Obituary: Paolo Borsellino

Wolfgang Achtner
Monday 20 July 1992 23:02

Paolo Borsellino, lawyer, born Palermo 19 January 1940, married Angela Piraino Leto (one son, two daughters), died Palermo 19 July 1992.

PAOLO BORSELLINO was one of the original members of the Palermo 'pool' of magistrates set up to investigate the Sicilian Mafia and one of the closest friends of its charismatic leader, Giovanni Falcone. Falcone was killed, with his wife and three bodyguards, on 23 May, when the Mafia blew up a stretch of motorway on the outskirts of Palermo.

The destinies of these two Sicilian heroes were closely related from childhood. Borsellino was born in Piazza Magione, in the heart of Palermo's old city, and he grew up with Falcone in the popular Albergheria quarter. And, as Falcone once remembered, on various occasions they played ping-pong matches against other boys, such as Tommaso Spadaro, who grew up to become Mafia chieftains.

Borsellino and Falcone became magistrates at the same time and both married the daughters of their mentors at the Palermo Tribunal. Borsellino married Angela Piraino Leto, the daughter of the President of the tribunal, while Falcone's second wife was Francesca Morvilo, the daughter of a counsellor at the tribunal.

The soft-spoken Borsellino was a conservative who never hid his political sympathies. As a university student he was a member of Ruan, the organisation of right-wing students affiliated with the neo-Fascist party MSI. But his ideas never got in the way of his work and he had the absolute trust of all his colleagues, even those of an opposite political leaning.

For this reason, Falcone and he remained always good friends. 'One can trust Borsellino and he is a tireless worker,' Falcone used to say of his friend and accomplice. At times the two men needed little more than a glance to communicate with each other.

Both men were also friends with the other members of the pool, Giuseppe Di Lello, Leonardo Guarnotta, Giacomo Conte, and of the chief investigating magistrate, Antonino Caponnetto, their superior and greatest supporter.

The founder of the pool, Rocco Chinnici, had been killed in 1983 when a bomb exploded as he was leaving home to go to work. Until Chinnici founded the pool, all of whom shared the same information, the Mafia had regularly killed any magistrate who could have threatened it.

Falcone and the other members of the pool were forced to live under constant police guard. They travelled to work in armoured vehicles, guarded by men in helmets and flak jackets. Their office was in an isolated wing of the tribunal, surrounded by a cage of concrete and steel. Still, as Falcone himself tells in his book, at times the two men would joke about death. 'My colleague Paolo Borsellino came to see me at home. 'Giovanni,' he said, 'You must give me the combination of your safe, otherwise we'll never be able to open it when they kill you.' '

The two men passed many hours locked up together inside the seaside villa of the magistrate Giuseppe Ayala, one of the prosecutors at the 'maxi-trial' against the Mafia in 1985-87, writing the 8,607- page indictment against 465 defendants. The four volumes started with these words: 'This is the trial against the Mafia- type organisation called Cosa Nostra, a very dangerous criminal organisation that, through violence and intimidation, has sowed, and still sows death and terror.'

On one occasion, after learning that her father and Falcone had received particularly serious death threats, Borsellino's daughter Lucia became anorexic. She was never able to cure the sickness, which grew more acute each time she feared for her father's life.

Recently, when there were rumours that his name might be put forward as a candidate for the position of head of the 'Super-procura', Italy's FBI, charged with fighting organised crime, Borsellino told close friends he would have mixed feelings about accepting the job if it were offered to him. 'I might accept,' he said, 'because it's the only position that would allow me to investigate the death of Giovanni and his wife Francesca.' But Borsellino was also afraid that his daughter's health would suffer.

Borsellino himself had not been in favour of the Super-procura, an organisation strongly advocated by Falcone, because he was worried that politicians might try to use it to interfere with the magistrates' independence. Even so, after the organisation was finally created, Borsellino enthusiastically supported Falcone's candidature for the new job.

Borsellino had always been a most loyal friend. In the summer of 1988, when the Palermo pool was being dismantled by political enemies, Borsellino, who in the meanwhile had been appointed chief prosecutor in Marsala, released an interview in defence of his friends. He accused the new chief investigating magistrate in Palermo, Antonio Meli, of hampering investigations and trying to break up the pool. Borsellino claimed that Meli had started to pass inquiries that used to be handed automatically to the pool to other magistrates, while Falcone was told to deal with a case of common burglary.

Borsellino also warned that inquiries were being fragmented, preventing the Palermo magistrates from acquiring an overall view of events, just like 20 years before when trials against mafiosi used to end with mass acquittals and even the existence of the Mafia itself was not an accepted fact. Furthermore, he added, the Sicilian police 'were no longer capable of producing a report on the Mafia worthy of the name'.

And even worse, he claimed, was the fact that nobody had any idea of how Cosa Nostra had rebuilt its power structure after the end of the 'maxi-trial'.

Implicit in Borsellino's denunciation was the belief, shared by many experts, that after the public spectacle of the maxi- trial many politicians had tried to enforce the conviction that there was no need to continue an all-out attack against the Mafia, that the 'emergency' was over and that the time had come to bring things in Palermo back to 'normal'.

When the Magistrates' Superior Council decided to discipline Borsellino for his speech, Falcone publicly threatened to resign if his friend were punished.

After Falcone's death, many said Borsellino was a destroyed man. He told some friends he knew he was living on borrowed time but he refused to abandon the fight. At Falcone's funeral, where he was one of the pallbearers, Borsellino said: 'Whoever feels they can't go all the way should feel free to seek a transfer because this is our destiny.' He chose to stay on. Later, Borsellino told reporters that Falcone had started to die back in 1988, when he was refused the position of chief investigating magistrate in Palermo that had become vacant after Caponnetto's retirement.

Last Sunday, only hours before his death, Borsellino showed up unexpectedly at the house of a friend, Giuseppe Tricoli, a former MSI regional deputy and a Professor of Law at the University of Palermo, with his wife and his son Manfredi. During lunch, Tricoli asked him how he managed to find the courage to go on even after Falcone's death.

'I'm a Catholic,' he answered, 'it's my duty to believe in humanity.'

Shortly after lunch, Borsellino decided to pay a visit to his mother and sister while his wife and son remained at the villa.

At 4.45pm Mafia hitmen, using a remote-control device, set off the explosion that killed Paolo Borsellino outside the door of his mother's house.

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