Last year for the twentieth anniversary of Giovanni Falcone’s death, an Italian friend of a friend organized a photographic exhibition in memory of the great Sicilian prosecutor murdered in Palermo on May 23, 1992.
She asked me to write a short introduction to the catalogue of the exhibition which I happily did. It appears here below. Then much embarrassed, the friend of a friend called me back to say that the Italian Embassy asked that I remove a sentence or two from the introduction. The offending sentences were:
“Since their assassinations twenty years ago, it is sometimes hard to know whether Sicily has gone forwards or backwards. On the one hand, after a brief crackdown, we have politicians with mafia ties return to power, perhaps with greater impunity than ever.”
These seemed to me to be mild statements of fact: after all the governor of Sicily himself, Salvatore (Totò) Cuffaro had been convicted of collusion with the mafia for tipping off an important mafia boss that he was under investigation.
It is difficult to combat the mafia when people in power still find it embarrassing to talk honestly about the problem. So, here is the short tribute that I meant to publish last year.The importance of Giovanni Falcone is so great that it is easy to overlook. Before Falcone it was considered impossible to prosecute major mafia figures, to develop mafia witnesses and to win convictions at trial. Now these things have become so common that they no longer seem extraordinary – they have become part of the landscape of contemporary Italian life and so, like the landscape itself, easy to forget. When he was handling his first cases, the chief judge of the Palermo Court of Appeals called Falcone’s boss into his office and complained that Falcone’s investigations were “ruining the Sicilian economy,” and told his supervisor to “bury Falcone with routine cases so that he doesn’t discovery anything,” because investigative magistrates weren’t supposed to discovery anything. With extraordinary patience and tenacity, Falcone set about piecing together the economic underpinnings of Cosa Nostra’s heroin trade and won his first convictions without witnesses from within the mafia itself. The credibility he earned helped to push the first pentiti to seek him out because they trusted him. He and his colleagues in Palermo continued to work in case after case as many of the police officers and magistrates with whom they worked were murdered one after the other. They achieved what most had imagined impossible – the maxitrial of Palermo, in which they obtained 344 mafiosi and many bosses were convicted. Beyond the convictions, it was equally important the trial was conducted with scrupulous respect for due process and rule of law: more than one hundred suspected Mafiosi were also acquitted. It was a lesson to Sicily and the rest of Italy that the culture of omertà could be broken and that Sicily was not condemned to live in the thrall of mafia culture. “The mafia, like all things human, has a beginning and an end,” Falcone said, a simple but profound point in a world in which the mafia had come to be seen either as a superhuman organization of infinite power or as an essential anthropological part of Sicilian culture. It was extremely important that Falcone, his good friend and colleague Paolo Borsellino and most of their close colleagues, were Sicilian. Falcone and his colleagues showed that Sicily could and must liberate itself from a form of domination that condemns it to longstanding underdevelopment. Since their assassinations twenty years ago, it is sometimes hard to know whether Sicily has gone forwards or backwards. On the one hand, after a brief crackdown, we have politicians with mafia ties return to power, perhaps with greater impunity than ever. At the same time, we have seen a number of remarkable police operations and the prosecution of many remarkable organized crime cases in Sicily, Campagna and Calabria, almost all of them using both the legal innovations pioneered by Falcone and the Palermo anti-mafia pool. If Falcone and Borsellino were once alone, there are now dozens, scores perhaps, of magistrates who have taken up the work they began. At times, it seems as if we are losing the battle but at least – unlike in the 1970’s – there is a battle, a battle for legality. Falcone wrote at one point: “The most revolutionary thing that could be done in Sicily would be to apply the law.” A deceptively simple truth and it remains a promise that is still largely unfulfilled. But his life and work left us with it as a duty toward which to work.