.  But instead of receiving increased protection and support, he had to endure the further rumours that had begun to circulate, this time suggesting he had planted the bomb himself.

In the end, he was frustrated at every turn in Palermo: he no longer had control over mafia cases and was even being deprived of important information concerning the cases he did have.  So, in  1991, he accepted  the position of Director of Penal Affairs in Rome.  His friends warned him against it, believing it to be a political trap to silence him, while others in Palermo criticised him for having ‘sold out’.  But he believed he could be more effective in Rome than in Palermo.  And he was right.  One of the things he was indirectly responsible for was the removal of Judge Corrado Carnevale from the Supreme Court panel that was to hear the final maxi-trial appeal.  Carnevale, known as the ‘sentence killer’, withdrew from the panel in the light of evidence that he had committed serious ethical breaches.  To the surprise of everyone, when the Supreme Court handed down its judgment on 31 January 1992, all the original convictions were upheld.  For the first time ever, mafia bosses had received life sentences that could not be appealed.

Falcone and his colleagues celebrated, but the celebration was muted.  They knew that, with a decision like that, “anything could happen”.  And it did.  On 23 May, Falcone, his wife and three body guards were dead, and the whole of Italy in a state of shock.

5 Responses to “Brief Encounters – Giovanni Falcone”

  1. Sally Says:

    Terrific to get a succinct and thoughtful reflection Falcone’s life and contribution to the anti-mafia cause.

  2. fascinatingly awful – keep at it – they are great!

  3. David Barbagallo Says:

    I recommend everyone who has an interest in this story read Midnight in Sicily by Peter Robb. It details the work of Falcone and Borsellino in bringing the Mafia to trial and many other aspects of life in Sicily… cheers db

  4. kateludlow Says:

    Thank you for your comments. I agree with the Midnight in Sicily recommendation – essential reading I think for anyone coming to Sicily. Specifically on mafia matters another one I’d recommend is Alexander Stille’s Excellent Cadavers..

  5. Cate Says:

    A fascinating and moving account. What an extraordinary person Falcone must have been. I found the similarities between Falcone and Buscetta particularly fascinating. The line that separates us can sometimes be finer than we would like to believe.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: