The Mafia Hunters of Palermo

This is the story of the dramatic antimafia campaign carried out in Sicily by a small team of dedicated magistrates during the years 1993-1999. At the centre of the action was Palermo, the city renowned for its ability to influence national elections through the provision of forty- two deputies from Sicily to the Italian parliament. Given the fragmented nature of the Italian political parties, the deputies from Sicily represented an important power bloc around which to build a governing coalition. Recently Sicily had supported the Christian Democrat party and its leader Giulio Andreotti. Connections between the politicians in Rome and the mafia in Palermo had long been suspected. In the words of a Sicilian magistrate: “In Palermo are hidden the secrets not only of a city but also of the whole country and its power struggles”.

A direct challenge to the state

The immediate cause of the confrontation was the Supreme Court’s decision in January 1992 to uphold the verdicts of the so-called maxi-trial in which 360 mafiosi were convicted. It was a historic defeat for Cosa Nostra, which meant that many of the bosses faced spending the rest of their lives in prison. Crucially, the long-disputed question of mafia impunity had been challenged and defeated. Cosa Nostra, run by a group of men from Corleone led by Salvatore (Totò) Riina, had relied upon the appeals process to reduce the sentences as had happened so often in the past. When this failed, they launched a campaign of violence in a direct challenge to the Italian state. Their aim was to force a negotiation with the state from which they could draw concessions.

First to be assassinated was Salvo Lima, representative of the Christian Democrats in Sicily and the link to Andreotti, the prime minister. Then in May, Giovanni Falcone, one of the leading magistrates behind the maxi-trial, was killed together with his wife and bodyguards, in a huge bomb explosion on the way into Palermo from the airport. Two months later his colleague and friend Paolo Borsellino suffered a similar fate. The assassinations, which stunned the country, followed a pattern set ten years before, when Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa, a general in the Carabinieri, and Italy’s senior law-enforcement officer, was gunned down in Palermo, along with his wife and bodyguard. These crimes were designed for maximum impact to demonstrate the power of Cosa Nostra.

Detail from the memorial to Falcone and Borsellino on the tree outside the apartment block where Falcone lived in Palermo.

The sequence of events surrounding these deaths is all too familiar. A dedicated officer of the law, ignoring all the obstacles put in his way, penetrates the danger zone of the state’s secret dealings with terrorists and the mafia. He persists and uncovers new evidence. Slowly but surely, he loses the support of the authorities and becomes isolated. Aware of the danger he is in, he confides in people close to him. At this point he is assassinated. Government officials, who have been ignoring him, rush to be seen at his funeral. His family, sickened by the lack of support he received, has nothing to do with the officials. The dead man’s personal papers and computers are never seen again. A memorial is put up at the scene of his death.

The state fights back

The magistrates’ deaths shocked the government in Rome into action. Troops were sent to Palermo to guard the institutions and to protect the magistrates. Antimafia legislation was rushed through parliament including a hard prison regime and a witness protection programme. Mafiosi in prison found themselves transferred to remote locations such as the island of Pianosa in Tuscany.

On January 15th 1993 two events took place in Palermo which had a major impact on the outcome of the confrontation between Cosa Nostra and the state. The first was the arrival of a new chief prosecutor named Gian Carlo Caselli. He came from Turin where he had made his name investigating the Red Brigades terrorist group in cooperation with Dalla Chiesa. He had also supported Falcone. The second was the arrest of Totò Riina, Cosa Nostra’s boss-of-bosses, while being driven on the outskirts of Palermo. He had been in hiding in Sicily since 1969. Despite his arrest, Cosa Nostra’s bombing campaign was extended to mainland Italy. In May, a car bomb exploded in Rome with no fatalities, but the bombings which followed in Florence and Milan each cost the lives of five people. In Rome, two churches were damaged by explosions, while a larger device was placed near the stadium and timed to go off after a football match. Fortunately, it failed to explode.

