ROME — Cosa Nostra’s “boss of bosses,” who was serving 26 life sentences as the convicted mastermind of dozens of murders of rivals for power on his Sicilian turf as well as prominent anti-Mafia heroes, died Friday in an Italian hospital prison ward.
Salvatore “Toto” Riina’s passing, a day after his 87th birthday, is likely to trigger a scramble for power among Mafia clans in Palermo, the traditional hub of the crime syndicate’s leadership.
Nicknamed “the beast” for his ferocity, Riina leaves behind a significantly weakened Cosa Nostra after his ferocious killing campaign eventually backfired, triggering a fierce government crackdown aided by a small army of turncoats who broke with the centuries-old Mafia “honor” code and started collaborating with authorities.
Still, experts described the Sicilian Mafia as very much a vital criminal force, now focused on growing revenues gained through extortion and other traditional lucrative rackets.
A farmer’s son from Corleone, a medieval Sicilian hill town that was home to the murderous Corleonesi crime clan, Riina orchestrated a bloody strategy of eliminating Palermo-area rivals to climb to the top of the syndicate’s leadership as “capo di capi” — boss of bosses.
Even after his capture in 1993, a year after twin bombings snuffed out the lives of Italy’s two leading anti-Mafia prosecutors, Riina continued to hold the scepter of power despite imprisonment under a special regime of isolation reserved for Mafiosi that allows little contact with relatives and other links to the outside world.
“He was still considered the ‘boss of bosses,’ even in prison,” top anti-Mafia prosecutor Franco Roberti told The Associated Press.
Former Palermo anti-Mafia magistrate Alfonso Sabella agreed. “Up to 3:37 a.m.” — the time of Riina’s death — “he was still the ‘capo’ of Cosa Nostra,” he told Sky TG24 TV.
Helping Riina keep the respect of his henchmen was his steadfast refusal to repent or in any way cooperate with law enforcement, authorities said.
“His death will lead to a power struggle at the top of the Cosa Nostra,” Roberti said, even though he had no day-to-day influence during his decades in a Milan prison cell.