The Time I Witnessed a Mafia Murder
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because a picture is worth 1,000 cover-ups.
By Antonio Vassallo
Interview and translation by Niko Vorobjov
Back in 1992, I was working as a photographer in the town of Capaci, in western Sicily.
At that time, the Mafia was really powerful. It was smuggling heroin to the U.S. and collecting the pizzo, a kind of unofficial tax that was really just a guise for a protection racket. Anyone who refused to pay, like Sicilian businessman Libero Grassi, could face severe consequences. On Aug. 29, 1991, Grassi was shot three times in the head as he made his way to his shop for taking a public stand against the Mafia.
The Mafia had police, politicians and the security services in its pocket. But one man would not be deterred. His name was Giovanni Falcone. A crusading judge, Falcone grew up in the ruins of post-WWII Palermo, playing football with the kids who would grow up to be gangsters. Together with his childhood friend Paolo Borsellino, Falcone went after the mob like no one had ever done before. In the 1980s, Falcone presided over the Maxi Trial, which saw 338 mobsters convicted and sent down for a total of 2,665 years in jail, as well as 19 life sentences. Not only that, but for the first time the Italian government was forced to admit that La Cosa Nostra, “this thing of ours,” does actually exist.
And that’s why they had to take him out.
On May 23, 1992, a blast rocked the A29 highway that links Palermo with southwestern Sicily as Falcone made his way from the airport together with his wife, Francesca, and a team of bodyguards.
I didn’t recognize him, but he was still alive, just moving his head a little bit. “You finally did it, you bastards! You got what you wanted! You killed me!” he screamed.
I live really close to the highway, and I was at home when I heard the explosions. Immediately I got my camera and jumped on the scooter. When I arrived, the scene was like something from one of those American war movies. There was no road — no motorway at all. I had to drop my scooter and continue on foot when I saw this huge crater. The fireball destroyed the first car in the convoy, while the second car, which was carrying Falcone and his wife, slammed into the wall of cement that leaped from the road as the explosion ripped through the ground around it.
As I climbed over the crater, I saw Falcone in his car. I didn’t recognize him, but he was still alive, just moving his head a little bit.
“You finally did it, you bastards! You got what you wanted! You killed me!” he screamed.
I was so shocked I couldn’t even take any pictures. I didn’t know what to do. Just then, I saw a young man come out of a car in front of me. He was pointing a gun, maybe a Kalashnikov. I thought that maybe he was a hit man sent to finish the job, so I ran into the bushes.
A few minutes later the emergency services arrived, so I felt it was safe to go back to take photos. However, two men arrived claiming to be police but wearing plain clothes. They demanded I hand over my photos, but I said no unless they could show me some ID. So they twisted my arm and forced me to hand over the film.
I thought there would be some kind of official investigation, and I would be called to testify, but nothing ever happened. In Capaci everyone knows each other, so I knew right away who the low-level goons were that planned the massacre. But for months nothing happened, and no one was arrested. So eventually my friends and I took the car and drove over to Caltanissetta, in the middle of Sicily, where a very famous prosecutor, Ilda Boccassini, had taken over the case. We told her everything we knew, but when we asked whether she’d gotten my photographs, she asked me, “What photographs?”
The next day I got a call from the chief of police of Palermo, who told me, “Sorry, we have your photos, but we forgot to send them. We will send them tomorrow.” But the photos never arrived. And that’s when I got scared. Maybe my camera took a shot of something no one was supposed to see. The killers surely wouldn’t have expected someone to show up that early after the bombing and start snooping around. I never saw my photographs from that day again.
After the death of his friend, Falcone’s partner, Borsellino, knew his days were numbered. He started making excuses to get away from his security detail, wandering off to buy packs of cigarettes on his own, hoping a single bullet in the back of his head would spare them the massacre that occurred in Capaci.
He would not get his wish. On July 19, 1992, a car bomb exploded outside his mother’s house, killing not only Borsellino but also five of his bodyguards, including Emanuela Loi, a 24-year-old police officer from Sardinia.
One of the crucial pieces of evidence, Borsellino’s little red notebook — where he wrote down all he knew about the Mafia and their connections to the deep state and politics — disappeared from the crime scene. To me, there’s no doubt that the security services were involved in Falcone’s and Borsellino’s murders, and they are still covering it up.
Seventeen years after the bombings, I had a chance to meet with the people who were in the third car, the members of Falcone’s escort who survived the massacre. In particular, I got to talk to Angelo Corbo, the man who threatened me with a Kalashnikov.
“Yes, I was going to shoot you,” he told me. “All these years I was wondering, Who is this man with the black box in his hands, peering at us after we’d just been blown up? You tell me now it’s a camera, but I was really going to shoot you!”
So I realized that whether they were police guards or Mafiosi, running away was the right thing to do.
No one could have expected the murder of Falcone in 1992. He’d been transferred to Rome, and there was a feeling among all of us that he’d been saved. With such a terrible, shocking crime, the Mafia wanted to silence us ordinary Sicilians. But it did exactly the opposite of what they’d planned. The people had had enough, and an uprising began that continues to this day. In 2004 Addiopizzo was born, a movement of activists and shopkeepers who refuse to pay protection money to the Mafia. Now there’s more than a thousand of us, and unlike Libero Grassi, they can’t kill us all.
Sometime after the massacre, my friends and I went up to the mountain from which mob hit man Giovanni Brusca peered down on the highway and pushed the button that took away five lives. We brought with us a huge ladder and a bucket of paint, and we wrote No Mafia on the side of a tall white house overlooking Capaci.
Every year, a group of people come and repaint it. I hope that as more young people pass through and see the message, our island will one day be free.
- Antonio Vassallo, OZY Author Contact Antonio Vassallo