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An Enemy Within?

by Carl Russo

There was nothing supernatural about Judge Falcone’s death premonition—death was all around him. When he moved up the ladder from bankruptcy cases to Mafia prosecutions in 1979, the Palace of Justice in Palermo was still reeling from the assassination of its chief examiner, Cesare Terranova. The crime came two months after the murder of police chief Boris Giuliano and was followed three months later by that of Sicilian president Piersanti Mattarella. Then head prosecutor Gaetano Costa and Palermo’s prefect, General Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa.

Giovanni Falcone

Giovanni Falcone, the “super-judge” who transformed the Italian judicial system from a revolving door for criminals into an aggressive punisher, knew he would be taken out by the Mafia and freely admitted it. Falcone’s boss, Rocco Chinnici, who succeeded Terranova until he was struck down in 1983, had had the same premonition and advised him to keep a diary until his own fateful day. Falcone took the advice then charged ahead with the greatest Mafia indictment in history, the “maxi-trial” of 1986-87, which tried 475 members of the Cosa Nostra.

Falcone’s instinctive ability to coax confessions from powerful Mafia bosses—much our knowledge of the group comes from the explosive testimony of supergrass Tommaso Buscetta—created enemies on both sides of the law. Earlier in his career, the judge had fairly shrugged off two brushes with death during prison visits: he was taken hostage at a jailhouse riot in Trapani and nearly shot in Palermo’s notorious Ucciardone. But it was the bomb planted at a rented vacation house, its location known only to a few in his circle, that profoundly rattled him.

Paolo Borsellino was not among the passel of Falcone’s jealous superiors and colleagues in the prosecution office. The friendship Falcone shared with his fellow magistrate stretched beyond their university days and back to the ancient Kalsa quarter of downtown Palermo, where, as young boys, they had kicked soccer balls around the piazza. Together, with their late boss Rocco Chinnici, Falcone and Borsellino built a professional anti-Mafia pool from scratch, tracing the global network of Sicilian-American drug trafficking previously hidden in the shadows of silent conspiracy.

Click to see the locationsThe bomb, left on the rocky shore behind Falcone’s rented vacation home in the Addaura district, was likely meant for him and two Swiss magistrates he had invited for supper and a swim. The international team had been working in Palermo on the infiltration of Mafia money into Switzerland. But the men's schedules were thrown off the evening of June 19, 1989. Falcone returned to the beach house without his colleagues. The next morning, a bodyguard discovered the deadly package: fifty-eight sticks of explosives stuffed inside an Adidas gym bag, booby-trapped and detonatable by remote control.

An onslaught of anonymous letters aimed at discrediting Falcone had preceded the bombing attempt and made the rounds at the Palace of Justice. The disinformation campaign revealed an intimate knowledge of the anti-Mafia pool’s investigations. An ally described Falcone’s anguish, stating that “he knew in his gut but could not prove that there was a mole with Secret Service connections in the Prosecutor’s office.”

Falcone’s frustration followed years of professional betrayals, from the acquittals of scores of mafiosi by Judge Corrado Carnevale, “the sentence killer,” to the obstructionist policies of certain superiors. When Falcone accepted an invitation in early 1992 to head up the ineffectual department of Penal Affairs in Rome, many thought he was taking the easy way out of a failed career. But just as he had revolutionized the prosecutorial arm of the Sicilian government, the “super-judge” shook up the Italian capital.

“I was completely wrong,” admitted a once skeptical magistrate. “Although we were slow to recognize it, the Mafia understood right away that [Falcone] was much, much more dangerous in Rome than his remaining in Palermo.” Too dangerous, that is, to live.

Exactly halfway along the highway from the Punta Raisi Airport to the city of Palermo is the unremarkable town of Capaci, falling from the rocky foothills into the sea. Beneath a section of the road that crosses it there was a metal culvert that drained the area of its copious rainwater. In late April of 1992, a crew of five men disguised as maintenance workers labored in the dark of night, sliding thirteen barrels on a skateboard into the culvert. Each drum was packed with TNT and gelignite and sealed with tape. The crew hid the explosives with a mattress and dragged an abandoned refrigerator to a spot eighty feet away as a reference for three men lying in wait on the hill.

One of the men, Giovanni “The Pig” Brusca, sat with a radio frequency remote device poised to detonate the nearly half-ton bomb at precisely the second Judge Giovanni Falcone’s motorcade passed over it. He chain-smoked in anticipation.

Brusca, a mass murderer by his own account, was working at the behest of capomafia Totò Riina, the very boss who had systematically made “excellent cadavers” of many of the judges and politicians surrounding Falcone. Now it was Falcone’s turn, and Riina’s men were trying the most ambitious assassination of their devious careers. Palermo boss Salvatore Cancemi had planned the logistics and chosen the locations. Riina’s brother-in-law, Leoluca Bagarella, supervised the eighteen-man operation. One had tailed Falcone in Rome. Others had tested explosives on Mafia land and checked speed during rehearsals on the highway. Recent budget cuts left the route free of the helicopter patrols that had always preceded Falcone’s convoy.

