Running the Mafia by remote control

Bernardo Provenzano, once nicknamed 'The Tractor' for his brutality, has reinvented the Sicilian Mafia as a business, with calculators in place of Kalashnikovs. Such power is all the more remarkable because he's been on the run for 41 years. Peter Popham reports

Monday 24 May 2004 00:00 BST

The photograph is black and white, of poor quality: it might have dropped from some elderly person's album, a fading memento of the old days. The young man in the picture has brilliantined hair, a thick neck, large, widely-spaced eyes on a broad, boxer's face. The chin is tensed, the lips drawn, as if he is assessing some menace - or perhaps he is merely posing for the camera. The eyes stare straight out.

The photograph is black and white, of poor quality: it might have dropped from some elderly person's album, a fading memento of the old days. The young man in the picture has brilliantined hair, a thick neck, large, widely-spaced eyes on a broad, boxer's face. The chin is tensed, the lips drawn, as if he is assessing some menace - or perhaps he is merely posing for the camera. The eyes stare straight out.

This is the only known photograph of Bernardo Provenzano, now the supreme boss of the Sicilian Mafia. It was taken in 1959, when he was 26. He was already a ruthless and rising member of the Corleone clan of the Cosa Nostra, nicknamed "The Tractor" for his brutality and a suspect in numerous Mafia killings.

Four years after the photograph was taken he stumbled into a local hospital, blood flowing from a gunshot wound to his head. "I was walking along," he told the doctor, "when I suddenly felt a terrible pain." The doctor asked no questions and patched him up perfunctorily, and before the man Provenzano had wounded in a gunfight could perhaps come seeking revenge, he vanished. He has been missing ever since.

It is an amazing record: he has been on the run far longer than any terrorist or fugitive thief. The Great Train Robbers were all accounted for long ago. Carlos the Jackal managed only 19 years of freedom. And, unlike others on the most-wanted lists, Provenzano has not had to hop continents to keep out of harm's way. A reward of €2.5m (£1.7m) is on offer from the Italian government, but it is thought probable that he has never left Sicily.

Provenzano's success in evading capture is only part of the story, only the context of his life's work. His real achievement is to have rescued the Mafia from what many believed was the brink of extinction. Slowly, patiently, over the past 10 years, he has transformed it into an organisation that never shoots, never kills, but always gets its way; a criminal network that has Sicilian society in its grip as securely today as at any time in the past 160 years.

Twelve years ago almost to the day, on 23 May 1992, a convoy of cars was approaching Palermo on the airport road when a thunderous explosion shattered the asphalt. It catapulted the leading car 70 feet into the air and blew the engine out of the second, which toppled into the crater.

It was just another violent Mafia operation, not unusual in a period when the Mafia killed about 250 people every year in Palermo alone. But for Sicily and the rest of Italy, the 23 May massacre was different, and far more ominous. The target of the bombing, who was killed along with his wife in the second car, was Giovanni Falcone, the Sicilian investigating magistrate who had shown fearlessness and achieved great success in bringing the mob to justice.

Two months later, Falcone's colleague Paolo Borsellino was murdered in the same way, with the same stunning professionalism. It is hard to overestimate the impact of these two atrocities on Italy. Andrea Camilleri, a bestselling Sicilian crime novelist, has compared them to the impact of September 11 on the United States: like the terrorist attacks, they were indications of malign intent that went far beyond the particular events.

With these bomb blasts, the Mafia had declared war on the state. The investigative campaign Falcone and Borsellino led was the first time in the Mafia's history that the Italian state had shown such determination to crush the organisation. The most striking result of their efforts was the famous "maxi trial" that started in Palermo in 1986, at the end of which 360 mafiosi great and small were given prison sentences totalling 2,665 years.

By killing Falcone and Borsellino, the Mafia sent the message that anyone who opposed them, however high and mighty, would be rewarded the same way. But the assassinations were a huge miscalculation. For the first time, the Mafia found not only the Carabinieri and magistrates arrayed against them, but the ordinary people of Sicily, too. So great was the anger that they poured on to the streets to protest.

Leoluca Orlando, a campaigning anti-Mafia mayor of Palermo for much of the Eighties and Nineties, remembers the mood. "People said basta - enough. No longer can we accept this situation. Young people went into the streets, organised human chains, hung white sheets out of the windows. A newspaper published an article: the headline was 'Orlando will be next'. Some Palermitan women went to the chief of police and gave him a list of children, their children, and said, 'Our children are ready to stay inside the car of Mr Orlando, to protect him.' Of course, no child came inside my car. But they said clearly that I was not alone."

It was an extraordinary transformation in the popular mood. As John Dickie relates in his new book Cosa Nostra, the Mafia emerged in 19th-century Sicily after the British, who occupied the island in 1810 during the Napoleonic wars, set about abolishing feudalism. The powers of the barons were rolled back and landholdings came on the market for the first time, but the island's Bourbon rulers were too ineffectual to impose their authority on a power game that was suddenly in flux.

In that vacuum the Mafia emerged as the state's criminal shadow, taking over and controlling territory through violence and intimidation, growing rich from protection money. It was both the parasitical enemy and the powerful friend of any- one who had something - land, business, money, influence, power - to lose or gain.

