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A Biography of

Bernardo Provenzano


Clare Longrigg

For over 40 years, Bernardo Provenzano was a myth, all but unknown to the authorities, a Mafioso who sustained his untouchable status through mysterious contacts. Over the years, it was rumoured he was dead, or seriously ill. It was said he lacked the brains to be a leader.

A sharper picture emerged from accounts by collaborating Mafiosi in the mid-90s. Far from lacking intelligence, he had succeeded in restoring the Sicilian mafia to its former powerful status after the disastrous years of Toto Riina’s leadership. Now the undisputed head of Cosa Nostra, the man nicknamed ‘the accountant’ had combined old style management with a new way of doing business, and secured lucrative contracts for organised crime on an unprecedented scale.  

This book is a portrait of a brilliant criminal mind: although his typewritten notes show him to be semi-literate, he is a master of manipulation, a brilliant strategist. He has been living untroubled in western Sicily for most of his 43 years ‘on the run’: this could not have been achieved without the loyalty of his subordinates, and the co-operation of police contacts. It is also a portrait of an extraordinary marriage: Saveria Palazzolo ran away with Provenzano when he was already in hiding, and has stood by him throughout.

To build up this portrait, we have first of all, the ‘pizzini’, hundreds of type-written notes between Provenzano and his family and followers, revealing his manipulative skills, his leadership, his passionate relationship, professed piety, and the awe and respect in which he was held.  

We also have statements from the small number of Provenzano’s inner circle who have turned state’s evidence. Of those who have given extensive interviews to investigators, the most important are the hospital chief Gioacchino Pennino, Provenzano’s trusted lieutenant Angelo Siino, and the man closest to him over the years, Nino Giuffré. Between them, they give us a picture of how Provenzano did business, how he built his construction empire, and expanded into public works contracts. They describe meetings with politicians, and the hierarchy around Provenzano. Giuffré describes the man: what makes him angry, his manner of dealing with people, his health worries and his approach to power. Evidence given by Totò Riina’s favourite godson, the mass murderer Giovanni Brusca, includes chilling details of Provenzano’s methods. There are hundreds of pages of interviews magistrates have conducted with these men, but I would apply, through contacts in the Italian judiciary, for permission to interview Giuffré in person.  Provenzano’s professed piety may reveal some kind of messianic streak. Sicilian journalist Enzo Mignosi has written about the mafia’s espousal of religion, and could shed light on this aspect of Provenzano’s character.

The other side of the tale will come from the investigators who have pursued Provenzano over the years, from Angiolo Pellegrini, an old-style carabiniere who first spotted Provenano’s construction interests back in the early 1980s, to the three heroic magistrates who finally had him arrested: Michele Prestipino, Marzia Sabella (whom I interviewed the day after the arrest) and the assistant prosecutor, Giuseppe Pignatone. Pietro Grasso, who has been on Provenzano’s trail for over a decade, would have a great historical perspective, and a strong personal story.
The police officers who hunted Provenzano down would have great stories to tell, particularly those who had to put on disguises to linger in the back streets of Corleone. There are police and carabinieri who were on the boss’s trail, only to be frustrated by counter-commands at the last minute. One col Riccio has accused his boss of calling off the arrest; while another carabiniere, maresciallo Riolo, has confessed to his part in leaking details of police investigations to Provenzano’s men. Both would give revealing interviews.
I first came across Provenzano while writing my book Mafia Women (Chatto & Windus, 1997), and researched the story of his long-time companion, Saveria Palazzolo. I am familiar with her story, and with the conflicts that she must have endured in bringing up her sons. I have been writing about the Sicilian (and American) mafia for well over a decade (Miramax published No Questions Asked: the secret life of women in the mob, in 2004), and have good contacts in the Sicilian media and judiciary.
Bernardo Provenzano has been found guilty many times in absentia, but there are several trials still in progress, in which he is a key defendant. One of the most important, known as Trash, centres on Provenzano’s major money making plank, the activity which has arguably caused most misery to the Sicilian people, and involves political corruption at every level: the mafia’s control of public works contracts. This trial will continue into next year, and its conclusion would provide an optimum platform for publication of this book.  

