As Sicily's Mafia boss is seized, elation yields to fear Mobsters' war is far from over

January 17, 1993|By Alan Cowell | Alan Cowell,New York Times News Service

CORLEONE, Sicily -- At first, they said, they could not quit bring themselves to believe it: Salvatore Riina, boss of all bosses of the Sicilian Mafia and Corleone's most illustrious son, had finally been captured.

No one, after all, had expected that the mobster whose image had assumed near-mythical proportions would ever be taken -- certainly not on an island held in fearful thrall by his uncompromising brutality as overlord of the organization that gave international organized crime its name.

Yet, when the news seemed confirmed beyond doubt, Giuseppe Siracusa, Corleone's mayor, said, "This was a moment of liberation for us."

The children stopped their classes. People gathered in the cobbled piazzas and openly rejoiced -- a rarity in a village where the old men on the shaded benches seem locked in a permanent competition for the most inscrutable of inscrutable looks and for the most cryptic of asides.

In Palermo, the island's capital and Mafia stronghold where Mr. Riina was arrested, "you could walk on the streets and finally feel that the boss had been taken," said the Rev. Paul Turturro, an anti-Mafia priest in the city's crime-ridden old quarter. "There was hope for justice. There was a sense of liberation."

That was Friday. Yesterday, as Mr. Riina was reportedly transferred from Sicily to Rome, doubts -- and some fears -- began to intrude.

For years, his association with the village of Corleone seemed to protect it from the very crimes that enriched him, particularly narcotics.

"In Corleone there was no crime, no drugs," said Dino Paternostro, a local anti-Mafia campaigner.

More profoundly, there is what Father Turturro called "the latent fear" of a struggle for succession.

Leonardo Guarnotta, an investigating magistrate in Palermo, said: "Maybe the new boss is already doing the rounds. But there could soon be another Mafia war. We could be on the brink of bloody encounters between the families looking for power."

No one seems to think that the war with the mob is over. "I am certain only of one thing: The Mafia is not defeated," Mr. Guarnotta said.

Captured Mafiosi have been killed in prison in the past to silence them. The government worries that the same may happen to Mr. Riina, 62, who is charged with being behind more than 100 murders, narcotics offenses and some of Sicily's most spectacular political assassinations.

"We have to watch him night and day and even control the air he breathes," said the national police chief, Vincenzo Parisi.

Nor have the authorities ruled out retaliation by the mob or an effort to free him.

Before his arrest, Mr. Riina stamped his personality on the Mafia with such ferocity that there were no obvious successors: Those who had challenged him were dead.

Those most likely to take over rank among his allies or belong to his Corleonese clan, such as his henchman, Bernardo Provenzano. But reports suggest that he was killed by Mr. Riina in a feud last year.

The most likely successor, investigators say, is Benedetto Santapaola, 54, a former shoe and auto salesman who is said to be the boss of the eastern city of Catania and who has been on the run for 12 years.

In Corleone, high in the craggy limestone hills, some old habits die hard. No one, for instance, seems to remember Mr. Riina in person, even those who grew up with him.

Mr. Siracusa, for instance, said he did not even recognize Mr. Riina in the police photograph that showed a jowly face, close-cropped hair and hard brown eyes. Asked whether others in Corleone would acknowledge knowing him, Mr. Siracusa gave one of those all-denying shrugs that seem a specialty in Sicily and said, well, probably not.

Mr. Riina's immediate family was less ambiguous. His brother, Gaetano, who went to Palermo's Palace of Justice yesterday to arrange legal help for Mr. Riina, spoke briefly to reporters. "My brother is a gentleman," he told them. "You are vultures."

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