In a new volume on the inner workings of the Sicilian mob, Longrigg (Mafia Women), a British authority on the Mafia, examines the rise and fall of Bernardo Provenzano, a lowly thug who assumed the post of boss of bosses of the Cosa Nostra. A former enforcer to the Liggio gang, he survived some of the most violent power plays among factions of the Sicilian Mafia, transforming himself from a killer into an effective manipulator of corrupt politicians before the state court banned him from any type of influence over the lawmakers in 1970. The bulk of the book concerns Don Provenzano's unchecked control of major criminal activities for more than 43 years, even while in hiding from the authorities and after his arrest by the special antivice police, as he modernized gangland operations to meet high-tech demands. Arrested in 2006 at age 73, the Sicilian Godfather, Longrigg found, still ruled with an iron hand from behind bars, his shrewdness and resourcefulness intact. This biography of Provenzano rates as one of the most informed, revealing chronicles of a modern gangster ever. (Mar.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Boss of Bosses: A Journey into the Heart of the Sicilian Mafiaby Clare Longrigg
In the 1980s, the broad legal mandate of the RICO act succeeded in crushing much of the backbone of the traditional American Mafia. Across the ocean however, in the ancestral Sicilian homeland of La Cosa Nostra, the Mafia was anything but finished. Possessed of a power thought to rival that of the Italian state itself, for the past decades, the Sicilian Mafia has… See more details below
In the 1980s, the broad legal mandate of the RICO act succeeded in crushing much of the backbone of the traditional American Mafia. Across the ocean however, in the ancestral Sicilian homeland of La Cosa Nostra, the Mafia was anything but finished. Possessed of a power thought to rival that of the Italian state itself, for the past decades, the Sicilian Mafia has waged a war on the forces of law and order that has not only left thousands dead, but has created a ripple effect of crime and violence that can be felt on the streets of America’s cities today.
Taking us into the eye of this criminal storm, Boss of Bosses tells the story of Bernardo Provenzano, who rose from humble origins to become the head of the Sicilian Mafia, overseeing a deadly empire of corruption so large in scope, the full sweep of its dark reach has yet to be fully accounted. On the run for over 43 years before his arrest, Provenzano’s life is a testament to Mafia history, and typifies the code of the ultimate gangster.
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On a Spring night in 1958 four horsemen galloped across a farm on the plain below Corleone and rode up to one of the barns. They crept inside carrying axes and shovels, and smashed the wine barrels, splintering the seasoned wood and releasing rivers of strong red wine.
The raiders worked for Luciano Liggio, a low-life peasant upstart and cattle rustler. They wanted this farm and were determined to drive the farmer off his own land.
The corn ripened and stood, growing darker, and no one dared to cut it. The local peasant workers had been threatened with death if any of them went to harvest that land. Finally the farmer and a few hired hands went out before dawn, working in fear and haste. But no one would thresh the corn, so it lay where it had been cut until Liggio’s men came with their trucks, loaded it up and drove it away.
The vines with their purple grapes were smashed and burned. The cattle’s water troughs, set in cement and fed with pipes from a spring, were stacked with explosives and blown up. One night the gang turned up at the farm store with a truck and held the guard hostage with his own hunting rifle while they loaded up seventy barrels of pecorino cheese. As a final insult they stole the rifle.
When the farmer had nothing left to lose, he finally called the police. The thieves, all of them well known in the local community, were rounded up and escorted to the station. So, at the age of twenty-five, Bernardo Provenzano got his first criminal charge, for stealing cheese.
The police mugshot shows a clean-faced young man in jacket and tie, with his curly hair carefully greased back and an insolent look.
This mugshot would be the only record of his existence for many years to come. It would be aged by computer, studied by psychological profilers, examined by investigators. His pale, deep-set eyes and prominent cheekbones, immortalized in that black-and-white photo, reveal little of the man except for his square-jawed peasant stock and his fearlessness. A cheese thief, and a good shot – he could shoot a hole in a coin thrown up in the air – he was known to his friends as Binnu.
The other members of Liggio’s gang were: Giuseppe Ruffino, Liggio’s lieutenant, who had the same violent streak; Calogero Bagarella, son of a Mafia family and the only one younger than Provenzano; and Giovanni Pasqua, Liggio’s childhood friend and brother in arms. They would be joined by others, most notably Bagarella’s younger brother Leoluca, and Salvatore (Totò) Riina, who became Provenzano’s friend and running mate. All of them were ambitious, like their leader, to move beyond the confines of Corleone – of hunger, blistered hands and animal stench. To these young men the Mafia represented the only way to climb out of poverty, and in Liggio they had a leader whose ruthlessness gave them inspiration.
Binnu was silent and diffdent; when they were waiting for orders or discussing their next move, he seemed moody and sullen, and always had a question or an objection to make. But once he had decided on a course of action, nothing would stop him. Totò was more sociable, teasing and ragging his mates, always ready with a put-down to make everyone laugh. He was the only one who joshed Binnu; the others kept a little more distance.
