The Boss of Bosses Dies. Will Sicily’s Mafia Turn to the U.S. for Leadership?

Sicilian mob boss Salvatore ‘Toto’ Riina died on Friday while serving 26 life sentences. Now there is one boss left standing and Italian investigators vow to find him.


ROME—When Salvatore “Toto” Riina was just 17 years old, he killed his first victim by strangling him with his bare hands. His father, a mafioso with the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, ordered his son to make his first hit, cementing the young man’s path as a full-fledged member of one of the most deadly and infamous organized crime groups in the world.

Riina would go on to make his father proud, masterminding the murder of more than 150 people, including Sicilian anti-mafia bosses Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, who died in separate bomb attacks in 1992. He also saw to the death of the 13-year-old son of a foe he drowned in acid. Riina made Corleone, his hometown, famous for its Sicilian Mafia connections.

Riina has been in a high-security prison for more than two decades, and even though he was kept in isolation with limited contact with his family and lawyers, he was still considered il capo dei capi, or boss of bosses, to his last breath. Like popes, kings and queens, mob bosses often rule until they die, even if others carry out daily mob business.

Earlier this year, Riina’s lawyers petitioned an Italian court for hospice house arrest, so that he could “die with dignity” surrounded by family. He had Parkinson’s Disease, kidney cancer and a bad heart, but judges ruled he was still too dangerous to be set free after several relatives of his victims protested.

One of those was Rita Dalla Chiesa, daughter of the late prefect of Palermo. “My father did not have a dignified death; they murdered him and left him, his wife, and Domenico Russo in the car without even a sheet to cover them,” she said at the time, referring to a prominent Italian police officer protecting Dalla Chiesa’s father.

Only after Riina fell into a coma earlier this month was his family allowed by his bedside to wait out his death, which they did in the presence of armed guards. On the day he died, his daughter Maria Concetta Riina posted on her Facebook page a picture of a black rose and one of her holding her index finger to her lips with the word “shhh” tattooed on it. Several people left notes of condolence.

Riina was a childhood friend of Bernardo Provenzano, the mobster who would eventually replace him after his arrest in the 1990s. Provenzano, a celebrated killer in his own right, was caught in 2006 in an old farmhouse near Corleone after decades in hiding. Provenzano died in 2016 and was buried in a nameless tomb in Corleone. Riina will be buried there, too, but he has been excommunicated by the Catholic Church so he will not be given a Catholic funeral.

Now that both of the notorious men are dead, anti-mafia investigators vow to rein in the last boss standing, Matteo Messina Denaro, a 54-year-old playboy and killer who has been on the run for more than 20 years, but who, authorities believe, is vying to helm the fractured Cosa Nostra power structure.

Denmark’s last public killing before going into hiding was in 1993, ordered by Riina. On the occasion of his 50th murder, Denaro bragged to friends that he could “fill a cemetery.” A few years later, his trail was picked up in Spain where he had laser surgery to correct his myopia.

Author John Dickie, who has written extensively about the Cosa Nostra, told Reuters that despite his notoriety, Denaro may not have the backing to lead the organization now that Riina is dead. He says the organization can only survive if it reestablishes ties with American mobsters who still play by the Cosa Nostra rules. “Because the Sicilian Mafia is struggling, it needs to renew its access to the United States, which has been crucial to the organization since the 1880s,” Dicke said.

Whoever manages to achieve that may hold the key to one of the most deadly criminal organizations in the world.