Italy’s collaborator law questioned after release of mafia’s most notorious killer
Magistrates and jurists agree that without the now controversial law Giovanni Brusca wouldn’t have spent a day in prison
At 5.57 pm on 23 May 1992, a car carrying the Sicilian mafia prosecutor Giovanni Falcone was thrown into the air as a powerful explosion ripped a 15-metre crater in the motorway connecting Palermo to its airport. On a hillside overlooking the devastation stood one of the mafia’s most notorious killers, Giovanni Brusca, nicknamed u scannacristiani (the people-slayer), who milliseconds earlier had detonated the 300 kilos of explosive placed in a culvert under the road. He killed Falcone, his wife, Francesca Morvillo, and three escorting officers.
Brusca, 64, believed to have murdered more than 100 people before he broke the oath of omertà and turned police informant, was released after 25 years in prison last week, thanks to a law championed by Falcone.
The news sparked a row in Italy, where numerous politicians and far-right parties called his release scandalous and pushed for changes to the law giving sentence reductions to “repentant” mobsters, despite the fact that such measures have proved effective in turning in hundreds of mafiosi and breaking the power of Sicily’s Cosa Nostra.
“I’m speechless when I think that Brusca is a free man,” said Nello Musemeci, the island’s governor. “People say, ‘That’s the law’; but if it’s clearly wrong, it must be changed.”
Matteo Salvini, leader of the far right League, described it as “not the justice that Italians deserve”, while Giorgia Meloni, a rising star of the hard right, declared: “Twenty-five years are not enough.”
Brusca is a self-confessed killer like few others. “I’m an animal. I’ve killed more than 150 people and I can’t even remember their names,” he told prosecutors after turning informant. Among his most heinous crimes is the kidnapping and murder of an 11-year-old boy, whom Brusca ordered to be strangled and dissolved in acid.
Despite his violent past, magistrates and jurists agree that without the now controversial law that Falcone, his highest-profile victim, pushed for, Brusca would not have spent a day in prison. Cosa Nostra’s number one killer was arrested on 20 May 1996 in a villa in the province of Agrigento, thanks to information provided to police by three former mafiosi.
“The indignation of family members of mafia victims is certainly understandable,” said Giuseppe Di Lello, a former colleague of Falcone and member of the anti-mafia “pool” of investigators in the 1980s. “Without this law, we would never have solved hundreds of crimes. This law is nothing other than a pact with former criminals in exchange for key information in the struggle against organised crime. And like every pact, there’s a trade-off.’’
But Brusca’s early release is a bitter pill for the families of his victims. “Few people can feel more pain than myself toward one of the most loathsome individuals in the history of our country,” Maria Falcone, Giovanni’s sister, told the Guardian. “But my brother fought strenuously for this law, which has led to the resolution of dozens of crimes and the arrest of numerous mafiosi.”
A law to formally establish the figure of the “justice collaborator” was first proposed by Falcone, who, in the early 1980s, understood the effectiveness of uprooting mafia clans from within their own ranks.
When in 1984 he persuaded Tommaso Buscetta, nicknamed the “Boss of the Two Worlds”, to testify against fellow mafiosi, the Italian authorities knew little about the Sicilian mafia. Falcone figured that Buscetta had nothing to lose since his rivals had already murdered his two sons, followed by a brother, a son-in-law, a brother-in-law and four nephews and what he revealed to the prosecutor were the inner workings of the Costa Nostra: its rituals, organisational structures and illicit activities.
Thanks to his testimony, prosecutors ordered the arrest of almost 500 mafiosi, culminating in the so-called “Maxi trial” that resulted in guilty verdicts for 338 criminals.
Since then, hundreds of mafiosi across Italy began collaborating with magistrates and breaking omertà, the mafia’s once impregnable code of silence. But while the number of informants has grown, public opinion has become less tolerant of sentence reductions for mafiosi, who have been accused of manipulating the system to their advantage and never truly repenting for their crimes.
“The sentence reductions are based on a pact, not on repentance,” said Claudio Fava, president of Sicily’s anti-mafia commission and son of the late journalist Giuseppe, killed by the mafia in 1984.
“The state is not responsible for ascertaining the sincerity of repentance. It’s not a confessional. It’s clear that 90% of mafiosi who turn informant do so as a matter of strategy. My father was killed by a man who murdered over 85 people and who was released last year after having become an informant. I have nothing good to say about him, but thanks to his testimony, my father’s cold case was reopened after 10 years.”
Almost all leading mafiosi are now in prison thanks to Falcone, whose informant law has also led to the arrest of members of the Calabrian ’Ndrangheta, considered Italy’s most powerful organised crime syndicate and characterised by strong blood relations and an iron-clad code of silence, making it virtually impenetrable. In recent trials under way in Calabria, brothers, nephews and children have decided to come forward against alleged criminal relatives.
“If the Sicilian mafia is weaker today, we owe a debt of gratitude to my brother and his law,’’ said Maria Falcone. “Abolishing it would mean setting the clock back 30 years. It would mean my brother’s struggle was all in vain.”