The arrival of Caselli saw the beginning of a new phase in the battle against the mafia. It coincided with a rare moment of national unity when full support was given to the magistrates. The combination of a hard prison regime, the witness protection programme, and the enforcement of prison sentences, led to an avalanche of mafiosi turning state’s evidence. Each case was led by a procuratore (an investigating and prosecuting magistrate) who called upon the assistance of the regular and the financial police, as well as of the Carabinieri, a semi-militarised force which included a special operations group known as the ROS (Ragruppamento Operativo Speciale). Caselli’s team of magistrates included men who had worked with Falcone and Borsellino such as Antonio Ingroia, Guido Lo Forte and Franco Lo Voi, together with a new recruit named Alfonso Sabella. Apart from Caselli, these men were Sicilians which was essential, as it took one Sicilian to understand another. Well directed by Caselli, it became a formidable team of mafia hunters, many of whom had lost colleagues and friends to the mafia. This was their chance to even the score.

The first priority was to go after the fugitive mafia bosses at liberty in Sicily. True to their motto of la presenza è potenza (presence is power), these men remained in their home territories to protect their interests. There they knew every nook and cranny and were shielded by associates and family members. Technology, however, was on the side of the magistrates who developed it into a sophisticated tool to aid investigations. Central Palermo became covered extensively by CCTV including face recognition. Listening devices were placed where mafiosi were likely to meet, tracking devices were put on suspects’ vehicles and powerful telescopes were employed to monitor hideouts. The ability to monitor conversations on mobile phones was perhaps the most important method of all. To be effective, the officer listening had to be thoroughly conversant with the local dialect and slang, as conversations tended to consist of brief comments and veiled references.

In his memoirs, Cacciatore di Mafiosi (Mafia Hunter), Alfonso Sabella explained his methods of tracking down his prey once a lead to his whereabouts had appeared. Extreme care was needed so as not to alert the target or he would switch to a new identity and hideout. Sabella described his first moves as “bird-watching”, as he learnt the target’s habits, studying without disturbing him. The next stage was to apply a “scorched earth” policy to isolate the target, arresting those close around him, leaving him vulnerable and unsupported. All the while technology was applied to track the target’s movements and financial transactions.

An Italian TV series based on Sabella’s memoirs, entitled Il Cacciatore (The Hunter), presents a fictionalised version of the war against the mafia in the 1990s. The Sicilian setting is authentic and the characters are mostly credible, though authority is lacking in the leading magistrate, Caselli’s role. The investigations and the schemes used to track down the mafiosi are well portrayed. An unnecessary storyline is added concerning a boyhood friend of the Sabella character who in later life joins the mafia. The series does not pull its punches on the brutality of the mafia bosses. As TV, it is both enjoyable and disturbing at the same time.

Mafia bosses captured

The tracking methods paid off and one by one mafia bosses were rounded up. As news reached the Procura (Public Prosecutor’s Office), Caselli would draw a line in green ink through the name on his target list. In June 1995, a major success was achieved with the capture of Leoluca Bagarella, known as Don Luchino. Number one on Caselli’s list, he was a pitiless boss of Cosa Nostra, and one of the most dangerous mafiosi on the run. A real-life godfather, he was responsible for multiple murders and the torture of suspected mafia collaborators. Bagarella came from Corleone and was Riina’s brother-in-law, his sister having married the boss-of-bosses. An enthusiastic supporter of the bombing campaign and of the assassinations, Bagarella assumed leadership of Cosa Nostra’s military wing after the arrest of Riina. The magistrates had been stalking him for some time, helped by intelligence from his driver, who had turned state’s evidence. They were amazed to discover that Bagarella had been living all the while in an apartment block in central Palermo, close to the home of one of the magistrates. Bagarella’s sense of survival warned him that the authorities were on to him and he made plans to relocate. But before leaving he made a mistake. Always a careful dresser, he returned to a clothes’ shop near the central station to collect a pair of jeans that was being altered for him. The shop was under surveillance, and as he drove away, two cars blocked his way and he was arrested.

In May 1996 came another breakthrough with the capture of Giovanni Brusca and his brother Enzo. They came from the small town of San Giuseppe Jato, some thirty kilometres inland from Palermo. Giovanni Brusca had been an ally of Riina’s and a supporter of the bombing campaign. He was a brutal character responsible for at least 100 murders. Intelligence from Bagarella’s driver led the magistrates to the Bruscas’ villa. But when they raided it the birds had flown. In the kitchen they discovered a section of floor which, when activated, gave access to an underground apartment. Here they found a huge cache of military grade weapons which included handguns, assault rifles, missile launchers, explosives and boxes of ammunition, enough to start a war. Telephone tapping then led to a call being traced to Giovanni Brusca. It was made to a butcher in Jato requesting a supply of steak and sausages. This call enabled the magistrates to locate and arrest the brothers.

