ROME (AP) — Cosa Nostra's "boss of bosses," who was serving 26 life sentences as the convicted mastermind of dozens of murders of rivals for power on his Sicilian turf as well as prominent anti-Mafia heroes, died Friday in an Italian hospital prison ward.
Salvatore "Toto" Riina's passing, a day after his 87th birthday, is likely to trigger a scramble for power among Mafia clans in Palermo, the traditional hub of the crime syndicate's leadership.
Nicknamed "the beast" for his ferocity, Riina leaves behind a significantly weakened Cosa Nostra after his ferocious killing campaign eventually backfired, triggering a fierce government crackdown aided by a small army of turncoats who broke with the centuries-old Mafia "honor" code and started collaborating with authorities.
Still, experts described the Sicilian Mafia as very much a vital criminal force, now focused on growing revenues gained through extortion and other traditional lucrative rackets.
A farmer's son from Corleone, a medieval Sicilian hill town that was home to the murderous Corleonesi crime clan, Riina orchestrated a bloody strategy of eliminating Palermo-area rivals to climb to the top of the syndicate's leadership as "capo di capi" — boss of bosses.
Even after his capture in 1993, a year after twin bombings snuffed out the lives of Italy's two leading anti-Mafia prosecutors, Riina continued to hold the scepter of power despite imprisonment under a special regime of isolation reserved for Mafiosi that allows little contact with relatives and other links to the outside world.
"He was still considered the 'boss of bosses,' even in prison," top anti-Mafia prosecutor Franco Roberti told The Associated Press.
Former Palermo anti-Mafia magistrate Alfonso Sabella agreed. "Up to 3:37 a.m." — the time of Riina's death — "he was still the 'capo' of Cosa Nostra," he told Sky TG24 TV.
Helping Riina keep the respect of his henchmen was his steadfast refusal to repent or in any way cooperate with law enforcement, authorities said.
"His death will lead to a power struggle at the top of the Cosa Nostra," Roberti said, even though the severe restrictions on outside contacts during his decades in a Milan prison cell ensured he no longer had any day-to-day operational influence.
Much attention is focused on Italy's No. 1 longtime fugitive boss, Matteo Messina Denaro, as a possible successor, whose power base is the Trapani area of western Sicily. But a report by Italy's special multi-force anti-Mafia investigative agency DIA noted that the various Sicilian Mafia crime families would likely oppose having someone not from the Palermo hub command their clans.
Agreeing with that assessment was Riina's former driver and bodyguard, Gaspare Mutolo, who became one of Italy's most prominent "pentiti," or turncoats in 1991, offering to give his intelligence to top anti-Mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone, who along with fellow prosecutor Paolo Borsellino was killed in the 1992 bombings masterminded by Riina.
"Usually, the Mafia chieftains are almost always in Palermo," Mutolo, who was freed several years ago after serving a lengthy prison term, told a gathering of the foreign press corps in Rome.
Asked what qualities kept Riina at the helm of the Cosa Nostra for so many decades, Mutolo replied: "Riina didn't seem so intelligent but he was evil inside."
Arriving in a ski mask that showed only his eyes and lips to disguise his identity, Mutolo noted that Riina was the first to break with the Mafia's code of conduct barring the killing of women or children.
It was during Riina's reign, that, in a failed bid to stem the steady growth of turncoat ranks, the 15-year-old son of one of those collaborators was murdered, his body found dissolved in acid in 1996, two years after the boy was kidnapped.
Convicted of killings that began in the 1950s, Riina carved out a particularly ruthless reputation in a crime syndicate notorious for its ruthlessness. Rival bosses were mowed down in the 1970s and early 1980s at a rate of practically one a day in the Sicilian capital as Riina orchestrated his rise to power.
Captured in 1993 in Palermo, where he had been holed up in an apartment hideout, Riina was convicted in 1996 of conspiring in the murder of Borsellino and five bodyguards, followed a year later by his conviction in the deaths of Falcone, Falcone's wife and three bodyguards in a bomb blast along a highway near Palermo's airport.
Born in the central Sicilian town made famous by novelist Mario Puzo, who borrowed the town's name, Corleone, for the main character in his 1969 novel "The Godfather," Riina went into hiding that same year after being ordered by the state to leave Sicily after he had finished serving a five-year prison sentence for Mafia association.
He married a local woman 14 years his junior, Antonina Bagarella, who was trained as a schoolteacher and was the sister of two alleged Cosa Nostra bosses. Riina was handed his first life sentence in 1987 after being tried in absentia on murder and drug trafficking charges.
In the years since Riina's capture, Cosa Nostra has witnessed a degree of marginalization when compared to the Calabrian-based 'ndrangheta organized crime syndicate that, awash in cocaine trafficking revenue, has spread northward through Italy and across much of Europe.
"But as always happens, these periods alternate and there are changes. We are now seeing an increase in activities on a financial level by Cosa Nostra subjects," Roberti added. "We are monitoring this."
The DIA intelligence offered a similar assessment.
"Cosa Nostra is shaping up as a still very viable organization, with a pragmatic approach to business, aimed at profitable investments of dirty money, the creation of laundering enterprises to guarantee solid footing even to their own heirs and to filling coffers that were significantly impoverished by the blows inflicted by the state" through confiscation of ill-gained property and other wealth, it said.
Although noting "growing signs of impatience with the Corleonesi leadership," the agency said the death last year of another top Corleone-native boss, Bernardo Provenzano, failed to trigger any rustlings of rebellion among Mafia dons.
Riina, who died hours after the Justice Ministry had agreed to allow family members at his bedside, had been in a medically induced coma following two surgeries in recent weeks in the prison wing of a hospital in Parma in northern Italy.
Monreale Archbishop Michele Pennisi, whose diocese includes Corleone, where Riina's wife still lives, told the AP that he didn't know if the family intended to transfer Riina's body to Corleone. But he said that a public funeral would not be allowed since Riina was a "public sinner."
"If the family members ask, a private prayer in the cemetery will be considered," he added.
Barry reported from Milan.