Obituary: Bernardo Provenzano
'Boss of bosses' of the Sicilian Mafia who communicated by means of coded messages hidden in the pages of Bibles
Published 17/07/2016 | 02:30
Bernardo Provenzano, who died in custody last Wednesday aged 83, was the leader of the Corleonesi, who became the most powerful and violent Mafia family in history.
He had been on the run since May 1963 after a string of murders, mainly of other Mafiosi - initially, at least - and was caught only in April 2006.
Incredibly, police arrested him just a few miles from his home town of Corleone in a shepherd's refuge where he had been living like a hermit. It was from this simple hut that he, as the Sicilian Mafia's Capo di tutti i capi (boss of bosses), ran a multi-billion euro criminal empire.
He did so by means of pizzini - type-written coded messages - hidden in the pages of the Bible and carried by trusted couriers to faithful henchmen.
His nicknames were Binnu u Tratturi ("Bernardo the Tractor") because of his habit of mowing down his opponents with submachine-guns, or else Il Ragioniere ("the Bookkeeper") because of his skill with money.
Paradoxically perhaps, he was a devout Catholic and his coded messages included benedictions such as: "May the Lord bless and protect you."
Bernardo Provenzano was born on January 31, 1933, the third of seven siblings, at Corleone, a small and picturesque agricultural town in the rugged Sicilian interior, 37 miles from Palermo on the road south to Agrigento. The town achieved mythical status outside Italy after Mario Puzo used it as the name of the Mafia family in his 1969 novel The Godfather, soon afterwards turned into a series of films by Francis Ford Coppola.
Provenzano, whose parents were farm labourers, left school at the age of 10 to work in the fields at the time of the Allied invasion of Sicily in the summer of 1943. At some point after his 18th birthday, like so many Sicilians he was admitted to the "Honoured Society" at a secret initiation.
The capo of the Corleonese clan at the time was Michele Navarra, a consultant physician and former army captain nicknamed U Patri Nostrum ("Our Father"). In the late 1950s Navarra decided to kill a young member of his Mafia clan, Luciano Leggio, because he aspired to take over the clan.
His men shot at Leggio in a field but missed and so Leggio - who despite being more or less illiterate had intellectual pretensions and nicknamed himself U Prufessuri ("The Professor") - decided to kill him. On August 2, 1958, Navarra's car was ambushed in broad daylight on a road outside Corleone by 14 of Leggio's men armed with submachine-guns who opened fire, killing him and his passenger.
The assassins included 27-year-old Salvatore "Toto" Ri'ina, nicknamed La Belva ("The Beast") or U Curtu ("Shorty"), who would later become capo, first of the Corleonesi Mafia in 1974 when Leggio was jailed for life, and later of the entire Sicilian Mafia known as Cosa Nostra. They also included the 25-year-old Provenzano, who would become Ri'ina's second in command and succeed him as Capo di tutti i capi after his arrest in 1993.
The murder of the relatively refined middle-class Mafia boss, Dr Navarra, caused a five-year long civil war within the Corleone Mafia which was won by "Professor" Leggio's virtually illiterate but more violent faction. They would eventually take control of the rest of Cosa Nostra in Sicily using similar cold-blooded violence but on a grander scale.
Provenzano had gone into hiding in 1963 because he was sought in connection with numerous murders. He was not again seen in public until his arrest 43 years later. The last known photograph of him before his arrest was taken in 1959. Leggio used to say of him: "He shoots like a god, but he has the brains of a chicken." Yet it is inconceivable that he could have evaded capture for so long and risen to the top of Cosa Nostra without at least some brains plus the complicity of the people of Corleone - and many others.
When, after Leggio's imprisonment in 1974, Ri'ina became the boss of the Corleonesi clan, he chose Provenzano as his right-hand man. Hugely ambitious and violent, the pint-sized Ri'ina now set his sights on taking over the Mafia throughout Sicily - switching to the heroin trade, which was far more lucrative and less time-consuming than traditional Mafia activities such as extortion and protection rackets. Sicily's old Mafia families opposed this, as they did the extreme use of violence - their preferred tactic being the age-old one of buying politicians by guaranteeing them votes and "rake-offs". They dismissed the Corleonesi as i viddani (the peasants).
In the so-called Second Mafia War of 1981-83 which resulted, the Corleonesi triumphed and became the dominant faction. The violence left up to 1,000 people dead, which outraged Italian public opinion and prompted the first Mafia supergrass to emerge from the wood-work - Tommaso Buscetta, a senior member of a rival clan. The first senior figure to break the vow of omerta (silence), he revealed that the Sicilian Mafia did not consist of numerous independent families, as legend had it, but was a unified organisation with a board of directors - la cupola - and branch offices (the families).
His testimony led to the first Mafia "Maxi Trial" in 1986-87 inside a specially built bunker court house in Palermo - able to withstand rocket attacks - which saw nearly 360 Mafiosi convicted, including many in absentia such as Ri'ina and Provenzano, who were living right under the noses of the police.
While Ri'ina headed the operational side, Provenzano looked after the financial side and lived for much of the 1980s and 1990s in Bagheria, a suburb of Palermo, in a spectacular 18th-century villa, furnished and decorated with impeccable taste. He never used the telephone or had a bank account and was chauffeured to meetings in an ambulance. The police apparently did not know where he lived.
Ri'ina's rule as the Godfather of Sicily's Cosa Nostra culminated during the early 1990s in the worst atrocities ever committed by the Mafia against the Italian State. High profile victims included the Euro MP and former Mayor of Palermo, Salvatore Lima, in March 1992, and Italy's most prominent anti-Mafia prosecuting judges, Giovanni Falcone, in May, and Paolo Borsellino in July.
These deaths caused still more public outrage and in January 1993 Ri'ina - who had been on the run for more than 20 years - was at last arrested in the house in Palermo he had lived in during all that time.
Following Ri'ina's arrest, there were several Mafia bomb attacks in mainland Italy, in particular a car bomb in May 1993 outside the Uffizi Gallery in Florence which killed five people including a baby girl.
But the Mafia bombing campaign then abruptly ceased thanks - it is now believed - to the influence of Provenzano, who felt such violence counter-productive. Indeed, according to one Mafia supergrass, Provenzano was so angry at Ri'ina's violence that it was he, via intermediaries, who had given police his address.
From then on, until his arrest in 2006, Provenzano was the Capo di tutti i capi. Back in the 1990s, however, it was not even known that he was still alive.
Police only found out for certain in January 2005 when, during the arrest of 40 or so suspected Mafiosi, they discovered his type-written coded notes and, after a similar operation shortly afterwards, they were told by a new supergrass that he moved from house to house in the countryside around Corleone. They identified the shepherd's refuge near his home town where he was arrested thanks to a simple trick: they decided to track a delivery of clean laundry from the home of his common-law wife in Corleone to see where it was taken.
Provenzano was arrested on April 11, 2006, the day on which Romano Prodi defeated Silvio Berlusconi in the Italian general elections. He had already been convicted in absentia of many murders, including those of the judges Falcone and Borsellino, and sentenced to multiple life sentences, so there was no trial.
Such was Provenzano's religious fervour that according to another Mafia supergrass, he appeared at one meeting of Cosa Nostra bosses in 1992 dressed as a cardinal. When arrested, all that he took with him from the shepherd's refuge were his medicine and his rosary.
Provenzano never married but had two sons with his partner Saveria Benedetta Palazzolo, a seamstress from Corleone. The elder one is a former vacuum cleaner salesman who later worked for a travel company talking about his father's life to tourists, and the younger teaches Italian at a school in Germany.