Liggio, an aggressive little man who suffered from a debilitating condition of the spine and a vicious temper, had no sentimental attachment to the rural poverty in which he was raised. As a teenager, realizing he would never get far as an illiterate farm-hand, he went to find the schoolmistress and told her she must teach him to read and write or he’d set fire to her house.
Like many young men who later became mafiosi, Liggio began his career as an estate guard, protecting the wealth of absentee landlords. In 1948 he murdered the young trade union activist Placido Rizzotto, who had been heading a campaign to defend peasants’ land rights. Liggio marched his victim out into the rocky countryside, where he shot him and threw his body into one of the deep ravines at the foot of the mountains. Liggio’s status rose with that cold-blooded murder: ridding Corleone of a troublesome advocate of peasants’ rights went down well with a certain class of landowner. Provenzano was fifteen when Rizzotto was killed, and had been working among the peasants for over half his short life. He admired the way Liggio dealt with the problem and got away with it. He saw that the community, and the dead man’s family, were powerless to raise a hand against the young mafioso.
Provenzano’s other important model as a young man was the Mafia boss of Corleone, the eminent doctor Michele Navarra. An educated man from a middle-class family, Navarra was well connected in politics and industry, and wielded considerable power in the region. In Corleone, Dr Navarra was known as padre nostrum, Our Father. He had many political friends but would not hesitate to switch allegiance from one party to another if it offered him an advantage – a lesson that was not lost on the young Provenzano. The talents he later developed for mediating between the Mafia and political power, switching between political parties, combining traditional values with forward-looking pragmatism, were all learned from Dr Navarra.
When Navarra began to receive petitions from farm owners across the county, begging him to put a stop to Liggio’s gang’s nightly raids, he ordered Liggio to stop stealing cattle. Liggio’s response was to force landowners to sell their acres to him and to start a cattle ranch stocked almost entirely with stolen livestock and run by Provenzano, Riina and the others. They drove the illegally butchered meat down to the market in Palermo; Provenzano rode shotgun on the trucks, but once his boss had witnessed his cool-headed efficiency with a pistol, he became Liggio’s best hit man.
The two young friends, Provenzano and Riina, were Liggio’s lieutenants and bodyguards. They were both short: neither more than five foot six, but Binnu was strong and thick set, with a muscular neck and broad shoulders. Totò was shorter (his nickname was u curtu, ‘Shorty’), with a lighter build and dark, shifty eyes. They both wore their thick, dark curly hair shaved at the nape and greased back. They were both extremely respectful of their boss and careful never to arouse his wrath.
‘Liggio had a look that struck fear even in us mafiosi’, a pentito later admitted. ‘It took only the slightest thing to get him worked up, and then there would be a strange light in his eyes that silenced everyone around . . . You could sense death hovering in the air. He was changeable and moody as a child.’4 From handling Liggio’s capricious demands Provenzano learned the diplomatic skills that would become his greatest asset.
Liggio was determined to take on Navarra and the Palermo Mafia, and he found a way to do it: water. Cosa Nostra controlled the supply of water to the lemon and mandarin groves in Palermo’s ‘Golden Basin’. A proposal to build a dam to supply Palermo would bypass the Palermo bosses, and Liggio was determined to get his hands on it. The dam project became the central issue of a forthcoming election. Liggio dragged his young thugs off their horses, smartened them up and sent them out with leaflets campaigning for the candidate who supported the dam.
As far as Navarra was concerned, the dam would never be built: the projected reservoir would flood land belonging to his friends, but, more importantly, it would disrupt the Mafia’s lucrative monopoly of the water system. He threw his weight behind the Christian Democrat candidate, who opposed the dam.
Next to Navarra, Liggio was a novice at politics. Hundreds of Corleonesi reportedly went blind on election day, so that Dr Navarra could accompany them into the polling booth and make sure they put their cross in the right place.
The Christian Democrats enjoyed a comfortable win, and Liggio was incensed. A long period of skirmishing between Liggio and Navarra erupted into open war. The feud between the two men laid waste to a generation of Corleonesi, with over fifty murders, twenty-two attempted murders and many more ‘disappeared’.
Early one morning in June 1958 Liggio staged an ambush for Navarra. On the winding country road to Corleone, where pine trees measured out the miles and the verges plunged down into deep ditches, Liggio blocked the road with his car and lay in wait. When Navarra came driving along with another doctor, he was forced off the road and blasted by several guns. As the car was ripped full of holes, both doctors died in a storm of bullets and broken glass.
Gunning down Navarra was a reckless crime, and Liggio’s men had to keep fighting or risk a revenge attack. Provenzano organized a meeting with a delegation from the enemy ranks, to demand they hand over the men who had shot at his master. They refused, knowing that they would have been making less a peace offering than a bloody sacrifice.
