Bernardo Provenzano ( 31 January 1933 – 13 July 2016) was a member of the Sicilian Mafia (Cosa Nostra) and was suspected of having been the head of the Corleonesi, a Mafia faction that originated in the town of Corleone, and de facto capo di tutti capi (boss of all bosses) of the entire Sicilian Mafia until his arrest in 2006.
His nickname was Binnu u tratturi (Sicilian for "Binnie the tractor") because, in the words of one informant, "he mows people down." Another nickname was The Accountant due to his apparently subtle and low-key approach to running his crime empire, at least in contrast to some of his more violent predecessors.
He was born and raised in Corleone, the third of seven brothers, born to peasants. Provenzano left school at ten without finishing primary education, and worked in the fields. He joined the Mafia in his late teens. At the time, Michele Navarra was the head of the Mafia Family of Corleone, but Provenzano became close to Luciano Leggio, a young and ambitious mobster. Navarra and Leggio went to war against each other in the mid-1950s.
In August 1958, Provenzano was one of the 14 gunmen who backed Leggio in the ambush and murder of Michele Navarra. Leggio subsequently became the head of the Family. Over the next five years, Provenzano helped Leggio hunt down and kill many of Navarra's surviving supporters. 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. Leggio said of Provenzano: "He shoots like a god, shame he has the brains of a chicken..." On 10 September 1963, an arrest warrant was issued against Provenzano for the murder of one of Navarra's men. Provenzano now also had to run from the police along with most of the rest of the Corleonesi. Leggio went to prison for murder in 1974, effectively leaving Totò Riina in charge. Provenzano became the second in command of the Corleonesi, Riina's right-hand man.
Provenzano participated in the Viale Lazio massacre on 10 December 1969: the killing of Michele Cavataio for his role in the First Mafia War. The attack nearly went wrong, but Cavataio was able to shoot and kill Calogero Bagarella (an elder brother of Leoluca Bagarella the brother-in-law of Totò Riina). According to legend, Provenzano saved the situation with his Beretta 38/A submachine gun and earned himself a reputation as a Mafia killer with the attack. However, according to Gaetano Grado, one of the participants who turned government witness later, it was Provenzano who messed up the attack, shooting too early.
During Riina's time as godfather, Provenzano was believed to operate behind the scenes, dealing with the financial side of the criminal enterprises that he and Riina orchestrated, particularly heroin trafficking. It is not known to what extent he participated in the Second Mafia War of 1981/82, initiated by Riina, which left over a thousand Mafiosi dead and resulted in the Corleonesi becoming the dominant Mafia faction in Sicily.
Throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s, Provenzano created a private fiefdom in Bagheria, near Palermo. In his stronghold, mafiosi met and handed out construction contracts, buying silence and loyalty. One long-time collaborator of Provenzano's described the boss' 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."
Elevation to Godfather
Salvatore Riina was arrested in January 1993 and subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment for ordering dozens of murders, including the two high-profile bombings (the Capaci massacre and Via D'Amelio massacre) that killed prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. Falcone and Borsellino had been in charge of the Maxi Trial in the mid-1980s. Provenzano was also convicted of the same murders, in absentia.
It was not immediately clear that Provenzano had succeeded Riina. He had not been publicly seen since 1963, and when his wife and two grown sons came out from hiding in 1992, many then suspected that Provenzano was dead, from natural causes or otherwise. Informants subsequently claimed otherwise, saying that after Riina's arrest in 1993, Provenzano became the boss of the Corleonesi. It is said that two other mobsters, Leoluca Bagarella and Giovanni Brusca, challenged his leadership, but, even if they succeeded, they were both captured and imprisoned in 1995 and 1996 respectively.
Under Provenzano leadership, the Mafia became less bloodthirsty and more efficient. Provenzano is reported to have tried to arbitrate between rival Mafia factions competing for business, and steered away from the attacks on high-profile figures that were hardening public opinion against the Mafia and provoking police to respond. He was a careful operator, who took few overt risks, revealing his whereabouts to only a handful of associates. He shunned the telephone and issued orders and communications (even to his family) through small, hand-delivered notes called "pizzini".
