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Notorious Mafia 'boss of bosses' Toto Riina dies aged 87

Mafia "boss of bosses" Salvatore "Toto" Riina has died in hospital while serving multiple life sentences as the mastermind of a bloody strategy to assassinate Italian prosecutors trying to bring down the Cosa Nostra.

Riina died the day after his 87th birthday, hours after the Justice Ministry had agreed to allow family members at his bedside.

He had been in a medically induced coma following two operations in recent weeks in the prison wing of a hospital in Parma, northern Italy.

Riina, one of Sicily's most notorious Mafia bosses who ruthlessly directed the mob's criminal empire during 23 years in hiding, was serving the life sentences for multiple murder convictions, some dating back to the 1950s.

A farmer's son from Corleone, a rocky hill town and Mafia stronghold near Palermo, he carved out a particularly ruthless reputation in a crime syndicate notorious for its methods.

Rival bosses were mowed down in the 1970s and early 1980s in Palermo - murders blamed on mobsters happened at the rate of practically one a day in the Sicilian capital in those years - as Riina orchestrated his rise to power.

In his campaign for supremacy, he violated many of Cosa Nostra's rules of conduct, including no longer sparing innocent women and children from the hitmen's bullets.

He was captured in Palermo in 1993 and imprisoned under a law that requires strict security for top mobsters, including being detained in isolated sections of prisons with limited time outside their cells.

During the height of his power, prosecutors accused Riina of masterminding a strategy, carried out over several years, to assassinate Italian prosecutors, police officials and others who were going after the Cosa Nostra.

The bloody campaign ultimately backfired and led to his capture as the enraged state fought back after bombs killed Italy's two leading anti-Mafia magistrates, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, two months apart in 1992.

Top anti-Mafia prosecutor Franco Roberti said Riina had never repented for his crimes.

"He was still considered the 'boss of bosses', even in prison," he said.

Mr Roberti said his death will lead to a power struggle at the top of the Cosa Nostra, even if his decades in a Milan prison cell, with severe restrictions on his contacts, ensured he no longer had any operational influence.

The prosecutor said the Cosa Nostra had been marginalised in recent times in comparison with the Calabrian-based 'ndrangheta organised crime syndicate that has spread into Italy and northern Europe.

"But as always happens, these periods alternate and there are changes. We are now seeing an increase in activities on a financial level by Cosa Nostra subjects. We are monitoring this."

The name of Corleone was borrowed for the main character in the Godfather novels by Mario Puzo, written years before Riina rose in the Mafia ranks and later made into blockbuster films.

Riina married a local school teacher, Antonina Bagarella, who was 14 years his junior and the sister of two alleged Cosa Nostra bosses in Corleone.

Investigators believe Riina jockeyed his way to the top of the Mafia by pitting rivals against each other, and then standing out of the way of the bloodshed that felled one boss after the other in the 1970s.

He went into hiding in 1969 after being ordered by the state to leave Sicily after he had finished a five-year prison sentence for Mafia association.

Mafia defectors said he had come and gone as he pleased during the years as Italy's top fugitive, directing Mafia activities from Palermo. He was handed his first life sentence in 1987 after being tried in absentia on murder and drug trafficking charges.

For decades, he seemed to mock law enforcement as he reigned from underground over the mob's drug trafficking network and ordered the deaths of top anti-Mafia fighters.

Anti-Mafia investigators worked with turncoats to zero in on the "capo dei capi", locating Riina and blocking his car on a Palermo road on January 15 1993, within months of Mr Borsellino's murder.

Riina refused to collaborate with law enforcement after his capture. "Mute as a tomb" was how RAI state radio summed up his refusal to become a turncoat as ultimately scores of Mafiosi did.

The archbishop of Monreale, which includes Corleone, said Riina's death "ends the delusion of the Cosa Nostra boss of bosses' omnipotence".

"But the Mafia has not been defeated, and therefore we should not let down our guards," Archbishop Michele Pennisi said .

AP

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