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Luck Finally Runs Out for Italy's Boss of Bosses

April 12, 2006|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ROME — For more than 40 years he eluded arrest. He dispatched orders in little typewritten notes and shunned telephones that might pinpoint his location. His resume allegedly included some of the most gruesome murders in Mafia lore.

On Tuesday, the reputed godfather of the Cosa Nostra and Italy's most-wanted fugitive was captured in a ramshackle farmhouse outside the Sicilian town of Corleone, a name made infamous by author Mario Puzo and Marlon Brando.

Bernardo "The Tractor" Provenzano was unarmed and did not resist arrest, authorities said. No shots were fired.

The man who authorities said was responsible for one of the bloodiest chapters of Sicilian history was later seen being bundled into police headquarters in Palermo, handcuffed and surrounded by masked security agents as people in a crowd outside pumped their fists in the air and shouted, "Murderer!"

"He was calm," said Gilberto Calderozzi, one of the police officers who participated in the raid and escorted the gray-haired, bespectacled Provenzano to Palermo for detention. "There was no problem entering [the farm] or in the capture."

Provenzano, 73, has been on the lam since 1963, surviving thanks to a network of faithful henchmen, his family and corrupt police and politicians. Authorities say he became the capo di tutti capi, the boss of bosses, following the arrest in 1993 of Salvatore "The Beast" Riina.

From behind the scenes, Provenzano continued to pull the strings, directing the Cosa Nostra, as the Sicilian Mafia is known, in its aggressive pursuit of protection rackets, extortion and white-collar crimes such as fraudulent public-works construction, prosecutors say.

He was convicted in absentia in the 1992 bombing murder of a leading anti-Mafia prosecutor in Sicily. Ruthless and cunning, he earned the nickname "The Tractor" from his reputation for mowing down people in his youth, when he was a hit man for the Corleone clan.

"With this arrest, the Mafia has been beheaded," Piero Grasso, Italy's top anti-Mafia prosecutor, said at a news conference, adding that the circle around Provenzano had been tightening since his surreptitious trip a few years ago to a medical clinic in France. Grasso said the mobster was being protected by politicians and businessmen.

Provenzano was found in a run-down farmhouse with sheep corralled outside and a single bed within, according to a source in Sicily familiar with the arrest operation. He was sitting at a typewriter when police burst in, with a white scarf around his neck that he apparently used to conceal a telltale scar. After realizing that he could not escape, he acknowledged to police who he was, said the source, who requested anonymity.

It was his penchant for communicating with his followers through small notes that finally did him in, authorities said. Law enforcement investigators followed couriers handling the delivery of several notes, some hidden in packages of clothes from a laundry service run by his family. One such package was tracked from the family home in Corleone to Provenzano's hide-out just a couple of miles away. When police saw Provenzano stick out his arm to receive the package, they decided to swoop in.

"We had always missed a link in the chain," said Roberto Centaro, president of the state Anti-Mafia Commission. "Until now."

When captured, Provenzano was wearing jeans, his pockets stuffed with the little pieces of paper, known in Sicilian dialect as pizzini, the Italian news agency Ansa reported. His typewriter was also confiscated.

The abandoned farmhouse where he was found is in the golden hills outside Corleone, his hometown as well as the residence of his wife and grown children. Authorities said he had probably been taking refuge in similar houses all over Sicily.

That he eluded capture for so long is attributed to official corruption but also the tight network of spies and associates at his service, as well as the Mafia's code of silence, known as omerta.

"We got close many times," Assistant State Prosecutor Giuseppe Pignatone said in Palermo, the capital of Sicily. "Only now could we finally break his web of protection and omerta.... I know it sounds simple, but I can assure you it is not so simple when you are working in a territory where it is easier to find an enemy than a friend."

Pignatone told Ansa that DNA testing was used to confirm Provenzano's identity. The wanted poster that police have been using showed a young Provenzano, in a photograph taken in 1959, next to a computer-enhanced picture showing what he might look like now. After learning he had made a secret visit to a clinic in Marseille, police were able to get a more updated description of him from doctors who treated him.

At judiciary offices in Palermo, prosecutors and judges, many of whom must be accompanied by bodyguards because of threats from the Mafia, were celebrating Tuesday, smiling broadly and praising the capture as a historic victory.

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