MILAN – The death Friday of Salvatore "Toto" Riina, the long-time "boss of bosses" of the Sicilian Mafia, puts the spotlight back on Cosa Nostra, which waged a bloody campaign in the 1980s and 1990s of bullets and bombs to counter Italy's crackdown on the Mafia.
Cosa Nostra only lost its pre-eminence as its top bosses were captured and became turncoats, helping give rise in recent decades to the powerful Calabrian 'ndrangheta crime group.
Here are five things to know about 87-year-old Riina and the Sicilian Mafia he once ruthlessly controlled:
THE CRADLE OF COSA NOSTRA:
The Italian town of Corleone, Riina's birthplace, has been Cosa Nostra's stronghold during both his reign and that of reputed chieftain Bernardo Provenzano, who died last year a decade after his capture in Sicily following some 40 years of hiding in the countryside near the hill town.
The town inspired the fictional crime clan's name in "The Godfather" novel and hit movies. The Italian government last year dissolved Corleone's municipal government on suspicion that Mafiosi had infiltrated it. Using intimidation tactics, the Cosa Nostra frequently influences decisions and public contract bidding and delivers votes, prompting some politicians to curry the mob's favor.
BEWARE THE NICKNAME
Mafia "dons" all sport colorful nicknames, many in the Sicilian dialect. Salvatore "Toto" Riina was no exception. Recognized as the "boss of bosses" of the Cosa Nostra, he was also known as "The Beast (La Belva)" for the ruthless bloodbaths he instigated against anti-Mafia prosecutors and law enforcement. Those included the 1992 murders of anti-Mafia prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. He also was known as "u curto," Sicilian for "the short one," for his physical stature.
A POWER STRUGGLE IS UNLEASHED
Top anti-Mafia prosecutors say Riina's death is sure to spark a power struggle in the Sicilian Mafia, even if the strict terms of his imprisonment would have prevented him from exercising day-to-day control for the last 24 years. Prosecutors won't discuss who they think the top contenders might be, but long-time Cosa Nostra fugitive Matteo Messina Denaro remains Italy's most-wanted Mafioso. The 55-year-old, whose power base is in Trapani, in western Sicily, has evaded arrest since 1993. He is wanted for his role in the bombing assassination of magistrates in the 1990s as well as other Mafia hits and crimes.
Riina had four children. Giovanni is serving life sentence for four murders, while Giuseppe Salvatore "Salvo" Riina is under special surveillance in Padua after serving an eight-year sentence for Mafia association. Salvo Riina made news in recent years for a prime-time interview on RAI state television and then for traveling to Corleone, against the terms of his prison release, to serve as godfather, against Vatican rules, for a niece. One daughter remains in Corleone, while a second has relocated to Puglia, according to Italian media.
THE COSA NOSTRA TODAY
During Riina's day, the Cosa Nostra was the most powerful of the Italian crime syndicates, controlling an international heroin smuggling ring and declaring war on the Italian government with a bloody campaign against anti-Mafia magistrates.
The Cosa Nostra has lost pre-eminence in recent years, due in part to the state crackdown that either jailed or forced top bosses to hide, giving rise to the 'ndrangheta, which has infiltrated businesses in affluent northern Italy. Some progress has been made in the battle for hearts and minds, with young people in Sicily inspiring many shopkeepers and industrialists there to stop paying the Cosa Nostra protection money. Still, prosecutors say there are signs that Sicily's Cosa Nostra is again gathering strength.