Giovanni Falcone & The Evolution Of The Italian Mafia

On May 23rd, 1992, anti-Mafia prosecutor Giovanni Falcone died fighting Italy’s La Cosa Nostra, but today, the country faces a new threat in its southern regions.

In 1980, Judge Giovanni Falcone joined the investigative branch of the Prosecution Office of Palermo at a time when violent crime rates were peaking in Sicily’s vibrant yet rugged capital city. Just before his arrival, La Cosa Nostra had assassinated Falcone’s predecessors, Judge Cesare Terranova and head of police Boris Giuliano. Since the 19th century, La Cosa Nostra has claimed sovereignty over many borgate (neighborhoods) in Italy’s hot and largely impoverished south.

Falcone was fiercely devoted to his anti-Mafia investigative work, so much so that he was willing to risk his life to keep southern communities far from the grasp of criminal organizations. He worked in a bunker beneath Palermo’s law courts in a workspace surrounded by heavy security, and his home life was no different. In 1986, Falcone married his wife, fellow judge Francesca Morvillo, in a private ceremony attended only by the mayor of Palermo, who presided over the service himself. After their marriage, Falcone and his wife lived very private lives and practiced extreme caution at every turn, never stepping into public without an escort of armored vehicles and armed security.

Photo by Il Sole 24 ORE via Facebook (In protest of the deaths of Falcone and Paulo Borsellino, another prosecuting judge who was also killed by the mafia. The sheets read “You did not kill them: their ideas walk on our legs.”)

In the meantime, Falcone was making serious waves in the legal sphere, turning Sicilian mafiosi bosses into informants and working to undermine an international heroin trafficking network headed by the Mafia. In the decisive ‘Maxi Trial’ in 1986, Falcone led the prosecution in a sweeping victory for the anti-Mafia movement. Of the 475 defendants, including both suspects present at the trial and those tried in absentia, 338 were convicted and sentenced to a total share of 2,665 years in prison, not including life sentences given to 19 leading Mafia bosses and notorious killers.

Falcone was subject to at least one failed assassination attempt following the Maxi Trial. Then in 1991, he transferred to the Ministry of Justice in Rome, where he immediately prepared a decree to reverse a Supreme Court sentence that allowed the remaining defendants of the Maxi Trial to walk free. The decree led to the re-arrest of some of Sicily’s top mafia bosses, a move that outraged La Cosa Nostra from a distance.

Photo by Wikipedia

While in Rome, Falcone also restructured the Italian prosecution system and created new sectors exclusively for the investigation of the Mafia and organized crime. His work in Rome was largely successful, attracting recognition from his legal counterparts in the Mezzogiorno region, but also from criminals whom he was actively trying to overthrow in the deep, turbulent South.

On a weekend trip home to Sicily in 1992, Falcone was headed down Highway A29 outside of the Palermo International Airport when 881 pounds of explosives placed in an underground culvert were detonated by mafiosi bosses in a strategic demonstration of Mafia power. Giovanni Falcone, his wife Francesca Morvillo, and police officers Rocco Dicillo, Antonio Montinaro, and Vito Schifani were killed in the blast, which was so powerful that it registered on local earthquake monitors.

Today, a memorial pillar towers above the autostrada where Falcone was murdered 30 years ago, a grave commemoration of his fatal devotion to anti-Mafia justice and a reminder of ongoing contention in Italy’s southern crime capitals. After Falcone’s death in the early ‘90s, the Sicilian mafia lost much of its influence in the South, but a powerful, reinvigorated organization named the ‘Ndrangheta quickly established its prominence in the neighboring region of Calabria in 2010.

Falcone death-FB
Photo by Camera dei deputati via Facebook

Established in the 18th century, the ‘Ndrangheta has evolved and mutated over centuries to become one of the most notorious crime syndicates of modern Italy, but its influence extends throughout Europe and across the world. The ‘Ndrangheta recruits its new members through marriage or blood relation, so clans are far more loyal, and, in turn, more difficult to crack than past Mafia organizations were. In addition, the organization has surpassed Sicily’s Cosa Nostra in power and wealth, so it now controls the bulk of illegal cocaine exports into Europe.

Since January 2021, one Italian court has hosted an extensive trial similar to Falcone’s successful Maxi Trial, and in early November, over 70 ‘Ndrangheta mafiosi were convicted and sentenced for their involvement in organized criminal activity across Calabria. Roughly 355 additional members have yet to stand trial in a series of proceedings expected to last two years or longer. With thousands of additional members active in Calabria and beyond, the ‘Ndrangheta will prove a tough opponent for Italy’s prosecution system, but bit by bit, the continued fight against the Mafia is being waged.

Southern Italians are no strangers to Mafia presence after watching for centuries their beloved region falter time and time again at the hands of criminal organizations. While legal triumphs offer some relief, many fear that a cultural shift is the only way to bring about permanent change that will keep new organizations from emerging in years to come. The absence of Giovanni Falcone will forever haunt Southern Italy, but his legacy lives on among prosecutors and law enforcement officers who continue the fight that he started over three decades ago to wipe out the Mafia once and for all.

Layne Deakins

Content Editor Associate

Layne is a Pennsylvania native who enjoys adventuring in nature, traveling, writing, eating, and spending precious time with her cat. Fluent in Italian, Layne jumps at every opportunity to explore the world around her, and she’s always planning for her next trip back to Italy.

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