22 September 2020

Leonardo Messina - Mafia ‘pentito’

Sicilian who linked ex-premier with organised crime

Leonardo Messina helped police catch 200 Mafia suspects
Leonardo Messina helped
police catch 200 Mafia suspects
The Mafia pentito or turncoat Leonardo ‘Narduzzo’ Messina, the first to accuse former prime minister Giulio Andreotti of links with organised crime, was born on this day in 1955 in San Cataldo, a town in the centre of the island of Sicily.

Messina, who decided to reveal what he knew to the authorities soon after the murder of the anti-Mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone, named Andreotti as part of extensive testimony that led to the arrest of more than 200 mafiosi in 1992.

A so-called ‘man of honour’ for more than a decade, Messina, who had been arrested for his part in a drugs racket, became a pentito - literally a ‘repentant’ - after Falcone was killed by a massive bomb placed under the highway linking the city of Palermo with its airport.  Falcone’s wife and three police escorts died with him when the bomb was detonated, and it was the emotional appeal for information by the widow of one of the police officers that persuaded Messina he no longer wished to be associated with the Cosa Nostra.

Messina provided a goldmine of information to Falcone’s friend and fellow magistrate Paolo Borsellino, who himself would be killed by a car bomb in July of that year.

He gave Borsellino a wealth of detail concerning the workings of the Mafia in central and southern Sicily and the existence of a breakaway criminal organisation that emerged after the Second Mafia War of the 1980s. Even though Borsellino did not live to see the consequences of Messina’s evidence, his disclosures led to the arrest of 203 mafiosi.

Ex-premier Giulio Andreotti was named in Messina's testimony
Ex-premier Giulio Andreotti
was named in Messina's testimony
Messina also provided details of how Salvatore ‘Totò’ Riina, the Corleonesi boss who became the head of the Cosa Nostra across the whole island, presided over a reign of terror in which the Corleone clan turned brother against brother and systematically picked off major figures in rival gangs in order to exert control.

He also revealed the Mafia’s grip on construction and public-sector contracts in Sicily, including the identity of Riina’s fixer, Angelo Siino, a businessman who arranged public-sector contracts, collected bribes, negotiated with entrepreneurs and politicians and, where necessary, made threats and even ordered assassinations.  Messina’s testimony persuaded investigators to look at the role of Masonic Lodges in bringing Mafia businesses into contact with potential clients.

By far his biggest revelations, however, concerned the corrupt links between the Mafia and the government in Rome, especially the role of Salvatore Lima, the Christian Democrat former Mayor of Palermo and Deputy for Sicily who had a direct line to premier Andreotti, who rallied support for the Christian Democrats on the island in return for favours from Rome.

Messina was able to explain that this mutually beneficial relationship broke down over the Maxi Trial, the extraordinary six-year process, resulting largely from the testimony of another pentito, Tommasso Buscetta, that saw 350 mafiosi convicted, many of whom were handed very long jail sentences.  The Cosa Nostra counted on Corrado Carnevale, a supreme court judge with a reputation for overturning Mafia convictions on appeal, to quash or reduce many of the sentences. When this did not happen, mainly due to the intervention of Falcone in preventing Carnevale sitting for the appeal, the Mob invoked a terrible retribution, killing Lima, Falcone and his colleague Borsellino in a matter of months.

Andreotti himself eventually went on trial for his Mafia associations and for allegedly being complicit in the murder of a journalist. He was acquitted of both but in the first instance only by virtue of the statute of limitations after collusion with the Mafia was proved but found to have happened too long ago for any sentence to be enforced.

Now aged 65, in common with other pentiti, Messina lived under police protection until choosing to give up his anonymity in 2019. He testified in another, much smaller, Mafia trial in January, 2020.

The Corso Vittorio Emanuele and the church of San Rosario in the centre of San Cataldo
The Corso Vittorio Emanuele and the church of
San Rosario in the centre of San Cataldo
Travel tip:

San Cataldo is a hill town in central Sicily that dates back to the 17th century notable for its fine churches, including the Chiesa Madre, designed by Giovanni Battista Vaccarini, and the Chiesa del Rosario, which overlooks the tree-lined Corso Vittorio Emanuele. Outside the town, which is situated roughly equidistant between the major cities of Palermo and Catania, there is an important Bronze Age archeological site at Vassallaggi.

Corleone is surrounded by rugged landscape in the heart of Sicily
Corleone is surrounded by rugged landscape
in the heart of Sicily
Travel tip:

The Mafia stronghold of Corleone, a rugged town of around 12,000 inhabitants in the province of Palermo, was once dominated by Arabs before falling into the hands of the Normans.  Its strategic position overlooking the main routes between Palermo and Agrigento meant it was on the frontline in many wars.  At one time the town had two castles and was encircled by a defensive wall.  Its association with the Mafia began in the 1960s following the outbreak of violence that followed the killing of Michele Navarra. The link was solidified when Mario Puzo decided his main character in The Godfather would be known as Vito Corleone after a United States immigration official processing the arrival of Vito Andolini mistook his place of origin for his surname.

Also on this day:

1929: The birth of motorcycling world champion Carlo Ubbiali 

1958: The birth of superstar tenor Andrea Bocelli

1979: The birth of controversial writer Roberto Saviano


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