In Sicily, an era ends as Mafia's capo di capi is held after 40 years in hiding

Bernardo Provenzano, the capo di capi of the Sicilian Mafia who had been sought by the authorities for more than 40 years, was caught yesterday morning in a farmhouse outside Corleone, his home town in Sicily.

He was alone, wearing a T-shirt and jeans. Initial reports that he came quietly were later contradicted: the man once known as The Tractor for his efficiency with a machine-gun, who was said by his first boss to "shoot like an angel", first denied his true identity, then fought to stay free.

At 3pm he was brought by a huge convoy of cars to police headquarters in Palermo, the Sicilian capital, where a crowd in a state of high emotion cheered his captors and yelled "bastard!" as he was brought out of the car.

A video camera on an upper floor caught a fleeting image of the short, grey-haired, bespectacled gangster amid a throng of police masked in balaclavas. It was the first true image of the man known until now only by pictures from his youth and identikit constructions.

The amazing news that the fugitive who had evaded capture far longer than any other criminal in history was finally under arrest came at 11.28am, just a few minutes after it became clear that the crucial last seats in the Italian Senate had gone to Romano Prodi's centre-left coalition, and that Silvio Berlusconi's government was finished. Last year Piero Grasso, Italy's anti-Mafia prosecutor, caused a storm by saying that Provenzano had been protected from capture by politicians and policemen.

Provenzano, aged 73, had been the uncontested leader of the Sicilian Mafia since the arrest of his former boss, Salvatore Riina, in 1993, following the assassination in 1992 of Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, the investigating magistrates who had worked tirelessly to close the Mafia down.

The bloody car-bomb killings of the two men, their companions and bodyguards prompted a wave of revulsion against the Mafia which goaded the Italian state into belatedly taking decisive action. But Provenzano, who was also one of the brains behind the massacres, remained at large, protected - as Grasso claimed - by powerful men aware that he knew too much.

"After the killings of Falcone and Borsellino," said Salvo Palazzolo, a Mafia expert and Sicily correspondent of La Repubblica, "thanks to the confessions of supergrasses, the men directly involved were arrested. But Provenzano and his closest confidants - the men who work not with Kalashnikovs but with calculators - were not touched. The mystery of Provenzano is connected to massacres that have never been solved. His real power lies not in weapons but in secrets, and it is with these secrets that he blackmails those with power - politicians and bankers - and remains free. They don't want to arrest him because he knows a lot of very inconvenient things."

It was on 18 September 1963 that Provenzano, then aged 30, and described in a police file as "a person of vicious conduct, said to be responsible for many crimes", was first logged as missing. One of only two extant photographs of him dates from four years before that. But for his first 20 years as a fugitive, no serious attempt was made to track him down. It was during these years that the "Phantom of Corleone" rose through the Mafia's ranks, emerging as its undisputed chief after the arrest of Riina.

Though largely uneducated and forced frequently to change location, Provenzano has ruled the Mafia with an iron hand, and is responsible for the 13 years of "Pax Mafiosa" that followed Riina's arrest. Concerned that the state's first reaction to the killings of Falcone and Borsellino could result in the Mafia's destruction, he ordered a policy of non-violence. The Mafia continued to be omnipresent in Sicilian life, making money as usual from public-building contracts, pizzi (protection) and drug smuggling, but Provenzano's policy ensured that the rampant bloodletting came to a halt.

Provenzano had a healthy contempt for the telephone and other modern means of communication. He issued his orders through thousands of bigliettini, notes written on an Olivetti 32 typewriter which he carried everywhere, orders framed in quaint and courteous language with numerous spelling and grammatical errors. The bigliettini were delivered by a network of messengers. Police explained that it was by monitoring a series of notes between Provenzano and his wife, who lives in Corleone, that they were able to track him to the farmhouse.

Provenzano's capture coincides with the rebirth of a popular anti-Mafia movement on the island, given impetus by the decision of Rita Borsellino, sister of the murdered magistrate, to run for the governorship of Sicily in elections next month.

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