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Death of notorious Italian mafia boss 'The Beast' could unleash leadership battle between rival groups in Sicily
The death of a Mafia ?boss of bosses? nicknamed The Beast, who ordered dozens of murders during a bloody reign of terror, could unleash a turf war between rival factions in Sicily, Italy was warned on Friday. Salvatore ?Toto? Riina, one of the most brutal godfathers in the history of Cosa Nostra, died of cancer at the age of 87. He was serving 26 life sentences for multiple murder convictions. Riina, known in Sicilian dialect as ?U Cortu? or Shorty because of his diminutive stature, led a reign of terror in Sicily for nearly 20 years until his arrest in 1993. In establishing an iron grip on Cosa Nostra, he murdered rivals and sent many opponents into exile in the United States and Latin America. There are now fears that ?the exiles? could seek revenge against ?the Corleonesi?, Riina loyalists who come from the hilltop town of Corleone, immortalised by The Godfather films, and Palermo, Sicily?s capital. Mafia "boss of bosses" Salvatore "Toto" Riina, is seen behind bars, during a trial in Rome, 1993 Credit: AP ?Riina?s allies are terrified that the exiles will return and exact vengeance for the slaughter of the 1980s,? said John Dickie, an expert on Cosa Nostra and the author of several books, including ?Mafia Republic ? Italy?s Criminal Curse?. ?Riina drove many of his enemies into exile. Since his capture, they have been angling to return.? Italian politicians and mafia experts also warned that the death of Riina by no means signaled the end of the Mafia. Notwithstanding the godfather?s arrest 24 years ago, Cosa Nostra has gone about its business, dealing in drugs and extorting money from legitimate businesses in Sicily and beyond, and is likely to continue to do so. ?His death should not tempt us to lower our guard,? said Andrea Orlando, the justice minister. Rosy Bindi, the head of a government anti-Mafia commission, warned that Cosa Nostra still presented a grave threat. "The end of Riina is not the end of the Sicilian Mafia, which remains a highly dangerous criminal system," she said. Monsignor Michele Pennisi, the archbishop of Monreale in Sicily, said: ?The delusional omnipotence of the boss of bosses may have finished, but the Mafia is by no means defeated.? A cameraman films the Sicilian town of Corleone, where Mafia boss Salvatore 'Toto' Riina was born. Credit: AP After his incarceration, Riina was succeeded as the ?capo di tutti capi? (boss of bosses) by Bernardo ?The Tractor? Provenzano. But he in turn was arrested in 2006, after more than 40 years as a fugitive. Since then, Cosa Nostra has lacked clear leadership. ?It?s politically divided between Riina?s Corleonesi faction and the exiles,? said Prof Dickie, who teaches Italian studies at UCL. ?When he took control of Cosa Nostra in the early 1980s, Riina did so by decimating the most powerful bosses. He threw them out and took over the heroin trade to the US. ?Families were virtually ethnically cleansed from parts of Palermo and went into exile. They have been trying to come back. Cosa Nostra needs leadership. My best guess, though, is that there will be continued drift.? Despite its fearsome reputation, experts say Cosa Nostra is weaker now than it has ever been in its 150-year history, and that is largely the fault of The Beast. A picture taken on March 8, 1993 shows mafia boss Salvatore "Toto" Riina during his trial at a high security prison in Palermo. Credit: AFP When Riina ordered the assassination in 1992 of Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, two high-profile anti-Mafia investigators, he went a step too far, bringing down the wrath of the Italian State on Cosa Nostra. Italy dramatically stepped up its fight against organized crime, creating an FBI-style agency and keeping alleged Mafiosi under surveillance. Riiina responded with his customary savagery, ordering the murder of judges, magistrates, journalists and police officers. The son of a poor farmer, he was born in 1930 in Corleone, the birthplace of Don Corleone, the fictional Godfather in Francis Ford Coppola's movie trilogy. When he was 13, his father accidentally blew himself up while trying to remove explosives from an artillery shell fired by Allied forces as they invaded Sicily in 1943. When he was 19, he shot a man dead during a gang fight in Corleone and spent six years in prison, a rite of passage for a mafioso. Once out of jail, he became a foot soldier for the then head of Cosa Nostra, before assuming leadership himself. He married a teacher from a mafia family and had four children with her, one of whom is behind bars for four murders. A group of Carabinieri and onlookers looking inside a car at the bodies of Chief Prosecutor of Palermo Pietro Scaglione and his driver Antonino Lo Russo, killed during a Mafia attack perpetrated by Salvatore Riina in 1971. Credit: Mondadori Riina eluded police for almost a quarter of a century - without ever leaving Sicily. His reign of terror did not end with his arrest and imprisonment ? while in prison he ordered the murder of a 13-year old boy who was kidnapped in a bid to stop his father from becoming an informer. The child was strangled and his body dissolved in acid. During a killing spree known as ?The Slaughter? in the early 1980s, Riina sought to annihilate his many rivals. He turned 87 on Thursday and died just a few hours later, in the early hours of Friday morning, falling into a coma after complications following surgery. He died in a ward for prisoners at a hospital in Parma in northern Italy ? hundreds of miles from his fiefdom in Sicily. His funeral is likely to be a private affair in Corleone, the town of his birth. The Catholic Church said his family would not be allowed to hold the funeral in a church. ?The Pope has excommunicated Mafiosi,? said Father Ivan Maffeis, spokesman for the Italian Bishops Conference. "The condemnation of the Italian Church regarding this phenomenon is unequivocal.?