Provenzano: boss of bosses

Clare Longrigg
On 11 April 2006, police raided a farm building in the countryside outside Corleone, and arrested the boss of Cosa Nostra, Salvatore Provenzano. Agents had followed packages of clean laundry from his wife along country lanes, passed from hand to hand, via his trusted ‘postmen’, along with little type-written notes, or pizzini, containing his orders, advice, and love letters to his wife (including instructions on what food he wanted).
It had been 43 years since Provenzano dropped out of sight, and all police had to go on was a photo from 1959. When Provenzano’s brother in arms Totò Riina was caught after 32 years in hiding, his expression was fierce and brutish. It wasn’t hard to connect this face with Riina’s crimes. Provenzano was different - older, and suffering from health problems. Identikit images of the ageing Provenzano came nowhere near this respectable looking, bespectacled 73-year-old.
So who is Bernardo Provenzano?
The best description we have of the man comes from his former close ally (now a collaborator) Nino Giuffré, who describes his lust for power, his political links, his ailments and his affections. Giuffré portrays Provenzano like a mafia statesman, a man of prestige and influence, a great mediator. His notes to friends and subordinates show him to be earnestly preoccupied with how his men behave and how things run, his orders and enquiries overlaid with sentiment of piety and devoted friendship. He is dressy: one witness was fascinated by his fancy hand painted shoes. He is very attentive to personal hygiene, and dresses neatly, insisting on supplies of clean clothes. It seems Provenzano is a bit of a hypochondriac: when he was arrested, police found a large number of different prescription medicines.
Known as ‘the accountant,’ and ‘the professor’, he is a political leader of great cunning, who had patiently restored Cosa Nostra’s power after the disastrous legacy of Riina’s war on the state. His former lieutenants have described him as calculating and authoritative, with government contacts at the highest level. From their accounts, and the numerous letters confiscated by investigators, we now have a complete picture of one of the most extraordinary criminal minds of our time. And through the story of his long-term protection from investigators, we can build an idea of how Italian politics was served by organised crime for over four decades.
Early career: Luciano Leggio and the first mafia war
The third of seven brothers, born to peasants in Corleone, Provenzano left school without finishing primary, and worked in the fields. In the post-war reconstruction of the mafia, Corleone’s mafia boss, doctor Michele Navarra, recruited the young Luciano Leggio to his ranks. By the end of the 50s, Leggio’s hard-bitten band of young mobsters made a challenge on Navarra’s leadership, and the doctor’s bullet riddled car was found just outside Corleone. Intense fighting followed, sometimes in the open streets, between the two camps, with over 50 dead. In May 1963, Provenzano went on the run after a failed hit on one of Navarra’s men – at this point he was not running from the police, but from mafia vendetta.
Around this time, Leggio made his famous remark about Provenzano: ‘He shoots like a god, shame he has the brains of a chicken...’ Provenzano earned the nickname ‘the Tractor’ based on his unstoppable intent, and his capacity to leave terrain turned over in his wake, with nothing growing.
The mafia war was ended by a car bomb at Ciaculli in June 1963, which killed seven policemen and led to mass arrests. In 1969 a number of charges against Leggio’s men, including Provenzano, were dropped. After the acquittal, there was renewed violence between factions: in December 1969 men in stolen police uniforms broke into an office in Viale Lazio and machine-gunned the occupants. One of those uniformed killers was Provenzano.
Leggio’s leadership changed Cosa Nostra: he reformed the Commission, and was determined to become all powerful within Cosa Nostra, by whatever means necessary. His methods and ideas were followed by his lieutenants Totò Riina and Bernardo Provenzano after him.
In 1978 Provenzano killed his first ‘excellent cadaver’, the incorruptible local government officer Ugo Triolo, from Corleone. He was killed in the centre of town, in broad daylight: clearly, the young hit man understood how to send a message to others. At that time, a collaborator told investigating magistrates Falcone and Borsellino that Provenzano and Riina, jointly nicknamed ‘the wild beasts’, were Leggio’s most dangerous weapons, responsible for about 40 murders each. In 1979 they killed the journalist Mario Francese, who had reported that the mafia was controlling public contracts through politicians and businessmen. It was another clear warning.

