Bernardo Provenzano, one of the most important bosses of Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian mafia, died on Tuesday in San Paolo Hospital, Milano, at the age of 83. He was given permission to leave his high security cell in April due to his worsening health.
The ‘boss of the bosses’ was arrested in July 2011 after 43 years in hiding. Italian police found him in an isolated house in the Sicilian countryside, just a few kilometres from his home town, Corleone.
He was serving 20 life sentences under the disputed article, 41bis, of the Italian law, which mandates constant video surveillance and complete isolation in prison. He was allowed to meet family only once a month and communication could happen only by phone – through a thick glass panel.
This is, however, not surprising, given how he managed to hoodwink the police for more than four decades, using some very primitive methods to communicate with his associates, perhaps to get around any electronic surveillance they may have been put under.
After his arrest, it was found that Provenzano had developed a peculiar system of communication – the “pizzini” or bits of paper. These were cryptic notes, often passages from the Bible, that could be decoded only by an extremely narrow circle of his loyalists. A copy of the Christian holy book with extensive notations and underlined passages was recovered from his hideout at the time of his arrest.
Bernardo Provenzano, third of seven brothers, went through – and survived – most of the modern history of Cosa Nostra, its changes and its wars. And climbed the ladder all way to the top – step by step, from a simple affiliate to the mafia boss.
In 1958, along with his friend, Salvatore "Toto" Riina, he was part of the bunch that ambushed and killed the ruling gotha of the Corleone family to support a new boss, Luciano Leggio.
More men were to die in order to secure power for the newcomers, who decided to come down on the dispute with a heavy hand, starting the first mafia war.
When Salvatore "Toto" Riina became the boss of the Corleone family in 1974, Provenzano was nominated second in command.
According to testimonies given by justice collaborators, he worked behind the scenes, managing the relations between Cosa Nostra and government institutions.
Provenzano changed his nickname from "u' tratturi" – the tractor, to "il ragioniere" – the accountant, probably due to his ability to win public contracts and manage financial investments.
The 70's are a turning point in the history of Cosa Nostra. The organisation changed its main source of income, shifting from tobacco smuggling to heroin manufacture and distribution. Their wealth grew exponentially.
More money called for more ambition and war became inevitable. Between 1981 and 1983, the Corleone family started the second mafia war, wiping out the majority of their rivals with a hail of bullets, becoming the effective leader of the entire Cosa Nostra.
More than a thousand killings in two years transformed the southern island of Sicily, perhaps the most beautiful part of Italy, into a war zone. Many innocents lost their lives.
The attack was meant to be definitive and government institutions were not spared. The communist congressman Pio La Torre, author of an anti-mafia law and his driver, Rosario Di Salvo, were riddled with bullets while driving. And so was General Mario Alberto Dalla Chiesa, his wife, Emanuela Setti Carraro, and Domenico Russo, a policeman. The General was posted in Sicily specifically to dismantle the island’s criminal network. And this is just to name a few.
In 1993, Riina was arrested thanks to the tireless work of the anti-mafia pool led by two Italian judges, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, who were subsequently killed in car bombings in acts of revenge.
The arrest of a boss of this calibre left a big vacuum in Cosa Nostra and many were ready to kill for it.
Provenzano decided to bide his time and history proved him right again. In a few years, many of the men willing to take over Riina's role were arrested. Many, but not Provenzano, who took what he considered to be his natural position in the mafia pyramid – the boss of the bosses, one of the most wanted criminals on earth.
He understood Riina's mistake was too much blood on the streets. And one of the oldest rules of crime speaks clearly – blood calls for police and cops are not good for business. Again, history proved him right and he ruled Cosa Nostra and escaped arrest for another 23 years.
The story of his capture says a lot about the veil of silence and protection that Cosa Nostra enjoyed for decades in Italy and, to an extent, still enjoys.
Cosa Nostra, and other criminal organisations in general, rule on the basis of fear. If you have seen something that you should not have, keep your mouth shut, and pretend nothing happened. If you talk, you will be dead. Looking away has often been perceived as the safest way to live a long and happy life.
This attitude has a name in Italy – ‘omertà’ – the most powerful enemy that police, judges, honest citizens and investigative journalists faced in their war against the mafia. A literal translation of the word is not possible in English, but "code of silence" is the closest.
Random footage from Italian television on mafia murders in the 80's reveal how deep this ‘code of silence’ ran. A stressed reporter runs around with his microphone asking people standing a few metres from a dead body if they had seen something, if they knew something. The answer was always the same: "No, I know nothing". This is repeated in one case after the other.
It did not matter if the murder was committed in full daylight, in the crowded main square of a town, questions always faced a solid, palpable wall of silence.
This silence has been Provenzano's insurance for decades – 43 years on the run – most likely spent not too far from where he had always lived.
He even managed to cross borders. DNA evidences available now suggest he travelled to the French port city of Marseille in 2002 for a surgery.
It is commonly agreed in Italy that such a long time in hiding would have not been possible without an extensive and wide network of protection, probably reaching the highest echelons of society. Investigations on the matter are on.
But as is the case with every criminal, it is not possible to control everything, and sometimes the smallest and the most innocuous of things give you away. It was another old style trick that helped the police to zero-in on Provenzano's location. Detectives followed a basket carrying clean laundry that was delivered by his family to his hideout.
Following his arrest in 2006, it is commonly believed both by Italian and international law enforcement agencies that Matteo Messina Denaro has taken over Cosa Nostra's reins.
The story is again similar to Provenzano’s. Denaro is another "invisible" man. He has been on the run for 23 years and there are no recent photographs of him.
During his detention, Bernardo Provenzano never cooperated with investigators. Airing secrets and revealing details was not a viable option for a man in his position.
His secrets died with him. And there is no place safer for secrets than a graveyard. Provenzano's death will definitely frustrate any further attempts to dismantle Cosa Nostra, an authoritarian organisation that holds its power with fear, murder and drug money.