Curiously, many of the notes from Provenzano that police have intercepted sign off with religious blessings, such as one that concluded "May the Lord bless and protect you." Coincidentally, according to mob godmother-turned-informant Giuseppina Vitale, Provenzano then appeared at a 1992 Cosa Nostra summit meeting dressed in the purple robes of a Catholic bishop. Religious behaviour and language progressively became the prominent features of Provenzano's figure. For example, Provenzano systematically underlined verses from the Bible and took notes of relevant passages to be threaded in his pizzini through otherwise routine instructions regarding daily business matters. He also recurrently thanked 'Our Lord Jesus Christ', and referred to 'The Divine Providence' and 'Our beloved Lord', expressing the hope that 'He might help us to do the right things'. In particular, the expression Con il volere di Dio (With God's will), to date has been counted 43 times, and it often appears more than once in the same piece of communication.Religion would therefore play a pivotal role in the way Provenzano established his leadership, succeeded in mediating between different mafia 'families' by creating a less centralised, more reticular structure, and eventually prevented the decline of the organisation.
Evasion and capture
Provenzano was a fugitive from the law from the time of his indictment for murder in 1963 until his arrest in 2006. He was on the run for an unparalleled 43 years. Until his arrest, the only known photographs of him were taken during the 1950s; the last-known photo was taken in 1959: a serious youth with Brilliantined hair wearing a suit for a saint's festival.
There is proof that in 2002 he traveled to France, despite being a fugitive, and underwent a surgical operation in Marseille for a prostate tumour, even being reimbursed by the Italian National Health Care system. DNA evidence subsequently confirmed his presence at the surgery in question.
On 25 January 2005, police raided various homes in Sicily and arrested 46 Mafia suspects believed to be helping Provenzano elude the authorities. Although they did not catch the elusive Mafia boss himself, investigators nonetheless unearthed evidence that 72-year-old Provenzano was still very much alive and in control of the Mafia, in the form of his cryptic handwritten notes, his preferred method of giving orders to his men. Two months later another raid, which netted over 80 Mafiosi took place, although yet again Provenzano was not among those captured. However, Mafia informers said Provenzano moved between farmhouses in the region every two or three nights to evade capture. Tracing him was difficult because the authorities did not have an up-to-date photograph with which to identify him. The nearest likeness in their possession was a computer-generated image that attempted to predict the effects of aging on a photograph of Provenzano as a younger man.
Provenzano was finally captured on 11 April 2006 by the Italian police near his home town, Corleone. A spokesman for the Palermo police, Agent Daniele Macaluso, said Provenzano had been arrested during the morning near Corleone, 60 km south of Palermo and was being driven back to the Sicilian capital. The police were able to pinpoint Provezano's exact location by the simplest of connections; they tracked a delivery of clean laundry from his family to the farmhouse he was hiding out in. His arrest briefly pushed the climax of Italy's general election from the main headlines on Italian news stations.
After initially denying it, Provenzano admitted his identity, but reportedly said little else after his arrest. A trial was not necessary as he had already been convicted in absentia of many murders, including those of Falcone and Borsellino, and had many life sentences to serve.
On 2 May 2006, he appeared via a video-link from his prison in a trial concerning Mafia murders committed in Italy in the 1980s. He was being held in isolation at a high security prison in Terni, central Italy. Provenzano was shown on screen in the court alongside the man accused of being his predecessor as Mafia boss, Toto 'u curtu' (Shorty) Riina. As part of the tough prison regime reserved for Mafia convicts, he was under constant video surveillance and only allowed contact with his lawyer.
Provenzano's new Mafia
Provenzano proposed a new, less violent Mafia strategy instead of the terrorist bombing campaign in 1993 against the state to get them to back off in their crackdown against the Mafia after the murders of prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. Following the months after Riina's arrest, there were a series of bombings by the Corleonesi against several tourist spots on the Italian mainland: the Via dei Georgofili in Florence, Via Palestro in Milan and the Piazza San Giovanni in Lateranoand Via San Teodoro in Rome, which left 10 people dead and 93 injured, as well as severe damage to centres of cultural heritage such as the Uffizi Gallery.