Marriage: a love affair and a business partnership
When Saveria Palazzolo, a shirtmaker and embroiderer, started dating her young outlaw in 1970, it caused a scandal in her home town of Cinisi, a mafia stronghold west of Palermo. She ran away with him (a common practise amongst young couples, who are then considered as good as married). They had their first baby, Angelo, in 1976, and the second, Francesco Paolo, in 1983.
Police noted in the 1970s that Palazzolo, a spinster without any known assets, suddenly acquired property worth over £10,000. It was the first indication that Provenzano was making serious profits from his illegal activity, and using his wife’s name to register businesses, shares and properties, to put them beyond investigators’ grasp. By 1983 she owned a substantial portfolio of property and shares, and investigators finally acted. She was charged with investing her partner’s illegal profits, and answered the charges by letter, claiming that the money came from her embroidery business, and a legacy from an elderly aunt. She was convicted (in her absence) and sentenced to 3 years 2 months. Nine years later, the warrant for her arrest was revoked. She had not served one day.
On 5 April 1992, Palazzolo reappeared in Corleone, her arrival communicated to police via lawyer, with her two sons, now aged, 16, and 9. No one believed she could have abandoned her husband in all this time, but, aside from the fact that both boys spoke fluent German, police couldn’t find out anything about where she had been. Provenzano’s wife’s public return to Corleone was interpreted by some to mean that he must be very ill - or even dead. She was not saying anything; she sent the boys to school, opened a laundry, and left the house only to talk to her lawyers. The boys appear to have been raised as legitimate citizens, not to follow their father into organised crime. This would have been their mother’s decision.
When police followed the ‘postmen’ trotting up and down country lanes outside Corleone, they found love letters between the mafia boss and his companion of over 35 years. Now in their 70s, they enquire tenderly about each others’ ailments, and exchange domestic notes about his requirement (‘no more pasta al forno, but as much of that cheese as you like’). Many of Saveria’s letters to her husband begin “Carissimo amore mio” (my dearest love) and end with “ I love you always.”
It’s an extraordinary relationship, sustained in difficult circumstances over so many years, but clearly, she is up to the challenge. Formidable and self-contained, Saveria Palazzolo dresses modestly, behaves with dignity, and steadfastly refuses to be intimidated or flattered by police or journalists. (She has given only one interview, to Italian veteran journalist Attilio Bolzoni.)
Since her husband’s arrest, Palazzolo has resisted the temptation to make a passionate declaration of her man’s innocence.
Life on the run: never far from home
Unlike Riina, who was discovered living in a luxurious villa in Palermo, Provenzano has no great taste for extravagance. And yet, it was shocking that a man so powerful and wealthy should be discovered living in a hovel. It seems the power he wielded was more important than anything money could buy.
The boss almost certainly spent most of his 43 years no further afield than western Sicily, protected by a network of followers, police spies and political contacts. In the early days, he moved around a lot: Giovanni Brusca describes him hiding in San Giuseppe Jato, a mafia stronghold ruled by the Brusca family (‘my father used to make up a bag of fruit... and other food, which I’d take to him’).
Throughout much of the 80s and 90s, Provenzano created a private fiefdom in Bagheria, a once-glorious suburb of Palermo. In his stronghold, mafiosi met and handed out construction contracts, buying silence and loyalty. One long-time loyal collaborator of Provenzano’s, described the boss’s residence in the 18th century villa Valguarnera: ‘a beautiful place, classical style, where Provenzano lived in hiding, peacefully with his family... He used to get taken to meetings in an ambulance.’
In the periods when Provenzano and his companion were not living together, conjugal visits were arranged by the usual elaborate system of ‘postmen’; latterly, the couple saw each other very seldom, but remained in constant contact by note (never by telephone, let alone email).
Provenzano enjoyed a level of protection that allowed him to move around, walk through the centre of Palermo, visit his powerful friends at their villas in Mondello and even go to the cinema (he went to see The Godfather 3 in a Palermo cinema). The various bosses in hiding held lavish banquets (mafiosi famously love a good banquet, when they’re plotting bloodshed, or celebrating). On Saturday afternoons, Provenzano would have a meeting with Riina, just the two of them, to discuss business and divide up the profits. When this was impossible, they would send typewritten notes, or verbal messages, through an intricate chain of command.
