Corleone: In the footsteps of the Godfather

Deep in the heart of Sicily lies the town whose name is synonymous with the Mafia. Peter Popham searches for secrets in its shadowy streets
Click to follow

People in Sicily who know about these things talk darkly of "la puzza di Mafia" (the stench of the Mafia). Here in Corleone the puzza of the Mafia should be wafting in on the spring breeze, in this town which nurtured the families that achieved supremacy over all other Mafiosi in Sicily by the simple expedient of drilling them with holes, blowing them up, strangling them, and dissolving them in acid. But if it is here, I lack the nasal equipment to detect it.

It's just another ugly Sicilian town. It is disfigured by modern buildings that may or may not be "abusivi" (built without legal permission) but that's true of practically every other town in southern and central Italy.

When an English traveller came through the town in the 1890s he found it inhabited by "pale, anaemic women, hollow-eyed men, ragged, weird children, croaking in hoarse accents like weary old people". When Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino, loped through the town in The Godfather, he noted the plethora of death notices pasted to the walls; the multitude of black-clad women; the absence of men. "They are all dead," his bodyguard informed him, "from vendetta". Today the women no longer wear black, unless they are very old, there are plenty of men, and the children are neither weird nor ragged. I am reminded of my Palermo taxi driver, who told me: "There are no Mafia left in Sicily. Talking about the Mafia helps sell magazines, it pleases you journalists to come to Palermo and say there are Mafiosi everywhere and spoil our image. Today there are only delinquents.Don't call them Mafiosi and give them dignity."

But the taxi driver is wrong. Corleone may be just an ugly little town, but less than two kilometres outside the town there is a corner of a Sicilian field that will be forever Mafia.

It is a farmhouse in a field on the side of a hill. It is like thousands of other farmhouses dotted around the island. It is the farmhouse where, last Tuesday, a shepherd called Giovanni Marino left a parcel on the veranda, and then a hand darted out and brought the parcel inside. The police had had the abandoned farmhouse under 24-hour surveillance for two weeks, and in all that time this was the first indication that it was in fact inhabited, and inhabited by the man the police have been tracking for 10 years.

They only had that darting hand and that parcel to go on. But the parcel had been tracked on its progress from the house of one Saveria Benedetta Palazzolo, the owner of a laundry in Corleone. The parcel had covered two kilometres in three days. Saveria Palazzolo is the wife of the Mafia boss Bernardo Provenzano, on the run for 43 years. The parcel contained freshly laundered clothes. There had been no movements in or out of the farmhouse during the weeks of surveillance. Then the hand reached out for the parcel, and the police swooped.

More than 50 special policesurrounded the farmhouse. The shepherd, about to climb back into his battered Fiat Panda, was detained. Inside the farmhouse was Bernardo Provenzano. He made no attempt to flee or resist. "You have no idea what damage you have done," he said calmly. They were his first public words in more than 40 years.

"He shoots like an angel but he has the brains of a chicken." This was the view of Provenzano held by his first boss Luciano Liggio. But Liggio could not have been more wrong. Like most Mafiosi, Provenzano had little education. He was also prone to smiling a lot, like his former boss Toto Riina, now doing life in prison. "I've never seen him angry," one supergrass later said of Riina, and it applied equally to Provenzano. Perhaps it was the grin on his lips that made Liggio dismiss him as an imbecile.

When Provenzano was coming up in the clan, Corleone was merely one nasty little Mafia-ridden town among many others. It was the bloody handiwork of Riina, ably abetted by Provenzano, that put the Corleonesi on top of the heap by wiping out all the competition from other towns. These were the Mafia wars of the 1980s and Provenzano's sharp-shooting continued to be a vital asset. In the early Nineties a new clan war broke out between the Corleonesi and a federation of gangs that had sprung up in the south and east of the island. Provenzano was put in charge of wiping them out, and is held responsible for some 300 deaths in Agrigento. He has already been sentenced to life for his crimes in absentia.

But despite his brutal past, Provenzano proved to be both more astute and less psychopathically violent than other Corleone bosses like Riina. For years he was content to remain in Riina's shadow: the boss managed the drugs trade, and prosecuted the war on the Italian state. Provenzano, now known as "zu Binnu" (Uncle Bernie), took charge of the public works contracts, the network of protection money extorted from every enterprise on the island.

Provenzano is said to have been involved in Riina's idea of stopping the Italian state dead in its tracks by killing the investigating magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in 1992. He is also credited with planning a series of bombings on the Italian mainland. Exactly how deeply he was implicated we may never know for sure. The national anti-Mafia prosecutor, Piero Grasso believes it is unlikely that he will turn informer.

But when Riina's bloody challenge to Italy backfired, Uncle Bernie was around to pick up the pieces. Out of reach of the authorities since 1963, Provenzano took over as capo di capi following Riina's arrest in 1993, and enforced a change of direction. No more bloodshed, he insisted. Only this way would the Mafia survive. Communicating with his network of subordinates by means of thousands of typed notes, he enforced the new Pax Mafiosa, deal by deal.

If it worked, it is due to the absolute control over the island's gangsters previously established by Riina, but also for another reason. Under Provenzano, the Mafia continued to do what it had always done: act as an alternative justice system. The appeals for help flooded into Provenzano's hideout, and with his courteous, painstaking replies, his customers were kept happy. Along with the practical help came the moral homilies. "Be calm, I pray you, and upright, correct and coherent," he wrote to a subordinate. "Know how to use your experience of suffering, neither discredit everything people say to you, nor believe everything..." At the root of Provenzano's power, writes Salvo Palazzolo in his book Voglia di Mafia (Desire for the Mafia), was the fact that "he possessed a mountain of secrets: this was his unique force. He does not have an army, as Riina had. He has his secrets, and using these he blackmails, projects, imposes deals."

Despite the secrets, the police have been closing in on Provenzano for several years now. Samples of his DNA were obtained after it was learned that he and his wife had travelled to Marseilles in 2003 so Provenzano could have an operation for prostate cancer. When his lawyer told La Repubblica last month that he believed Provenzano had been "dead for years", this is now seen as Mafia code that it was only a matter of time before Provenzano ended in jail.

In the hovel where this man passed his last months were found five well-thumbed Bibles and a picture of St Padre Pio. The policeman who forced open the door of the farmhouse told La Repubblica: "I had the sensation that I had always known him. There was a mocking smile on his face that said clearly, 'it's all over'. It was a serene expression."

The people of Sicily are now waiting to see what happens next. "The problem for us," says Piero Grasso, "is post-Provenzano. With his capture, a myth of Mafia invincibility has fallen, but the vacuum will be filled. I will do everything in my power to stop a war of succession breaking out."