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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

The 'Beast' who led a 20-year reign of terror in Italy

Salvatore Riina's ruthlessness as mafia boss extended to murdering 13-year-old son of potential police witness

Sicilian mafia boss Salvatore Riina enters a courtroom in Bologna's escorted by Italian paramiliary police on January 16, 1996. Gianni Schicchi / AP Photo
Sicilian mafia boss Salvatore Riina enters a courtroom in Bologna's escorted by Italian paramiliary police on January 16, 1996. Gianni Schicchi / AP Photo

Salvatore "Toto" Riina, who died at the age of 87 on Friday, was one of the most violent and feared godfathers in the history of the Sicilian Mafia.

Nicknamed "The Beast" because of his cruelty, Riina led a reign of terror for almost 20 years after taking control of the island's powerful organised crime group, the Cosa Nostra, in the 1970s.

He is thought to have ordered more than 150 murders, including the assassinations in 1992 of anti-mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, who had worked to bring more than 300 mob members to trial in 1987.

"Riina will go down in history as the man who destroyed Cosa Nostra," La Repubblica daily's mafia expert Attilio Bolzoni said.

"With his strategy of bloody massacres in Sicily and across Italy ... he turned an invisible mafia visible, with hundreds, thousands of murders, carried out first with Kalashnikovs, then bombs."

Riina, who was also dubbed "U Curtu", or "Shorty", because of his 1.58m height, was imprisoned in 1993 and was serving 26 life sentences.

For years he denied all links to the Cosa Nostra, known "the octopus" for its tentacled reach into all areas of society.

In 2009 he broke the mafia code of "omerta" - a vow of silence - and surprised those who thought he would take his secrets to the grave by admitting his link to the mob.

He was caught on a wiretap earlier this year saying he "regrets nothing".

"They'll never break me, even if they give me 3,000 years" in jail, he said.

The son of a poor farmer, Riina was born on November 16, 1930 in Corleone, a vendetta-haunted village inland from Palermo and the birthplace of Don Corleone, the fictional Godfather in Francis Coppola's popular movie trilogy.

He is believed to have first murdered for the mafia at the age of 19. A year later he killed a man during an argument and was sentenced to six years in jail for manslaughter.

Once out, he became a foot soldier for the volatile and vain crime boss Luciano Leggio, eventually taking over from him at the end of the 1970s when the cigar-puffing fugitive was caught and jailed.

Riina went on the run himself in 1969, but continued to lead the Corleonesi clan from hiding, increasing his influence by bumping off rivals such as Filippo Marchese, a hitman who garroted his victims in a "room of death".

Riina would elude police efforts to snare him for almost a quarter of a century - without ever leaving Sicily - and took charge of Cosa Nostra's key businesses, from drug trafficking to kidnapping and racketeering.

His bloody victory in the mafia war of the 1980s was to prove his undoing however, as mob members from defeated rival families began turning state witness against him, and police tracked him to a house in Palermo.

But the violence did not end there: from behind bars Riina ordered the murder of a 13-year old boy who was kidnapped in a bid to stop his father from spilling mafia secrets. The boy was strangled and his body dissolved in acid.

In revenge for Riina's arrest and a new anti-mafia law that saw jailed members kept in total isolation, the group launched a series of bombings in Rome, Milan and Florence that killed 10 people.

After years in which only his lawyers were allowed to visit him, an aging and cancer-riddled Riina asked in July to be released from prison on the grounds of serious illness - a request that was denied.

On Thursday, days after he was placed into a medical coma by prison doctors, Italy's health minister Andrea Orlando signed a waiver allowing Riina's family to visit him and say their goodbyes.

The mobster was married to Antonietta Bagarella, a teacher from a mafioso family. He was father to four children, one of whom is behind bars for four murders.

"You're not Toto Riina to me, you're just my dad. And I wish you happy birthday dad on this sad but important day, I love you," one son, Salvatore, wrote on Facebook on Thursday.

Riina's eldest daughter Maria Concetta mourned by posting a picture on Facebook of a finger pressed to the lips and the word "shhh...", a likely reference to the mafia code of silence.