Provenzano’s favourite nephew, Carmelo Gariffo, was responsible for getting his typewritten pizzini to the 163 addressees assigned by their code numbers. Gariffo is fond of his uncle, and made elaborate arrangements for his health care. He used to write to his uncle (in poor handwriting, of which Provenzano often complains) in the most solicitous terms: "You must be sure to give yourself the injection, I know it’s disagreeable, but it must be done".
His sons also wrote to him, discussing domestic detail, including the arrangements for Angelo’s wedding (which was due to take place in May - until his father’s arrest). Hours of phone taps revealed that the boss had family troubles like anyone else: there had been rows between three of the brothers over the inheritance of a house. There were mutterings about an old loan which had never been repaid. It was their nephew Carmelo Gariffo who tried to resolve the dispute.
The mafia’s accountant: a new line of business
When the pentito Gioacchino Pennino revealed that Provenzano was known as ‘the accountant’, and the political mind of the western Sicilian mafia, it came as some surprise: the semi-literate killer had shown a level of sophistication no one had suspected.
While Gaetano Badalamenti was trafficking heroin to the US, and Totò Riina was waging a war on the Corleonesi’s rival families, Provenzano was instructing his men how to make useful links within the institutions of state. In a new departure for the mafia, he specialised in health (medical supplies to hospitals), construction and waste management, creaming off central funding intended for public projects. In 1983 Angiolo Pellegrini, chief of the carabinieri in Palermo, reported that there was a monopoly of companies who were taking larger and larger slices of the pie of public health provision. But when Pellegrini’s men turned up in Cinisi to arrest Provenzano, he was long gone.
It was Provenzano’s political contacts that made his control of public works possible, and his protection of these contacts frequently frustrated his Cosa Nostra colleagues. One of Provenzano’s most significant business partnerships was with Vito Ciancimino, mayor of Palermo, who was later convicted of embezzlement and mafia association (and whose son was recently arrested for money laundering). Ciancimino was Provenzano’s creature, he protected and promoted him to protect his own interests. In the late 50s the two men were jointly instigators of what became known as the sack of Palermo: by the end of the 1960s building boom the city had extended its suburbs in a concrete sprawl, WW2 bomb damage in the centre had not been repaired, beautiful villas had been demolished, and dreadful new unfinished developments stood where lemon groves had been. Development contracts had been handed out as bribes and rewards, and Provenzano took a 20 per cent kickback.
In the early 80s, the mafia’s links with the Communist party allowed them access to every public contract on the island. General Carlo Dalla Chiesa figured out that the mafia controlled not just every building development on the island, but also the channels to secure those contracts. He was assassinated in 1981. Later, when Provenzano set about restoring the old values of Cosa Nostra, he returned to its core activity: protection rackets, which provided a convenient way to get in on works contracts. By 2002, investigators estimated that 96 per cent of awards for government contracts were rigged in advance.
By the time he was arrested, Provenzano was estimated to be worth many millions. But careful management of his assets, which are registered through numerous ‘clean’ companies and individuals, has so far ensured that very little has been found.
Politics: a secure ticket
Provenzano has never been bothered which colour of political party he dealt with so long as it brought him influence. He was more interested in buying the silence of the opposition, than in fighting them. His political patronage worked by a system of total immersion. His people occupied every level of Bagheria local council: building works, agribusiness grants, workers were operating as freelancers, representing their own clients. ‘The nerve centres of Bagheria were in the mafia’s control,’ reported the pentito Angelo Siino, ‘the secretary of the DC, the head of the council, the mayor, they were always close to the mafia, a mafioso was head of the technical office... everything was decided by them.’