Provenzano's new guidelines were patience, compartmentalisation, coexistence with state institutions, and systematic infiltration of public finance. The diplomatic Provenzano tried to stem the flow of pentiti by not targeting their families, only using violence in case of absolute necessity. Provenzano reportedly re-established the old Mafia rules that had been abolished by Totò Riina under his very eyes when, together with Riina and Leoluca Bagarella, he was ruling the Corleonesi faction.
Giovanni Brusca, one of Riina's hitmen who personally detonated the bomb that killed Falcone, and later became an informant after his 1996 arrest, has offered a controversial version of the capture of Totò Riina: a secret deal between Carabinieri officers, secret agents and Cosa Nostra bosses tired of the dictatorship of the Corleonesi. According to Brusca, Provenzano "sold" Riina in exchange for the valuable archive of compromising material that Riina held in his apartment in Via Bernini 52 in Palermo.
In November 2009, Massimo Ciancimino, the son of Vito Ciancimino, said that Provenzano betrayed the whereabouts of Riina. Police sent Vito Ciancimino maps of Palermo. One of the maps was delivered to Provenzano, then a Mafia fugitive. Ciancimino said the map was returned by Provenzano who indicated the precise location of Riina's hiding place.
Apparently, the Sicilian Mafia at present is divided between those bosses who support a hard line against the Italian state, mainly bosses currently in prison such as Salvatore 'Totò' Riina and Leoluca Bagarella, and those who support the more moderate strategy of Provenzano. The incarcerated bosses are currently subjected to harsh controls on their contact with the outside world, limiting their ability to run their operations from behind bars under the article 41-bis prison regime.
Antonino Giuffrè, a close confidant of Provenzano, turned pentito shortly after his capture in April 2002, alleges that in 1993, Cosa Nostra had direct contact with representatives of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi while he was planning the birth of Forza Italia. The deal that he says was alleged to have been made was a repeal of 41 bis, among other anti-Mafia laws in return for delivering electoral gains in Sicily. Giuffrè's declarations have not been confirmed.
During a court appearance in July 2002, Leoluca Bagarella suggested unnamed politicians had failed to maintain agreements with the Mafia over prison conditions. "We are tired of being exploited, humiliated, harassed and used as merchandise by political factions," he said. Nevertheless, the Italian Parliament, with the support of Forza Italia, subsequently prolonged the enforcement of 41 bis, which was to expire in 2002, for another four years and extended it to other crimes such as terrorism. However, according to one of Italy's leading magazines, L'espresso, 119 mafiosi, one-fifth of those incarcerated under the 41-bis regime, have been released.
Division within Cosa Nostra
In 2002 a rift within Cosa Nostra became clear. On the one hand there were the hardline "Corleonesi" in jail – led by Totò Riina and Leoluca Bagarella, and on the other the more moderate "Palermitani", led by Provenzano and Antonino Giuffrè, Salvatore Lo Piccoloand Matteo Messina Denaro. Apparently the arrest of Giuffrè in April 2002 was made possible by an anonymous phone call that seems to have been made by loyalists to the Mafia hardliners Riina and Bagarella. The purpose was to send a message to Provenzano. The incarcerated bosses wanted something to be done about the harsh prison conditions (in particular the relaxation of the 41-bis incarceration regime): and were believe to be orchestrating a return to violence while serving multiple life sentences.
Targets were to have been Marcello Dell'Utri and former Defence Minister Cesare Previti, both close advisers of then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, according to a leaked report of the intelligence service SISDE. Riina and Bagarella felt betrayed by political allies in Rome, who had promised to help pass laws to ease prison conditions and reduce sentences for its jailed members in exchange for Mafia support at the polls. The SISDE report says they believed that hits on either of the two embattled members of Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, each under separate criminal indictments, would have been less likely to provoke the kind of public outrage and police crackdown that followed the 1992 murders of the widely admired Sicilian prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino.
According to press reports, when Provenzano was moved to the high security prison in Terni, Totò Riina's son Giovanni Riina, who has been sentenced to life imprisonment for three murders, yelled that Provenzano was a "sbirro" – a popular Italian pejorative expression for a police officer – when Provenzano entered the cell block. Previously, Leoluca Bagarella had also suggested that Provenzano had been behind the arrest of Totò Riina. The pentito Antonino Giuffrè has said in October 2005 that there had been rumours within Cosa Nostra that Provenzano was an informer for the Carabinieri while he was on the run.
