Feature Articles

June 2006
The Case Of Bernardo Provenzano

By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus

Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

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     On the lam since 1963, the reputed il capo dei capi, Top Boss, of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, Bernardo Provenzano, is now in custody. He was pronounced Italy�s most wanted man; with passing decades his legend took on notable proportions. The police had been monitoring his wife when at dawn on 11 April 2006 they spotted a bundle of clean laundry being forwarded from her dwelling to a farmhouse of a ricottaro, a ricotta cheese maker, two kilometers outside of Corleone, a town of 11,000, thirty-five kilometers south of Palermo.

     Seeing a hand come out from the door to accept the package, the police rushed in. Provenzano, who was known affectionately within the extended family circle as zu Binnu (Uncle Bino), accepted the handcuffing without apparent fuss. The Number One capomafia had been sentenced in absentia to life in prison for numerous crimes committed. These include the spectacular killings in 1992 of Italy�s top anti-mafia magistrates, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino.

     "The mafia has lost its most prestigious leader. It has undergone an undeniable decapitation," the Italian Interior Minister said. The Italian Attorney General was far more sanguine: "Cosa Nostra remains dangerous, because the arrest of the Padrino di Corleone does not signal in the least the end of the struggle against the mafia. For this, it is important that the political system gives us every means to continue our work." (The last sentence an obvious reference to the anti-mafia�s insufficient budget.)

     Provenzano�s last stand put an end to the concern of an individual on the loose who was diabolical and omnipotent, the ideal type of mafioso, who rose through the ranks by sheer force of will to become a super-criminal leader. He cast a menacing shadow, that of someone that everyone was looking for but could not find, moving freely about, outwitting the authorities at every turn, unrecognizable, notwithstanding the many reports of his appearances at this or that location, while carrying on his nefarious activities.

     Don Bernardo was in the minds of many the incarnation of the so-called "other mafia," a budding movement within the ranks that sought a more practical path to the mafia�s adaptation to changing circumstances, promoting a pax mafiosa, an end to the destructive internecine struggles for power. These struggles had seriously created havoc in the criminal structure and had produced a growing number of disenchanted mafiosi, who decided to turn state�s evidence against a once vaunted organization that had become nothing more than a killing machine.

     Provenzano was viewed as the supreme strategist and the champion of mafioso moderation. Having been in league with the psychopath Luciano Liggio, and later, in the 1980s, a partner of the reckless and bloodthirsty Totò Riina, he came to the realization by the early 1990s that direct confrontation with the authorities would ultimately result in a crippled Cosa Nostra, if not its demise. To guarantee continuity, the mafia had to examine itself and develop a stealth profile as in the old days.

     During his time as a fugitive, Provenzano was sought in vain, or only partially, or not at all. There was the usual foul odor of corruption that permeated the seeming inability of the authorities to track him down as there had been with Totò Riina, who in Palermo had left his footprints everywhere, during his twenty odd years underground. As one journalist put it, "Many are complicit in his remaining a fugitive for so long. More light needs to be shed on the truth of the matter. We know that Provenzano leisurely moved about Palermo, frequenting the saloons of power, and no one sought to arrest him. They sought only to seek his favors."

     Who had secured his safety as a fugitive? Apparently the list is lengthy and included many who found Cosa Nostra useful enough to be protective of its interests, including the usual suspects: professionals, businessmen, politicians�men of substance. Pietro Grasso, Italy�s top anti-mafia prosecutor, assured the Press that "an entire world of prominent persons aided Provenzano during his years in hiding."

     This is not just idle talk or the product of pure politics. Over the years such individuals have been brought to justice and found guilty of mafia association, and many more suspected of "dirty hands," sufficient evidence of the possibility of the existence of a fully formed borghesia mafiosa, also called the mafia bianca, or middle-class mafia. If the mafia were only a thousand or so dedicated professional criminals--that would be something to fear. But add to the mix a borghesia mafia, which attaches itself in a variety of ways to the criminal class in order to substitute for the State in the systematic accumulation of power and privilege, with the result of legitimizing the "legalization of illegality." Given this scenario, the State no longer holds the monopoly of power.