In 1994, the politician, doctor and now pentito Gioacchino Pennino revealed the special relationship between Provenzano and the ruling Christian Democrat party. He revealed that Provenzano had guided and advised Ciancimino, launched and directed his political career, and personally confronted anyone who was disloyal. Another key alliance was forged between Salvo Lima, the Christian Democrat politician and later MEP, and Ciancimino. Lima already had close links with the mafia via the Di Salvo cousins, wealthy businessmen and mafia members. According to Pennino, Lima and Ciancimino were a pair of prima donnas – Provenzano was constantly having to keep the peace between them.
After his arrest in 1996, Riina’s executioner Giovanni Brusca revealed that the chain of communication ran from the long-running Christian Democrat prime minister Giulio Andreotti to Lima to the Salvo brothers, to Brusca, who relayed the message to Riina. On one occasion, the message was ‘you need to calm down your operations, or we’ll have to take preventive action’. Riina sent back the reply: ‘After everything we’ve done for you, we’re not taking orders.’ (We don’t yet know what that ‘everything’ was, but after the latest round of arrests, it may yet come out.) Andreotti was convicted of conspiracy, confirmed on appeal two years ago.
The decline of the Christian Democrats’ usefulness to Cosa Nostra was marked by a series of political assassinations, starting with Lima. After the judiciary struck at the mafia in the 90s, by introducing stringent measures to confiscate suspected mafiosi’s assets, Riina and Provenzano, at the head of the Corleone clan, declared war on the state.
A new political alliance: Forza Italia
After the decline of the Christian Democrats, Cosa Nostra wasted no time in forging a new political alliance. The pentito Nino Giuffré has claimed that Berlusconi’s people held a meeting with representatives of Cosa Nostra in 1993, at which it was agreed to set up a new political party, Forza Italia. Dell’Utri was supposedly the link between Berlusconi and the Sicilian mafia, ensuring Berlusconi’s companies in Sicily paid kickbacks, and taking care of mafia investment in Berlusconi-owned companies in Milan. In December 2004, dell’Utri was convicted of mafia association. Judges concluded he was the go-between for Berlusconi and Cosa Nostra, and gave substantial support to organised crime, by giving them contact with economic and financial circles.
Giovanni Mercadante, Sicilian regional deputy for Forza Italia, was arrested in July, accused of managing Provenzano’s economic interests, and even assisting with his health care, in exchange for votes.
Riina’s dictatorship: war on the state
In February 1992, Provenzano went to the meeting where Falcone’s death was decided. It was a rule that Riina and Provenzano should never be at the same meeting, but Provenzano, according to one pentito, wanted to witness this last act of Riina’s rule. He had already taken the position that mediation is always better than violence, and by this stage, the two brothers in arms, who had killed shoulder to shoulder back in the old days of ‘Tombstone’ as Corleone was known in the 50s, had terminally fallen out.
It was clear to Provenzano that the strategy of open war would rebound very badly on Cosa Nostra, and he maintained that they lost more than they gained through the judges’ murder. He was privately critical of Riina for not making good links with the judiciary. Provenzano had also disapproved of Riina’s sons’ behaviour: he had written to Riina’s godson Giovanni Brusca to complain: ‘could they please avoid this undesirable conduct. Salvage whatever you can from this situation. ’
Provenzano was indubitably involved in the major assaults on the state including the assassinations of Falcone and Borsellino, and the bombings on the mainland in 1993 (he has been tried and convicted on all counts). But the state’s response to the attacks exceeded the mafia’s expectations, and Provenzano understood that changes must be made, and quickly. According to one pentito, Provenzano would not allow errors, and, when necessary, someone could be killed on the most flimsy pretext. But his targets were much more calculated than Riina’s, whose scorched earth policy was to wipe out his enemies, and their families, until all opposition was swept away.
When Riina was arrested in January 1993, he suspected Provenzano had helped set up his arrest. It wouldn’t be altogether surprising if he had: Riina’s war on the state had made things extremely difficult for Cosa Nostra, turning public and political opinion against them. When Provenzano was brought to Terni prison straight after his arrest, one of Riina’s sons (serving life sentence for three murders) shouted out "He’s no boss, he’s a cop".