Surprisingly for a leading member of Cosa Nostra’s military wing, Giovanni Brusca turned state’s evidence and provided information concerning the assassination of Falcone. Brusca admitted to pressing the detonator for the bomb that killed the magistrate. He also named others involved which led to further arrests. No mention was made, however, of any technical assistance from the military in handling the explosives, without which commentators think the mafia could never have brought off an explosion with such precision. The fact that several of Cosa Nostra’s bombings on the mainland failed to work as planned lends credibility to this theory.

After the capture of these important figures, it became apparent that Riina’s confrontational strategy had been a disaster for Cosa Nostra, its military wing now significantly weakened. The leadership passed to Bernardo Provenzano, a Corleonese and long-term associate of Riina’s. Provenzano advocated a policy of submersion, to avoid confrontation with the state, and to concentrate upon Cosa Nostra’s traditional activities of extortion and running their criminal enterprises. He stopped reprisals against mafia collaborators and their families greatly reducing defections.

In June 1997, another important mafia boss was arrested, Pietro Aglieri from Palermo. Unlike the Corleonesi bosses, Aglieri was personable and well educated, and enjoyed the social life of Palermo. He took religion seriously, had Jesuit training and his own chapel. Two years before, the Guardian newspaper had featured him as an emerging man of the year in Italy. He had supported the assassinations but was now converted to the submersion strategy and was considered to be Provenzano’s deputy. Information from Brusca led to his arrest after which he was interrogated by the magistrates, when he displayed the arrogance of the mafia bosses. “See, dottore, when your people visit our schools speaking of legality, justice, respect for the rules and civil liberties, the young listen to you and follow you. But when they’ve grown up and are looking for work or somewhere to live or need help with finances, to whom do they turn? To you or to us? They turn to us and, as a Sicilian, you know it”.


The results of the 1993-99 antimafia campaign were unprecedented. More than 300 mafia bosses, on the run for years, were rounded up. A total of 650 life sentences were imposed upon members of Cosa Nostra, together with shorter sentences amounting to hundreds of years. Assets of five million euros were seized and put to good use in local communities. The magistrates were aware, however, that this was just the start of the war against the mafia. The successes to date had been at the top of Cosa Nostra. At grass roots level not much had changed.

But after seven years, the government in Rome inexplicably took the pressure off Cosa Nostra. The key magistrates in Palermo were assigned to other jobs and the intense campaign was relaxed.

One reason for the government’s change of heart may lie in the role of the so-called colletti bianchi (white collar workers or professionals). Caselli in his memoirs, Le Due Guerre (The Two Wars), recalled that they had under-estimated the extent to which the mafia had permeated civil society. As long as the magistrates went after the followers of Riina, indefensible killers, public opinion was on their side. But when they started investigating complicity in mafia crimes by politicians, businessmen and lawyers, public support melted away.

In an interview, Andrea Camilleri went further on the involvement of the colletti bianchi. When was asked if he thought Riina had been the boss of Cosa Nostra, he replied that he had never thought so. To manage something on this scale, broader, more open minds were needed, probably to be found among the colletti bianchi who work with computers and the Internet.

As Sabella mused at the end of his memoirs, why should we be surprised, in the land of Pirandello where nothing is quite what it seems, that the hunters were called off just as they had their prey on the run? Sicily has long been subject to abrupt changes of direction from political forces beyond its control.


Caselli moved from Palermo to Rome in 1999 and then to Brussels where he represented Italy in the fight against organised crime in Europe. In 2005 his nomination for the post of national antimafia prosecutor was blocked by a legal amendment introduced by Berlusconi’s government. The amendment was later revoked by the Constitutional Court but too late for Caselli’s nomination. Sabella also moved to Rome and was then side-lined to a position in Florence from where left the judiciary. Ingroia went into politics in Sicily.

Riina and Provenzano (arrested in 2006) both died in prison. Bagarella and Aglieri continue to serve their whole life sentences. Brusca was released from prison in 2021, having served his reduced sentence of twenty-five years. The last of the bosses behind the bombings, Matteo Messina Denaro, remains at liberty, possibly shielded by his knowledge of the suspected negotiations between Cosa Nostra and the state.

No high-profile assassinations of magistrates, policemen or politicians have taken place in Sicily since the 1990s.

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