If it weren’t called Corleone, this small, quaint town would appear to visitors as one of many others of the Sicilian hinterland: groups of elderly people strolling in a semi-deserted square, rows of low sand-coloured houses and a 16th-century church on the highest hill.
It would be difficult to imagine that for almost half a century it was the stronghold of the mafia’s bloodiest and most powerful clan, and the fiefdom of Italy’s most feared mobster, Totò Riina. Immortalised in cinema and literature by The Godfather, it became synonymous with organised crime, even if the bosses who once governed it – Riina, Luciano Leggio and Bernardo Provenzano – are now dead.
But, tired of dealing with a name that has become a curse, Corleone is struggling to escape its mobster past. The local government last week voted for a resolution demanding the “swift removal” of Giuseppe Salvatore Riina, 46, the third-born of the former boss of bosses, who returned in April after eight years in jail for extortion, money laundering and mafia association. The resolution describes Riina Jr as an “unwelcome fellow citizen”, whose family caused “reputational damage to the city”.
The mayor, Nicolò Nicolosi, said the local government had decided to “sound an alarm”, though the ultimate decision rested with magistrates in Palermo or even the national government. “Riina Jr, once back in town, was welcomed with a cordial attitude by the people and this a dangerous sign in a period where the community was finally moving on, leaving its mafia past behind. The truth is that most of them are being polite because they still fear him. The reality is that they are tired of him and his family,” he says.
“Sometimes people point out to me that the person next to me at the bar was related to Provenzano or Riina,” says Dario Triolo, whose father, Ugo Triolo, a lawyer, was murdered by the mafia in 1978. “But the truth is, I don’t feel anything for these people. I don’t give a damn about them. If I had feelings for them, I would have ruined my life. But if you ask me what I think of Riina Jr, I’ll tell you I wish he wasn’t in Corleone. Why is he back?”
When the American writer Mario Puzo decided that the fictional protagonist of his 1969 novel would be called Vito Corleone, and that the town of the same name would be his home town, Corleone’s ambitious young gangsters had already put it on the map. In the 1970s, when the first two films of the Godfather trilogy were released, Totò Riina began his rise to power. His leadership marked a new level of violence: not only did he assassinate his criminal rivals on an unprecedented scale, he also targeted anyone who sought to stand in his way. He is believed responsible for hundreds of deaths.
The impact on Corleone’s reputation was devastating.
“When in the postwar period the carabinieri general Carlo Alberto dalla Chiesa, who was sent to Sicily to fight the mafia, arrived in Corleone, he immediately ordered a census of all the families who lived there,” says Nicolosi. “He discovered that every single family in Corleone had a relative within the Cosa Nostra clan.”
For half a century, the people of Corleone had lived in a kind of mafia fiefdom, where they were terrorised into obedient silence. When the local paper in the 1980s suggested a link between the mafia and a local political figure, its office was firebombed. Nicolosi says it was only after the 2006 arrest of Riina’s successor, Provenzano, that people began to express their opinions freely.
Decimated by relentless arrests, short on cash and on foot soldiers, today the Sicilian mafia has been weakened, and even in Corleone the atmosphere is different. The main square is dedicated to the judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, whose killings had been ordered by Riina, while a gigantic mural of Francesca Morvillo, Falcone’s wife, who was killed with him in 1992, stands out on a school wall. Houses seized from the mafia were turned into hostels and recreational centres for young people, even a police station. And yet, even today, it is not difficult to meet residents, especially among the old generation, who consider Riina a “good man”.
“I don’t understand why the mayor wants Riina out of the town,” says the owner of a bar. “This is his home town.’’
Some in the town have exploited mafia stereotypes to attract tourists, such as a cafe transformed into a kind of Godfather film museum, with dozens of posters featuring Marlon Brando as Don Corleone, although the film was not shot in the town.
“Sometimes tourists pose in front of a church, convinced that it is where the marriage between Mike Corleone and Apollonia was celebrated,” says Liborio Grizzafi, who manages the Intus project in Corleone, aimed at promoting anti-mafia education. “When I explain to them that the film was never shot here, they tell me: ‘Dude, don’t tell me that, I came from Colombia only for this reason.’”
Riina Jr said he felt “persecuted, oppressed, harassed and targeted for everything he does”, after the local authorities allegedly refused to renew his ID.
The day after the council’s decision to vote for his removal from the town, the son of the boss posted a message on Facebook in which he criticised the authorities and promoted his 2016 book, Riina Family Life, bragging about selling foreign rights.
“While in Corleone they discuss meaningless things like taking me away from home, I continue to achieve new success,” he wrote.
The post has garnered hundreds of likes and comments, many from young people in Corleone, expressing affection for his family.
“The problem is, on one hand, the older citizens who struggle to disengage from the past, and a part of the new generations who continue to be fascinated by Cosa Nostra,” says Giuseppe Cipriani, who was mayor for almost 10 years.
When the son of a boss like Riina returns to a town like Corleone, it’s never a good sign. Investigators fear that he could try to reorganise the clan, which still today can count on an army of mafiosi in the city.
“Riina’s return takes place at a delicate moment for Corleone”, says Marilena Bagarella, manager of the Laboratory of Legality, a sort of anti-mafia museum. “Attention on the mafia is waning. And this is a problem.” She says that a revival of the clan in the town would be a catastrophe, especially for the young people who are finally and increasingly aware of how negative the mafia is for their future.
She often gives lessons to her students in which she recounts the battles fought against the mafia by heroes like Placido Rizzotto, a trade union leader murdered in 1948.
“In the past, students who belonged to a family linked to the mafia did not show up for these lessons,” she says. “But lately some mothers have secretly brought their children. They ask us not to say publicly who they are because they fear the wrath of their husbands. But the fact that they bring them here is already a great revolution in a city like Corleone.”
Marilena is related to Leoluca Bagarella, one of the most ruthless killers of Cosa Nostra and brother of Ninetta, Totò Riina’s wife. When the students ask Marilena about that relationship, she tells them: “It doesn’t matter what surname you bear, what matters is the path you choose.”
She shares a story: “One day, while I was explaining the importance of making one’s choices freely in life, a child, very excited, got up from his chair and said: ‘Then there’s hope for me, too.’ I don’t know if he was related to the boss, but his surname was Riina.’’