Towards a new Cosa Nostra: ‘the accountant’ takes charge

Immediately after Riina’s 1995 arrest, Provenzano reorganised the structure of Cosa Nostra. He held a summit, in a sheep shed in the countryside, where he gave the heads of the families a stiff talking to, and told them it was not in their interests to continue the war with the opposition family, Riina’s allies, now led by Giovanni Brusca. He told them the political climate wasn’t right just now, but that in five or six years, when things had been quiet for a while, there would be a settling of scores. (As in fact turned out: 2000 saw a series of murders, not a massacre, but a careful, targeted elimination.)

There was a good reason behind this approach: Provenzano didn’t have an army of hit men at his disposal: he relied on manipulating people. He didn’t try to take out the pentiti or their families, he waited until they returned to the fold, hoping to pick up their business interests, then had them arrested. The structure of the commission was reorganised: it would be more like a senate. Another old rule was reintroduce: Provenzano insisted no one was to be killed unless approved by the commission, in particular, himself.

The modern mafioso’s leadership handbook

Provenzano has been described by his men as an arbitrator and peacemaker. His watchwords after the assassinations of Falcone and Borsellino, were ‘silence, and patience’. He understood the importance of building bridges, if Cosa Nostra was going to survive the period after the bombs. He was known to favour the idea of live and let live. We can see the result of his management style: since the bombings of 92, throughout the whole pentito phenomenon, he was hardly mentioned at all.

