‘It is worth it and it is right’: A year of living dangerously for the prosecutor taking on the Mafia

Nino di Matteo’s life has been threatened by jailed former boss of bosses, Toto 'the Beast' Riina, over his investigation into links between the mob and the Italian state in the 1990s

Nino di Matteo has been used to living dangerously since he accepted the job of prosecuting mobsters more than 20 years ago.

In May 1992, as a young man, he wore his magistrate’s robe for the first time as he stood by the coffin of the anti-mafia prosecutor Giovanni Falcone. Two months later another senior colleague Paolo Borsellino was also killed by a Mafia bomb as part of Costa Nostra’s brief but brutal war on the state.

But in recent days, the Palmero magistrate received some chilling news; a trusted source revealed “the explosives are ready” for him too, following a series of threats emanating from the jailed former boss of bosses, Toto “the Beast” Riina.

The reason the Mafia boss wants him dead? Not only is Mr Di Matteo pursuing the Cosa Nostra in the organisation’s birthplace; he is also going after the high-ranking Italian officials who may have secretly negotiated with it to end a series of bombings in the 1990s. Those bombings were instigated by Riina, who effectively declared war on the Italian state after it began to crack down on the Mafia in the late 1980s.

“I knew what I was getting into when I became a magistrate,” said Mr Di Matteo. “In Palermo they’ve already killed many colleagues... but I didn’t think the moments like that could happen again.”

But security forces in the Sicilian capital are currently so fearful for the prosecutor’s safety that even transporting him to the relative safety of Milan has been considered too risky, despite the armoured vehicle prepared for him.

Instead, the father-of-two, 51, is virtually under lock and key himself; everywhere he goes, a ring of carabinieri with submachine guns fan out around him. He is no longer able to go swimming. Jogging takes place in military barracks, always surrounded by the ring of armed guards.

Asked by La Repubblica newspaper if it felt like 1992 all over again, he said: “No, there’s an important difference: there was only silence around Paolo [Borsellino]; today there are many Italians standing with us, even if certain institutions are deafeningly quiet.” His dig was thought to be at the justice department, which has yet to comment on or act on the threats.

The failure of the state to protect his murdered predecessors – and even the strong suspicion it colluded with the Mafia killers, particularly in the case of Borsellino’s murder – has preoccupied Italy for the past two decades.

This time, however, there are signs the Italian state will not bow to Mafia threats. The Interior Minister Angelino Alfano has announced that he was ready to make the feared 41-bis solitary confinement regime for jailed Mafia bosses even more severe.

It was widespread use of this prison measure against mobsters that provoked the then Cosa Nostra leader Riina to launch the bombing campaign that killed 20 people including Falcone and Borsellino in 1992-1993. And this violence led to secret negotiations between the state and the Mafia.

“Mafia bosses should know,” Mr Alfano told a gathering of the national anti-Mafia commission in Milan on Monday evening, “that if they seek to send orders from inside prison, the state will not hesitate to stop them and is ready to toughen the 41-bis law.”

The veteran Mafia writer Attilio Bolzoni hailed Mr Alfano’s decisive response. “The Interior Minister is aware of the serious risk that currently exists in Palermo. This is a positive message because the state cannot leave magistrates by themselves.”

But he added that Mr Alfano’s promise to hit Cosa Nostra hard if more threats – or worse – materialised, was not itself sufficient. “The danger to Di Matteo comes not only from the Mafia but from other sources,” he said, referring to “accomplices” in the bomb attacks, who are thought to have included senior security officials and even politicians.

Mr Di Matteo is currently involved in a trial and related probes into the presumed talks between the Mafia and state officials in 1992, which saw many senior mobsters released from solitary confinement. The former Interior Minister Nicola Mancino is among those on trial. “Di Matteo has not stopped this. And I think this is the real reason for the threats,” said Mr Bolzoni.

This view is shared by Mr Di Matteo himself. “Let’s just say it’s a coincidence,” he said ironically. “The order for my death and the anonymous threats arrive all at the same time when the accused are indicted and I with my colleagues have decided not to stop the investigation.”

It emerged that the person who aired most of Riina’s threats, Alberto Lorusso, a jailed mobster from the Puglian crime organisation the Sacra Corona Unita, has been transferred to another prison. Palermo prosecutors believe that Italian secret services may have planted Lorusso with Riina in order to learn his plans.

The prosecutor, meanwhile, has considered the personal risk he is taking. “Sometimes I ask myself if it’s right to go on, for me and my family,” he told La Repubblica.

“Rationally I think it’s not worth it, but then a combination of feelings hits me and produces just one response: it is worth it and it is right.”

The Beast: Salvatore Riina

Salvatore Toto Riina behind bars during a trial in Rome (AP)

Salvatore, or Toto, “The Beast” Riina, will forever be remembered as the Cosa Nostra boss of bosses who waged war on the Italian state in the early 1990s by slaughtering anti-mafia judges.He hails from the legendary mafia stronghold of Corleone, outside Palermo. After joining the mafia in the late 1950s, he took on other families in the ‘First Mafia War’ for control of Cosa Nostra, becoming top boss in 1974.