Fabio Sgroi, second mafia war – group of people on a hill with a car parked next to them. On the ground, there are numbered police signposts to mark the crime scene.
Photos: Fabio Sgroi, courtesy of Union Editions

How the Mafia Wars Devastated 1980s Sicily

Photographer Fabio Sgroi captured one of the darkest eras in Palermo’s history.
Leonardo Bianchi
Rome, IT

This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.

In the 1980s, the city of Palermo, Sicily, went through one of the most gruesome periods in its contemporary history. The decade began with the rise of the Corleonesi clan and their leader Toto Riina, who became one of the most powerful figures of the Sicilian Mafia – also known as Cosa Nostra or Our Thing. 


The Corleonesi originated in the town of Corleone in the rural part of Sicily. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, they made their money through drug trafficking, picking up plenty of enemies on the way. Under the leadership of boss Luciano Leggio and his successor Riina, the clan sought to take control of the entire territory of Sicily by infiltrating other mafia clans and murdering their leaders. 

These assassinations became known as the Second Mafia War or Mattanza (slaughter). Between 1981 and 1983, over 1,000 people died – mafia bosses, their aids, their families; civilians who happened to be in the wrong place; government officials. After the murders of some prominent local judges and Carabinieri (officers from the military police), the prosecution decided to centralise its anti-mafia investigations and create a specialised task force to find and arrest high-ranking mafiosi. 

The so-called Antimafia Pool also included Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, two prosecuting judges who had made a name for themselves in previous cases by implementing innovative investigative techniques. Working in close contact with their colleagues, they managed to collect evidence that led to the indictment of 475 mafiosi. The resulting Maxi Trial was held in a bunker-style courthouse between 1986 and 1992 and most people were convicted. Both Falcone and Borsellino were murdered by car bombs in 1992 within two months of each other.

Fabio Sgroi, second mafia war – crowd of men in uniform and other men in suits. Black and white photo.


During this dramatic period, Palermo-native photographer Fabio Sgroi, then only 20 years old, was working with the news agency Informazione Fotografica, which also collaborated with local newspaper L’Ora. Sgroi wasn’t a photojournalist – he’d started off by shooting the punk underground scene of Palermo, which he was part of. But due the constant climate of violence reigning in his city, he was often commissioned to shoot historical crime scenes and court cases.

Last summer, the photographer took a look at the archive of his three-year collaboration with L’Ora with the intention of making a book. In November 2022, the volume came out in Italian and English – “Chronicles of the Newspaper L’Ora. Palermo 1985–1988”.

“This was the only time I was a photojournalist,” Sgroi told me on the phone. At the time, reporters worked with pagers, since there were no phones. “We’d work in shifts: morning, afternoon and evening, unless it was a holiday. And nights too, stuff happens at all hours.” After the shift, the photos were developed immediately. “You had very little time to get the photos to the editorial staff,” he added.

One of the crime scenes that struck him the most was the murder of footballer Salvatore Marino. Marino had been arrested and questioned in 1985 following the mafia killing of police chief Beppe Montana. During the interrogation, the police allegedly tortured and killed him before dumping his body. “He was found on Sperone beach,” Sgroi said. “It was discovered he wasn’t killed by the mafia, but by the police in Palermo.”

Fabio Sgroi, second mafia war – body of man naked with his shoes off, face down in the water. The beach is made of large rocks and there's a wave approaching. In the background, you can see a small island. Black and white picture.

Salvatore Marino's body, found in the San Erasmo Neighbourhood.

Sgroi’s photos don’t only show gruesome murder scenes; the book also features protests, scenes of daily life and political events, like when pornstars Moana Pozzi and Ilona Staller ran for office with the Italian Radical Party.

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Of course, Palermo was completely different at the time. “It was a rather gloomy and dark city,” Sgroi recalled. “At 7PM, all the shops closed and people disappeared. The atmosphere was very heavy, the mafia massacres tough.” Today, the city seems to have healed most of these wounds. But, Sgroi warned against thinking of this brutal period of history as something belonging only to the past. “The Mafia is not obsolete,” he said. “Now, there’s another type of mafia, which is much more silent and connected to the institutions."

Scroll down to see more photos.

Fabio Sgroi, second mafia war – black and white photo of a Carabiniere looking up towards someone on a balcony on a higher floor. Next to him, a man in suit. Above them, a crowd waiting in a cell.

Inside the bunker courthouse of the Maxi trial, the 10th of February, 1986.

Fabio Sgroi, second mafia war – group of male students marching and lifting up their fists.

Student protest against the mafia.

Fabio Sgroi, second mafia war – close up of a sign hung up in front of a fountain.

A protest organised by newly-fired construction workers. The sign reads: “DON’T BE SURPRISED IF WORKERS SUPPORT THE MAFIA. 'EARLIER' WE HAD A JOB. NOW, WITH THESE 'CLEAN' INSTITUTIONS, WE’RE UNEMPLOYED.”

Fabio Sgroi, second mafia war – group of men surrounding a blond woman wearing fur and a headband and smiling
Fabio Sgroi, second mafia war – photo of a parked car with bullet holes in its back window. Behind it, a group of men is watching behind a fence.
Fabio Sgroi, second mafia war – two men in suits in front of a crowd of men and women lined up to give him space.
Fabio Sgroi, second mafia war – carabinere officer in uniform walking in a construction site between the bloodied body of a man lying face down on the ground with blood on his head and face, and a car with the trunk open showing bags of construction sand.
Fabio Sgroi, second mafia war – crowd of kids, teens and some older men, standing in a row and looking onto the scene

Crowd in the public housing neighbourhood of Lo Sperone, looking onto the murder scene of Giacomo Conigliano, a Mafisio close to Michele “THE POPE” Greco, who was indicted in the Maxi trial.

Fabio Sgroi, second mafia war – A table full of three large bags of a white powder, bullets and other objects

A drug bust in 1986. The product was coming from Bankok and was seized from a trusted person of the Brancaccio Clan.

Fabio Sgroi, second mafia war – man napping at his desk in front of a typewriter, surrounded by notebooks and papers.

Inside the newsroom of L'ora in Palermo. The 29th of January, 1988.