Sitting opposite his interrogator in a small office in the Criminalpol headquarters in Rome, mobster Tommaso Buscetta asked if he was absolutely sure he wanted him to answer his questions.
It may have seemed like an arrogant thing for a criminal to ask, but this mafioso knew exactly what would happen if he told him everything he knew.
Leaning forward in his chair, he said to the investigator Giovanni Falcone: “First, they’ll try to kill me. Then it will be your turn. They’ll keep trying until they succeed.”
Undeterred, Falcone continued his line of questioning, and Buscetta did what no man had ever dared before – and broke the sacred Mafia code of silence on which he had once sworn his life.
His decision to turn from Mafia kingpin to its first turncoat resulted in the convictions of nearly 400 Cosa Nostra mobsters in Italy and the US following the Maxi Trial, from 1986 to 1992, the largest anti-mob prosecution in history. Many were jailed for life.
But he knew full well that he was also unleashing the wrath of the world’s most powerful criminal organisation. And it wasn’t long before Buscetta’s chilling predictions on the day he decided to ‘sing’ began to come true.
Prosecutor Falcone was killed, along with his wife and three bodyguards, in 1992 when a massive bomb detonated beneath a highway overpass in Palermo as he drove home from the airport.
Two months later, another car bomb killed his close friend and investigating partner, Paolo Borsellino.
Others connected to the trial were also hunted down and murdered. But the one person Mafia assassins failed to kill was Buscetta himself, who went into hiding with a new identity and citizenship in the US, spending the rest of his life constantly moving with his wife and son to avoid detection.
Even when he died in April 2000, aged 71, from lung cancer, his body had to be buried under a false name – in case the unforgiving Mafia still tried to exact revenge from beyond the grave.
Dubbed the “Godfather of Two Worlds” because of the power he held on both sides of the law, Buscetta’s story is now being told in a new film, The Traitor, directed by Marco Bellocchio.
For John Huber, a Drug Enforcement Agency special agent at the time who had guarded Buscetta, the mafioso’s testimony was a turning point both for the once-invincible Mob and the police fighting them. “It has to be understood that Buscetta was the most important, the most wanted and the most endangered witness in American criminal history,” he said.
But for Buscetta, who had seen eleven members of his family slaughtered by the Mafia before he changed sides, turning against the Mob was as much a matter of honour as the sacred rule – omertà – that members take its secrets with them to the grave.
In an interview shortly before he death, he explained: “For me, death has been like shade on a sunny day. As a mafioso, I knew I had to get accustomed to its company. It was in the rules.
“The useless death of others, the unjust deaths of innocents, convinced me not to remain a mafioso.”
The youngest of 17 children of a Palermo glass worker, Buscetta was the only one of his siblings to enrol in the Mafia’s ranks, hired at the age of 16 in 1945 to muscle into the black market of flour during the war.
Buscetta quickly became an influential figure in the Cosa Nostra – or Sicilian Mafia – going above and beyond his rank as a soldier, commanding a respect unseen of someone his junior.
Throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, he was heavily involved in cigarette smuggling, apparently organising his consignments of Camel and Pall Mall from from the Bar Commercio in central Palermo.
He fled to the United States after the Ciaculli Massacre in 1963, a bombing that killed seven police officers that was the result of an internal mafia conflict known as the First Mafia war.
In New York, he was helped by the local Gambino crime family to get into the pizza business, which was allegedly a front for the Mafia’s illegal activities.
After being convicted of double murder in Italy in 1968, Buscetta was arrested in New York in June 1970. But after making a phone call from the police station, within hours $75,000 bail money had been paid on his behalf.
He underwent plastic surgery and vocal cord surgery to avoid detection and fled to Brazil, where he met his third wife, Cristina, with whom he would have four children. But just as he was building a new life, he was arrested and extradited to Italy to face trial for his crimes.
He was sentenced to ten years in prison but managed to escape after serving eight years, fleeing back to Brazil while on a day-release.