After the arrest of Bernardo Provenzano on 11 April 2006 – the same day as Romano Prodi's victory in the 2006 Italian general election against Silvio Berlusconi – several mafiosi were mentioned as Provenzano's successor. Among the rivals were Matteo Messina Denaro (from Castelvetrano in the province of Trapani), Salvatore Lo Piccolo (boss of Tommaso Natale area and the mandamento of San Lorenzo in Palermo), and Domenico Raccuglia from Altofonte. Provenzano allegedly nominated Messina Denaro in one of his pizzini – small slips of paper used to communicate with other mafiosi to avoid phone conversations, found at Provenzano's hide out.[
This presupposes that Provenzano has the power to nominate a successor, which is not unanimously accepted among Mafia observers. "The Mafia today is more of a federation and less of an authoritarian state," according to anti-Mafia prosecutor Antonio Ingroia of the Direzione distrettuale antimafia (DDA) of Palermo, referring to the previous period of authoritarian rule under Salvatore Riina. Provenzano "established a kind of directorate of about four to seven people who met very infrequently, only when necessary, when there were strategic decisions to make."[
According to Ingroia "in an organization like the Mafia, a boss has to be one step above the others otherwise it all falls apart. It all depends on if he can manage consensus and if the others agree or rebel." Provenzano "guaranteed a measure of stability because he had the authority to quash internal disputes." Among the members of the directorate were Salvatore Lo Piccolo; Antonino Giuffrè from Caccamo; Benedetto Spera from Belmonte Mezzagno; Salvatore Rinella from Trabia; Giuseppe Balsano from Monreale; Matteo Messina Denaro from Castelvetrano; Vincenzo Virga from Trapani; and Andrea Manciaracina from Mazara del Vallo.
After the arrests of Benedetto Spera, Vincenzo Virga (both in 2001) and Antonino Giuffrè in 2002 (who decided to cooperate with the authorities), the leadership of Cosa Nostra was in the hands of the fugitives Bernardo Provenzano, Salvatore Lo Piccolo and Matteo Messina Denaro. Following Provenzano's capture in April 2006, Italy's intelligence service report warned of "emerging tensions" between mafia groups as a result of Provenzano's failure to designate either Salvatore Lo Piccolo or Matteo Messina Denaro as his successor. The Antimafia Investigative Directorate (DIA) cautioned that the capture of Provenzano could potentially present mafia leaders an opportunity to return to violence as a means of expressing their power.
Two months after Provenzano's arrest, on 20 June 2006, authorities issued 52 arrest warrants against the top echelon of Cosa Nostra in the city of Palermo (Operation Gotha). Study of the pizzini showed that Provenzano's joint deputies in Palermo were Salvatore Lo Piccolo and Antonio Rotolo, capo-mandamento of Pagliarelli. In a message referring to an important decision for Cosa Nostra, Provenzano told Rotolo: "It's up to you, me and Lo Piccolo to decide this thing."
The investigations showed that Rotolo had built a kind of federation within the mafia, comprising 13 families grouped in four clans. His right-hand men were Antonio Cinà – who used to be the personal physician of Salvatore Riina and Provenzano – and the builder Francesco Bonura. The city of Palermo was ruled by this triumvirate replacing the Commission whose members are all in jail.
What emerged as well was that the position of Salvatore Lo Piccolo was not undisputed. Authorities said they avoided the outbreak of a war inside Cosa Nostra. The first clash would have been between Rotolo and Lo Piccolo. What sparked off the crisis was a request from the Inzerillo family, one of the clans whose leaders – among them Salvatore Inzerillo – were killed by the Corleonesi during the Second Mafia War in the 1980s and which are now in exile in the United States. Rotolo had passed a death sentence on Lo Piccolo and his son, Sandro, even before Provenzano's arrest – and even procured the barrels of acid that are used to dissolve the bodies of slain rivals.
On 13 July 2016, Provenzano died in Milan from complications from bladder cancer at a hospital in prison at age 83.