Photographs of Palermo at the height of the mafia wars of the 1980s
In the 1980s, the city of Palermo in Sicily experienced one of the darkest periods in its modern history. The decade began with the rise of the Corleonesi clan and its leader Toto Riina, who became one of the most powerful figures in the Sicilian mafia – also known as Cosa Nostra.
Corleonesi comes from the town of Corleone in rural Sicily. In the 1960s and 1970s, they made a fortune from drug trafficking and made many enemies along the way. Under the leadership of leader Luciano Leggio and his successor Riina, the clan sought to control all of Sicily by infiltrating other mafia clans and assassinating their leaders.
These assassinations are known as the Second Mafia War or Mattanza (massacre). Between 1981 and 1983, more than 1,000 people died – mafia bosses, their assistants, their families; accidentally misplaced civilians; government officials. After the murder of some high-ranking local judges and Carabinieri (military police officers), the State Ministry decided to centralize anti-mafia investigations and create a special task force to find and arrest high-level mobsters.
The “anti-mafia group” also included in its ranks two prosecutors, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, who have made a name for themselves thanks to their innovative investigative methods. Working closely with their colleagues, they managed to gather evidence that led to the indictment of 475 mobsters. As a result, the Maxi trial was held in a bunker-style court between 1986 and 1992, and most of the people were convicted. Both Falcone and Borsellino were killed by car bombs two months apart in 1992.
During this tragic period, Palermo photographer Fabio Sgroi, then 20 years old, worked for the press agency Informazione Fotografica, which also collaborated with the local newspaper L’Ora. Sgroi wasn’t a photojournalist – he started photographing the underground punk scene that Palermo was a part of. However, due to the constant violence in his hometown, he was often commissioned to shoot historical crime scenes and court cases.
Last summer, the photographer explored the archives of his three-year collaboration with L’Ora with the intention of making a book. In November 2022, the book was released in Italian and English – L’Ora newspaper chronicles. Palermo 1985-1988.
“We worked in shifts: morning, afternoon and evening, unless it was a holiday. At night too. Things can happen at any moment. We had very little time to send the photos to the editor” – Fabio Sgroi
“It was the only time I was a photojournalist,” Sgroi told VICE by phone. Since there were no telephones then, reporters worked with pagers. “We worked in shifts: morning, afternoon and evening, unless it was a holiday. At night too. Things can happen at any moment. After the guard, the photos were immediately prepared. “We had very little time to send the photos to the editor,” he adds.
One of the crime scenes that struck him the most was the murder of football player Salvatore Marino. Marino was arrested and questioned after the 1985 mob killing of Police Chief Beppe Montana. During the interrogation, the police allegedly tortured him to death before disposing of his body. “It was found on the beach of Sperone,” said Sgroi. “We discovered that he was killed by the Palermo police, not by the mafia. »
Sgroin’s photos don’t just show gruesome murder scenes; the book also shows demonstrations, daily life scenes and political events when porn stars Moana Pozzi and Ilona Staller participated in elections with the Italian Radical Party.
Of course, Palermo was completely different at that time. “It was a pretty dreary and gloomy town,” recalls Sgroi. “At 7 o’clock all the shops were closed and everyone disappeared. The atmosphere was heavy, the mob killings were rampant. Today, the city seems to have healed many of those wounds. But Sgroi insists on the dangers of thinking of this brutal period of history as a fact of the past. “The mafia is still there,” he says. “Today there is another type of mafia that is more restrained and institutionalized. »
More photos below: