Obituary: Mafia's boss of bosses, Salvatore Toto Riina

Salvatore Riina, aged 25

 ROME - The “Boss of bosses,” vicious leader of the Sicilian Mafia and convicted murderer of hundreds, Salvatore “Toto” Riina has died aged 87. This king of criminal kings started out from humble beginnings, the eldest son of an impoverished family of farmers near the Sicilian countryside town of Corelone. His father and younger brother were killed when Toto was 13 years old while attempting to disarm an American bomb in 1943.

 Salvatore’s father’s death made him the man of the house and, in the brutal years of war-time poverty, he turned to crime to provide for the surviving members of his household. Falling in with a leading Mafioso, Luciano Liggio, the two took to petty theft until 1949 when Salvatore murdered a man, Domenico Di Matteo, on behalf of the local clan as part of his initiation. Salvatore, forever known as Toto hereafter, was caught and sentenced to a nine year sentence of which he served seven and was released in 1956.

 Shortly after his release, in 1958, Liggio assassinated Michele Navarra, prior leader of the clan and took control. In a Macbeth level grab for power, Liggio and Riina tracked down and murdered the majority of the men loyal to Navarra. Riina, already a fugitive by this time, was caught in 1963 and sat out most of the decade in prison before being release for lack of evidence in 1969.

 Riina became boss after a the 1969 Vialle Lazio Massacre. On the 10 Dec, Riina and a gang from various families stole a police car and uniforms. The boss Michele “Cobra” Cavataio was the target. The men walked up to Cavataio and his mobsters before suddenly opening fire. Cavataio was finished off after being hit. Through contacts with the Neopolitan Mafia, Riina became leader of the Corleonesi clan of the Cosa Nostra in 1974.

 In a series of murders between 1978 and 1982, Don Corleone consolidated power by murdering other bosses. His reputation earned him the nickname, “the beast.” The Second Mafia war erupted after two prominent bosses were killed on behalf of Riina. The combination of injured families and a vacuum of power, created the conditions of a perfect storm.

 That second mafia war was short and brutal. While countless “soldiers” perished, 2 killings a day were not uncommon for extended periods. As one would expect from the Mafia, family ties make the killing all the more brutal and Jacobean. Brothers of deceased were routinely tracked down and killed, sometimes strangled, sometimes decapitated as a warning against others. The bloodbath ended when Riina and Liggio invited 10 prominent Mafioso, and one of their sons, to reconcile. Like a tragedy of Seneca, Riina and Liggio killed every one of them before taking control of the island.

 The years following detail Riina’s “war against the state,” a reaction against the crackdown against mafia activity which saw nearly 400 hoods prosecuted. Judges Falcone and Borsellino were both assassinated in car bombings in 1992, and there were several other bombings on trains and outside churches and museums on the Italian mainland. Riina was arrested in 1993 after 23 years as a fugitive. It is widely believed that the authorities turned a blind eye to Riina until public pressure forced them to arrest him at his home.

 Riina continued to influence the Sicilian mafia from behind bars, a task stunted by measures taken to limit his ability to communicate with his men. Riina’s secrecy leaves his personality largely mysterious.

 He is said to exhibit no contradiction between kindness and utter ferocity, an embodiment of the ancient Sicilian mentality of force being the ultimate decider of all things. He is said to have married his wife after her family objected by saying “she’s the only girl for me, if I can’t have her, some people are going to die.”

 He reportedly has a superficial sensitivity, giving tearful eulogies at the funerals of those he ordered the murders of, playing the part of the devoted family man while ordering a 13 year old boy to be dissolved in acid to punish their father who had turned informer.  Toto died of cancer one day after his 87th birthday in prison while serving multiple life sentences.


Michele “Cobra” Cavataio