     During his ascension to prominence, Provenzano wore several hats as a mobster, all of which earned him a number of sobriquets. He was known in his younger years as u trattori ("the killing machine," for the way he mowed down his victims, as he cheated death three times). Of peasant origins and barely literate, he became Il Padrino, the ultimate boss, Il Ragioniere ("the accountant"), for his calculating mind, and finally Il Professore, for sharpness of intellect and commanding presence. A man for all seasons, in sum. One pentito (the Italian word for informant) was not alone in his belief that, "Don Bernardo is the true brains of Sicilian politics."

     Il Professore was born in Corleone on 31 January 1933. As a follower of Luciano Liggio, u trattori violently removed from contention the enemies of the Liggio clan. With Totò Riina, he was the protagonist of the bloody feud against the Navarra clan (also of Corleone) that resulted in 52 homicides, 22 attempted killings and an unknown number of suspicious disappearances. It was said of zu Binnu that "where he walks no grass grows."

     On 9 May 1963, when another of his intended victims, Francesco Streva, succeeded in ducking the bullet, u trattori decided to get off the streets after Streva�s pals issued a vendetta. When in early September Streva finally met his fate, along with two others, the carabinieri signed a warrant for Provenzano�s arrest for murder. On that day, 18 September 1963, the Padrino-to-be officially became a hunted man.

     Rumors that Provenzano spent time abroad have not been substantiated. The provincial zu Binnu held no transnational syndicate ambitions. He remained close to home, moving freely about in the vicinity of Palermo accepting hospitality and refuge from co-conspirators. He met regularly with capomafias of various towns as he engaged in his diplomacy and separating friend from foe. Those who allied with him were taken by his visions of a modern mafia. Even though his dictatorial approach to unification and penchant for violence may have alarmed some, his abilities for leadership and as a conciliator were in contrast to the divisive measures of other bosses.

     The pentito Giovanni Brusca, as a boy of 14, remembered his father giving him bags of provisions to be delivered to a house where Provenzano was residing. Another pentito stated that he had been present at a killing when u trattori and his men were finishing off a few recalcitrant older generation mafiosi in order to clear the way for the new mafia order.

     While hiding out, Bernardo married Saverina and had their first child, Angelo, in 1975. There were many reports of sightings as Il Professore traveled on business. But none resulted in a close encounter with his pursuers, although it was known that he was being driven around in certain makes of cars, including a white Mercedes, according to pentito statements. In telephone calls among known mobsters intercepted by the authorities, reference would be made to a certain Il Ragioniere, but the connection was not made to Provenzano.

     One confidant of the police, the capomafia of Caltanissetta, Luigi Ilardo, said: "I know that at Bagheria [where Provenzano conducted his affairs] he had a large property, with a sprawling villa, beautiful, in the traditional style, where he lived peacefully with his wife and two children. He never learned how to drive. An ambulance was used to transport him."

     On 5 April 1992, Il Padrino had his family come out of hiding. This tactic bamboozled magistrates and journalists alike, who then rushed to conclude (with the sly connivance of his lawyer) that Italy�s most wanted fugitive was dead. (At his capture, there were those who professed that the man at the farmhouse was not Provenzano, but DNA testing suggests otherwise.) Police inquiries went on to focus on other criminal matters while the great conciliator continued his grand reform of Cosa Nostra as well as mediating clan squabbles that forever seem inevitable among mafiosi.

     The carabinieri took an existing photo of the young Provenzano, and using a computerized aging technique were able to come to a remarkable likeness to the frail, avuncular old man who opened the farmhouse door on that fateful morning.

     Now that the master criminal is securely behind bars, the Press and politicians have engaged in the usual back and forth of accusation and denial over the effectiveness and integrity of the investigative system.

     In the final analysis, given the Sicilian history of corruption, cover-up and "middle-class" collusion with Cosa Nostra, in an inscrutable land where things are never what they seem at first glance, the answer may be found in a statement by two journalists, who are mafia experts. They opine that the anti-mafia investigations didn�t have sufficient personnel or means to follow-up with due diligence on every purported lead. And the intelligence gathered from the pentiti, if reliable and not attempts to dissemble and lead authorities astray, were of past events, not real-time actionable intelligence.

     "The mafia is not a cancer that proliferates by chance in the social fabric. It exists in perfect symbiosis with the myriad protectors, accessories, informers, and debtors of every type; large and small master singers, persons intimidated or extorted that belong to every stratum of society. This is the cultural terrain of Cosa Nostra." (Judge Giovanni Falcone)


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