Riino’s style was to murder the families of pentiti, Provenzano returned to the old style of looking after prisoners, paying them a wage, showing respect for imprisoned men of honour. The scandal of the Riina years was that no mafiosi got paid a salary in jail, and Provenzano made sure they were looked after so they would stay loyal. He reopened the books, making men of honour from older, traditional mafia families to avoid chancers and potential turncoats.
Provenzano did not manage to stay in hiding so long just because he was better at hiding than Riina. He, in the end, was the one people protected, because they respected his way of doing things. The messages sent to Provenzano by other powerful mafiosi living underground reveal the reverence in which he was held: they call him ‘number one’, sir, or your lordship... (‘vossia’). His tone in the pizzini is grandiose, in spite of his poor grammar, he makes pronouncements and always invokes God’s personal interest in his projects. It shows an absolute faith in his own rightness, and it’s a tone his colleagues and subordinates pick up. One of his notes to Giuffré concludes: Don’t give me thanks, thank only our Lord, Jesus Christ.” The pastoral pose certainly seems to work. One loyal follower writes to him: ‘You are altruistic, wise, you take life as it comes, like a gift from God. Your faith is strong and sustains you. God has enlightened you...’
The pizzini show him trying to instruct his men to be more judicious in their choice of contacts and introductions. "My dearest friend,’ he wrote to the mystery number "5" - ‘I am overjoyed to learn you are all in excellent health...’ His spelling and grammar were dreadful, but the intent is always clear. Though he begins with professions of friendship, he ends with a severe reprimand. ‘You tell me you’ve got a high level political contact, who would help you launch a major project. But who is this person, what do I know of them? You can’t trust anyone these days. They could be spies, infiltrators, anything. What can I tell you?’
Spies in the system: how Provenzano evaded arrest
It still seems amazing that Provenzano could stay out of sight for so many years, most of which, it is now clear, were spent in western Sicily. The stories of how close police came on several occasions are tantalising. Carabinieri tracked his men on many occasions, trying to intercept their meetings with the boss, but were frustrated by counter espionage. After the murders of Falcone and Borsellino, public outrage and political will was such that a major round-up of mafiosi resulted in arrests of Riina, Bagarella, Nitto Santapaola and Giovanni Brusca. Not Bernardo Provenzano.
Not only corruption but also a lack of political will, and therefore funding, hampered the investigation. Police had thousands of hours of taped telephone conversations, including a call from a contractor close to Provenzano, to the interior ministry. But there were not enough police to listen to them.
In the last year, seven ‘moles’ have been discovered within the judicial system, and at least five occasions in the last ten years, on which information which would have led to his capture was leaked at the last minute. Totò Cuffaro, president of the region, now under investigation for mafia association, allegedly let Mafiosi know they were being investigated.
Police on their way to intercept Provenzano at a meeting in Mezzojuso in 1995, were stopped on orders ‘from Rome’. Colonel Michele Riccio was on the team that knew they had good information about the meeting; he made a complaint against his boss, general Mario Mori, accusing him of letting Provenzano go. Mori is currently under investigation.
Provenzano was holding meetings in a driving school, which had been bugged by police. Overnight, mafiosi removed the bugs and word went out not to use the place for meetings again. In 2003, a trail of information was discovered that ran from maresciallo Giorgio Riolo, the police bugging expert, via a marshal working for the mafia investigation dept, to the health magnate Michele Aiello, and from Aiello to Provenzano. Riolo has since confessed his role. There are, according to police sources, more moles in the justice system yet to be exposed.
Investigators close in
On one occasion, in 1996, police in Traversa di Casteldaccia stopped two old fellows in a battered Fiat 850, with a bale of straw in the boot. They asked for their documents, and waved the old men on. One of them was Provenzano. This incident shows the level of police commitment to catching the boss of bosses.
By 1999 a number of Provenzano’s men had been caught, and police knew the identities of his closest allies. In a final push to capture the boss, special ops police contingent named Duomo was formed, consisting of police from the Palermo squadra mobile, and servizio centrale operativo (sco). There was now political capital to be gained from catching the mafia boss, and the budget was massively increased.
Provenzano’s health wasn’t good. He developed prostate problems, and his men had to arrange for him to be operated on. Police, intercepting conversations between two of Provenzano’s men, dashed to Verona, believing he was due to have prostate treatment there, but they found nothing. Instead, he was whisked out of the country, on false documents, to Marseilles, where he was treated under an assumed name. In 2005, one pentito told police about the Marseilles trip, and they raided the hospital, confiscating his medical records. They learned that besides trouble with his prostate, the mafia boss had Hepatitis B and C, and rheumatic pains. The forms said: Doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink, doesn’t use sleeping pills. Has a dental plate. Police took DNA from a slice of his prostate and compared it with his brother’s (who was in hospital in Corleone). At last they had some kind of accurate identikit.