His escape back to South America wasn’t so much to avoid going back to prison, but to get away from the Second Mafia War being waged by Toto Riina, a merciless megalomaniac who wanted control of the entire drugs trade.
Riina has embarked on a ruthless campaign that saw over 400 mafiosos murdered between 1981 and 1982, and Buscetta feared his life would also be in danger if he stayed in Italy, even behind bars.
But his past followed him back to Brazil, where he was asked by Riina to helm a drug trafficking operation. His polite refusal was seen as a betrayal, and he soon found himself in the crosshairs of the mob’s most deranged leader.
In typical mafia style, Riina went after those he loved first. First, in 1982, his two sons were tortured, killed, then dissolved in acid, their bodies never found.
In the months that followed, the drugs supremo also targeted and killed his brother, his son-in-law, his brother-in-law and four of his nephews.
Tired of the bloodshed, after being arrested again in 1983 and extradited to Italy, he agreed break the Mafia’s code of silence to cooperate with Italian and American law enforcement to help take down the mob.
Cristina, now 70, remembered in a documentary last year: “For him, breaking omertà was really the hardest decision of his life because he had this sensation that he broke something that was sacred.”
Three days after arriving back in Italy, Buscetta began his historic testimony. It went on for 45 days and ran into 3,000 pages, prompting Falcone to order 3,600 checks on the evidence and issue 366 arrest warrants – blowing apart the previously untouchable Mafia.
And his decision to betray his mobster vows had devastating consequences. In an attempt to scare him into silence, Cosa Nostra killed three more members of his family, including two more of his sons.
In one dramatic confrontation in court with one of the mobsters he pointed the finger at, godfather Pippa Calso, who claimed he’d never met his accuser, Buscetta thundered: “You pretend not to know me, who brought up my own two boys, the same two that you had taken out.”
Buscetta was also the first mafia insider to reveal the secret inner workings of the Mafia.
In an interview with French journalist Marcelle Padovani, Judge Falcone, who was killed by the Mafia in 1992, said: “Before him we had only a superficial idea of the Mafia phenomenon. With him we began to see inside the organisation. He gave us a lot of information about the structure, the recruitment techniques and the functions of the Cosa Nostra.”
At first reluctant to reveal the mafia’s links with politicians, it was following the murders of prosecutors Falcone and Borsellino, with whom he had become friends, that he decided to speak. That same year, he agreed to be one of the main witnesses in the trial against Giulio Andreotti, the then Italian prime minister, who was accused of working with the mafia.
Andreotti was eventually acquitted, but for the first time, the world heard of the Mafia’s extraordinary grip on those in power. “A member of the Cosa Nostra says, that president is mine, and if you need a favour, you must go through me. In other words, the Cosa Nostra figure maintains a sort of monopoly on that politician.”
In exchange for his testimony, Buscetta was sent to the US under a new identity and citizenship in the Witness Protection Programme.
A safe house where he was hidden in the woods of New Jersey, guarded by a battalion of agents, was so secret that the New York prosecutors working with him weren’t allowed to know its location.
Lead prosecutor Louis Freeh, who would later become director of the FBI, remembered how he rarely talked about his own crimes. He said: “He was very talkative about certain things but he never really disclosed what he did, which crimes he committed.
“What surprised me the most was how everyone was just absolutely charmed by him… Everyone always talked about him as this very charismatic, very charming, very educated, well-spoken man. We couldn’t find anyone who would say, ‘He was a real son of a bitch’”
And once the trials were over he and his family continued under protection, constantly on the run from the Mob and living under adopted names in a string of different states, never staying in one place for too long.
And even since his death 20 years ago, after a two-year battle with lung cancer, his family still live in fear that the Mafia will still, one day, exact revenge for the biggest ever act of betrayal.
The Mafia doesn’t ever forget,” son Roberto said last year. “Somebody is going to know somebody who knows somebody and they’re going to come and get you.”