Over generations, the Mafia insinuated itself into the Sicilian bloodstream. Its power was based on the fact that it was rich and ruthless - but also, as Orlando explains, on the fact that it was accepted by the mass of Sicilians as culturally belonging to them.

"The Mafia is something I call 'identity-based criminality'," he says. "The Sicilian Mafia used our culture to justify killings. And they killed in the name of our values: in the name of honour, family, friendship. So they killed twice: one time they killed the person, one time they killed the culture."

When Orlando was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s (as Bernardo Provenzano was going into hiding), the Mafia was a taboo subject in the island. "It was a contradiction," he said. "Almost no one in Sicily spoke about the Mafia, no one used the word Mafia, but Sicily was known only for the Mafia. It was something everybody in Sicily knew and feared, but nobody spoke of.

"I was a student in a Jesuit college in Palermo for 13 years, and all that time I never heard the word Mafia. When I was 15, I organised a seminar about the Mafia. The headmaster called my parents and said, 'This is a scandal! Why is Luca talking about the Mafia? We have nothing to do with the Mafia!' It was a grey area: not speaking, not seeing, not hearing."

By the time Falcone and Borsellino were murdered, all that had changed. The word was in everybody's mouths, and they were calling for an end to the Mafia. The aggressive new strategy of the state, and the Mafia's murderous backlash, had made it impossible for ordinary Sicilians to countenance the evil in their midst any longer. Within a year of Falcone's death, the capo di capi, Toto Riina, the brains behind the attacks, had been arrested and assets worth about £125m confiscated. Three years later Giovanni Brusca, the baby-faced hood who detonated the Falcone bomb, was caught and confessed to "more than 100 but less than 200" murders. But Bernardo Provenzano remained as elusive as ever.

The Mafia today operates like this. Somebody is in a fix: say, a landlord is unhappy with his manager, whom he suspects is on the take; or the residents of a block of flats are in dispute with the decorators refurbishing their building; or a businessman fears that his accountant is fiddling the books; or a politician wishes very much to win an election.

For all such problems there are legal, above-board solutions - and then there is the Mafia. But Italian courts are notoriously sluggish, the state is ponderous and inefficient, the police have other things on their mind, and democracy is an unpredictable beast. So people turn to the Mafia. And they write a letter to Bernardo Provenzano. And Provenzano, who never uses the telephone and moves without fuss or aggravation around the island, reads the letter and writes to the mafioso in charge of the locality from which the request was issued, asking him to sort it out.

Provenzano types his bigliettini, or notes, on an ancient Olivetti 32 that he carries everywhere. He had only two years of primary schooling, and his letters are littered with quaint errors. We can imagine him peering at the keyboard, tapping away with two fingers.

But the letters are always scrupulously polite. "My dear," he writes to a subordinate, "with the wish that the present finds you in the best of health. As I can assure you it does me. Excuse me if I bother you with this request, but as you know I try to be of service... Wishing you a world of good, I send you my dearest and most affectionate greetings."

The note is delivered by one of Provenzano's trusted messengers, who places it, say, between two bricks in the low wall near a tree - a place already agreed with the recipient, who has been warned to expect it. As also agreed, the messenger puts a vintage-car magazine through the letterbox to signal the note's arrival.

Salvo Palazzolo, a journalist on La Repubblica in Palermo, is the co-author of two books about Provenzano's new Mafia. "After the killings of Falcone and Borsellino," he says, "thanks to the confessions of the supergrasses, Riina and all his men involved in the killings 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 arms 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's a curious thing: the person taking the Mafia into the 21st century is an old man. Keeping everything secret was the way of the past. Provenzano is creating the Cosa Nostra of the post-massacre period in continuity with the past, the secret past. He has succeeded in reconciling post-modernity with the archaic nature of the old Mafia."

Palazzolo believes that Provenzano, by turning his back on violence, lowering the formerly crippling protection charges and keeping a tight grip on the organisation, has restored the Mafia to its former strength. But the greatest, most sinister secret of his success is that Sicilians at every level now desire the Mafia to keep up the good work.

For an elderly, semi-literate gangster constantly on the move, it's a remarkable achievement. But it's not his achievement alone: it has been facilitated over the past three years by a creeping change in the Italian political climate. After the Falcone and Borsellino killings, Italy became a leader in the fight against organised crime: it was in Palermo in 2000 that Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general, signed the world's first convention against organised crime. Today, Italy is a leader no more.

There are many straws in the wind. For example, there has been Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's campaign against the judiciary, calling them names, dismissing them as communists and lunatics. There have been the finance minister's amnesties to illegal builders and tax-evaders. Most striking of all was the remark by Berlusconi's minister for infrastructure, Pietro Lunardi, in August 2001: Italy, Lunardi said, had to "learn to live with the Mafia; everyone should deal with the crime problem in their own way".

Orlando says: "To say what Lunardi said is perhaps not a crime, but it is worse than a crime - it produces the culture of illegality. It means that legality is an option. Do you like a car with a radio or without a radio? Mineral water with gas or without? Do you like democracy with legality or without legality? The new Mafia does not need weapons. They just need ministers who speak like this."

'Cosa Nostra: a History of the Sicilian Mafia' by John Dickie is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£20)

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