By January 2006, magistrates Michele Prestipino, highly experienced in organised crime, and Marzia Sabella, formerly an expert in paedophile rings, were leading the investigation. ‘We had to catch him,’ Sabella told me. ‘We had no option.’
The arrest
After several weeks of following the packages of laundry and food from Saveria Palazzolo’s house in Corleone, police finally spotted unusual activity at a farm outbuilding, usually used for making ricotta cheese. A man was seen putting up a TV ariel. They rigged up close-circuit TV cameras. One of these eventually caught, for a brief moment, an arm reaching out to take a package. Investigators had their man.
The flying squad closed in, and burst in on the fugitive boss in the early morning. He tried to run, saying, ‘You’re making a big mistake.’ He was taken to Palermo police station, where an angry crowd was shouting abuse at him. Reporters admitted to a strange sense of disappointment at the boss’s extremely normal appearance.
Hot on the trail of the police was one of the investigators, anxious to avoid a situation like the arrest of Riina: the villa where he’d been caught was sealed off by carabinieri for two weeks – after which detectives found the place had been cleared out. When they searched Provenzano’s final hiding place, police found dental plates, a freezer full of meat, and quantities of prescription medicines, nail files, combs, mouthwash, as well as quantities of underwear, packed up, as though ready for another move. Two loaded guns and bullets were found hidden under stones outside. There was an electric typewriter, and the one he used for his pizzini, his trusted, obsolete Olivetti. There were a number of bibles, one in particular, ancient and full of little scribbled notes - which investigators believe is the code for his numerical system of naming his people. This, and a number of pizzini, were taken away for immediate analysis by the magistrates, who spent the whole of that night working through the messages.
After the arrest, people immediately began asking: how has it taken so long? In a country that loves a good conspiracy theory, the fact that it happened on the night of an election was considered suspicious by all sides.
After brief and unfruitful questioning by magistrates, weary and fazed at finding themselves face to face with the man they had been hunting for so long, Provenzano was transferred by helicopter to the high security facility at Terni. His only request was for a bible.
On his first appearance in court, his lawyer said he would avail himself of the right to silence, and then the defendant shook magistrates’ hands. On a subsequent court appearance, he said, in response to a question, that he was being well looked after by the prison medical director.
The first person arrested after Provenzano was caught, was his nephew, Carmelo Gariffo. Shortly after that, three men were detained who were considered to be running the organisaiton after the boss’s arrest: Nino Rotolo, boss of Pagliarelli, Antonino Cinà, Provenzano’s former doctor, and the builder Franco Bonura. 52 others were picked up in the same sweep. Clearly magistrates were wasting no time. At the end of July, the first major political arrest was made, with the detention of Provenzano’s Forza Italia ally, Giovanni Mercadante. More will almost certainly follow.
Provenzano’s first appearance in court after his arrest was in the ‘Trash’ trial, for fixed contracts. He spoke via videolink, from the prison at Terni, to name his legal representative. Reporters said his voice sounded hoarse and tired. His image appeared on the screen in the courtroom, but he does not want his image to be photographed or filmed: ‘it’s a question of privacy’ his lawyer said.
Another major trial in which Provenzano has made an appearance is the fruit of a major investigation code named ‘Grande Oriente’, in which 20 of Provenzano’s men are defendants. It covers ten years of mafia murders, from 1981-91, from the murder of mafia boss Stefano Bontate, to the businessman who refused to pay protection money, Libero Grassi, whose wife and son are attending every day of the trial.
The current leaders of Cosa Nostra are allegedly Matteo Messina Denaro, and Salvatore Lo Piccolo, both close to Provenzano, and both fugitives for over a decade. But things are not looking good for the two bosses in hiding. Filippo Guttadauro, Messina Denaro’s spokesman and go-between for Denaro and Provenzano, was arrested in July.
Provenzano’s legacy
The effect of Provenzano’s leadership on Cosa Nostra will be felt for some time: he brought the organisation back from the brink of annihilation, reinstituted discipline, and reformed the Commission. He made sure that, as each boss is arrested, there are others to take his place. Because imprisoned Mafiosi have been well treated during their detention, experienced men will, on their release, take up their positions in the organisation again.
As the recent political arrests show, the mafia is deeply embedded in the Italian institutions, and in the public consciousness. After Provenzano’s arrest, the president of the region, Totò Cuffaro, who is under investigation for mafia association, was re-elected, defeating the anti-mafia candidate, Rita Borsellino. It was Cuffaro who responded to a recent TV documentary about Cosa Nostra by making a public proclamation denying the mafia’s existence. It seems we are back in the realms of mythology.

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