The conspirators knew that the judge routinely spent weekends at the Palermo apartment he shared with his wife, Francesca Morvillo. Spies watched the building from a nearby butcher shop owned by a Mafia clan. They had learned that Falcone’s visits were precipitated by bodyguards fetching his white armored Fiat Croma and meeting him at the airport. Brusca and company waited on the hill above Capaci the first three weekends of May 1992, but on the fourth Saturday, May 23, they got the message from the butcher shop: Falcone was flying home. Two men stationed at the airport sent word upon his arrival.

The government plane carrying the judge landed at Punta Raisi Airport at 5:45 p.m. His wife had had business in Rome that particular week and was accompanying him on the trip home. Seven bodyguards and three official cars including the armored Croma were waiting on the ground. Falcone drove that day with Francesca by his side. His bodyguard, Giuseppe Costanza, was made to take the backseat. The motorcade sped onto the highway en route to Palermo, the white Croma riding between the two police cars, also Cromas. At 5:58 p.m., they reached the Mafia’s trap.

The vehicles had been approaching Capaci at a speed of eighty-seven miles per hour when Falcone ripped Costanza’s key from the ignition and inserted his own, startling his bodyguard. The car idled to fifty-six as it glided over the culvert containing the bomb. At that precise instant, Brusca, watching through binoculars from the hill, pressed the button of his remote device. An enormous blast blew the highway wide open and imploded the center car, crushing the organs of Falcone and his wife. The lead car shot skyward and landed in a field two hundred feet away. The escorts within, Vito Schifani, Antonio Montinaro, and Rocco Di Cillo, all died on the spot.

Chunks of wrecked metal and asphalt rained on the ten-foot-deep crater that gaped forty-six feet across. The rear car had taken the least impact and its four occupants survived with injuries. Giuseppe Costanza, Falcone’s driver consigned to the backseat, would be permanently disabled by the blast. A farmer who felt the force rushed over to pull the Falcones from their car. The victims were loaded into emergency vehicles that had to wend through Palermo’s thick traffic to reach Civic Hospital. Judge Paolo Borsellino arrived in time to see the life pass out of his close friend and colleague. Francesca died later that night despite two emergency surgeries.

The news of Falcone’s assassination threw Italy into shock. Sicily shut down in a general strike and the streets of Palermo filled with angry citizens during the funerals. Jeers and curses met the government officials from Rome who pushed through the angry mob to enter the service in the Church of San Domenico. A tearful young woman in mourning black stood by a priest at the pulpit and addressed the crowd:


“Mr. President, I only want to hear one thing: ‘We’ll be vindicated.’ If you can’t tell me that, Mr. President, then I don’t want to hear anything. Not even a word . . . .

I, Rosaria Costa, widow of the agent, my Vito Schifani, in the name of everyone who has given his life for the state, the state. . . , I ask that justice be made now. Turning to the men of the Mafia, because they are here inside—but [they’re] certainly not Christians—you know that for you there is the possibility of forgiveness. I forgive you, but you must get down on your knees--if you have the courage to change. But they don’t change . . . they don’t want to change . . . they don’t change.

I ask you, for the city of Palermo, gentlemen, that you’ve turned into a city of blood—too much blood-—to work also for peace, for justice, for the hope and love of everyone. [But] there is no love, there is no love.”


The defeated widow’s wavering pleas gave voice to ordinary Italians outraged by the growing list of murder victims. The moment signaled a turning point as many people cast off their fears and took a public stand against the Mafia. Opposition groups were formed to pressure the state into enacting tougher strictures on organized crime.

With help from the FBI, investigators traced the DNA on fifty-three cigarette butts dropped at Capaci to Giovanni Brusca, who, after his 1996 arrest, admitted to having pushed the detonator that killed Falcone and his wife. Totò Riina, captured three years earlier, and other principals of the crime have been brought to justice. But a dark figure still haunts the story of Giovanni Falcone: the traitor or traitors in the Palace of Justice who helped to facilitate the attempted bombing of his vacation rental home in Addaura in 1989. The investigation has been reopened in Sicilian courts.

Falcone once wrote,


“The men of honor are neither devils nor schizophrenic. They would not kill their mother or father for a few grams of heroin. They are men like us. The tendency in the western world, and particularly in Europe, is to exorcize evil by projecting it onto ethnic groups and forms of behavior which seem different from our own. But if we want to fight the Mafia effectively, we must not transform it into a monster or think of it as an octopus or a cancer. We must recognize that it resembles ourselves.”


Recent investigations have lighted on testimony about a secret government agent with the “face of a monster.” The “007,” as he is referred to in the Italian press, is said to have been a cocaine-sniffing Mafia mole with access to personnel files in the Prosecutor’s department. Witnesses peg him at the scenes of both the Addaura attempt and the Capaci massacre, and at yet another spectacular assassination—that of Paolo Borsellino.


La Repubblica
Times of London
Boccasini, I collaboratori di giustizia
Deaglio, Patria 1978-2008
Falcone & Padovani, Cose di Cosa Nostra
Jamieson, The Antimafia
La Licata, Storia di Giovanni Falcone
Lodato & Brusca, Ho ucciso Giovanni Falcone
Stille, Excellent Cadavers


Click Photo to View Gallery

Map of Capaci

Map of Palermo

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