The Cosa Nostra’s brutal murders in 1970s Sicily were bravely documented by a female photographer who defied Mafia death threats to cover their bloody crimes on the island.

Letizia Battaglia, 84, chose to do battle with the Mafia with her camera’s lens while they shot down their rivals on the vicious alleyways of Palermo and throughout Sicily at a time when murders were soaring. 

Married at 16, Battaglia divorced in 1971 and took up journalism to provide for her three daughters. She soon realised that she could earn much more if she took a picture with her stories.

Battaglia, who was the first female photographer to be employed by an Italian newspaper, found herself on the front lines of brutal wars raging over the lucrative new industries of tobacco and heroin smuggling.

Her life’s work is the subject of a new documentary, Shooting the Mafia, which featured at the BFI’s London Film Festival last month, it paints a portrait of a remarkable woman whose bravery and defiance helped expose the Mafia’s brutal crimes. 

‘At times there were five murders a day,’ Battaglia said. ‘We’d never known violence like it. I look at my photos, it’s just blood, blood, blood.’

This brought grave dangers for her, ‘Imagine how they felt being photographed. I got death threats over the phone.’ Battaglia said. 

‘My photos of the mafia, of the dead, I wanted to burn them. I could almost hear the plastic burning. I dreamed of burning my negatives but i have no right. I want to take away the beauty that others see in them.’ 

But she told the makers of the upcoming documentary about her life’s work: ‘We mustn’t be ruled by fear. I feel free because I’m free on the inside.’

By the 1970s, the Sicilian mafia, or Cosa Nostra, had become a highly lucrative business organisation which centred around cigarette smuggling and heroin.

Mafia bosses on the island negotiated arrangements with crime syndicates in Naples to establish a monopoly over the tobacco trade.

Meanwhile, heroin refineries – operated by Corsican mobsters in Marseilles – were shut down by French law enforcement and in around 1975, the mafia began providing the drug to European traffickers.

But the Cosa Nostra had bigger ambitions and moved to the United States to control the distribution end of the business as well.

This lucrative smuggling trade precipitated the Second Mafia War, in which the dominant Corleonesi clan – led by Toto Riina – would seek to take control over the Sicily.

The first shots of the war were fired in 1978 and the war over the next decade, with Riina at the forefront, would go down as the most brutal chapter in the Sicilian mafia’s history.


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