On a September evening the procession for the Madonna of the Chain was weaving its way through the streets of Corleone, the drums and trumpets playing, the people, some of them barefoot, droning their tragic hymns to the statue of the Virgin as she was carried around the town. Liggio’s killers ran through the crowds, chasing Navarra’s men. They were shooting back and forth, narrowly missing the screaming crowds, who crammed themselves into doorways and clasped their children to them. Several bystanders were hit. Three of Navarra’s men were killed as they ran, but as the gunmen tried to escape, their route was blocked by the angry crowd, and Provenzano was shot in the head. He collapsed on the pavement, blood pouring from the wound. Ruffino stopped a passing car and lifted him into the back, ordering the driver to take him to hospital.
While he was recovering, Provenzano told the carabinieri he had been walking along, heading for the cinema and minding his own business, when something had hit him in the head and he’d lost consciousness. He had no idea what had happened.
He got away with it. Provenzano had begun to get a reputation for immunity: his fellow gang members, including his friend Totò Riina, had been arrested and served time in the reeking county prison. Not Binnu. He’d even got off military service after a brief stint in the air force, dismissed on medical grounds, with a glowing conduct report, after six months. In 1960 the police commissioner in Corleone proposed that he be put under special surveillance, and the Palermo court ordered that he be banished to the prison island of Ustica for four years. But he stayed in Corleone, and after a few months the order was withdrawn. This ability to evade the spotlight of investigation, while earning a reputation for ruthlessness and murder, was to become a great asset.
As far as Provenzano’s family was concerned, the boy was doing all right. ‘In the 1950s the Mafia was the only means they had to climb the social scale’, says historian Salvatore Lupo. ‘They did not join out of idealism, but purely material concerns: survival, affirmation and power, money. These are people from modest families. They’ve done well for themselves in the Mafia.’
Nino Giuffré, who worked as a teacher, recalled that when he was initiated into the Mafia, his boss said to him: ‘Now you’re a rich man indeed. You’re already a Sicilian, and you’ll be wealthy too.’
Binnu’s parents were a poor peasant couple, Angelo Provenzano and Giovanna Rigoglioso. He was born in Corleone on 31 January 1933, the third of seven brothers and sisters. Peasant labourers in those days gathered in the chill of dawn and waited to be called by name, by the all-powerful farm managers. A day’s hard work in the fields would scarcely bring in enough to feed nine, and the crowded household was occasionally sullen with hunger. Binnu dropped out after the second year of primary school, semi-literate, and went to work in the fields with his father. While most boys his age struggled on for another few years in class, he was living on his wits at the age of seven.
His father died in 1958, when Binnu was already established as part of Liggio’s notorious armed gang. His sisters, Rosa, Maria Concetta and Michela Arcangela, had all married local boys, but his brothers still lived at home, and his mother, who pressed and starched their shirts, barely knew where they were most of the time. Binnu would get home in the early evening and eat supper, then he would be out of the door.
She suffered a good deal from worrying about the company he kept, but at least he came home at night. Soon he would have to drop out of sight, and for the rest of her life she would see him only fleetingly, on secret visits.
On 9 May 1963 four men, Provenzano among them, met at first light on the edge of Corleone, shotguns slung over their backs. They were waiting for one of Navarra’s men, Francesco Streva, who was living in hiding, but Binnu had information that he was due to pass that way. Streva was always armed, and extremely cautious. When Provenzano caught sight of him that May morning, he called out to him. Streva fired at the group and took off across the fields. The gang dispersed, and for the next few months they lived in hiding, staying with trusted family members, meeting after dark, plotting how to kill their enemies and avoid being killed. It was Provenzano’s first taste of exile, and although he didn’t go far from home, he experienced the profound loneliness and exhilarating freedom of living in hiding, which would become his daily reality.
Months later Provenzano contacted Streva, offering to meet for peace talks. They made an appointment early in the morning of 10 September, in the wooded countryside near Corleone. Above them lowered the imposing and craggy Rocca Busambra, an impenetrable hiding place for bandits and outlaws.
A local farmer taking out his flock heard shots and looked out across the field to see two men, one of whom he recognized as Provenzano, both carrying guns, making off towards the shadowy foot of the mountain. Later that day Streva’s body was found in the woods, alongside two of his men.
The dead men’s grieving relatives reported the murders to the police – an unusually drastic and risky move in such a small community. But the sense of outrage was high, and its target was Liggio’s thugs, in particular Bernardo Provenzano.
The police reaction to the Corleone Mafia’s activities had thus far been muted. Liggio himself, already a notorious criminal, had been served a polite request by the police to ‘live honestly, respect persons and property, and observe the law’. But after the murders of Streva and his men, people who had been threatened and intimidated, robbed and driven off the land, finally rebelled and signed witness statements. A joint report by Corleone’s police and carabinieri landed on the Palermo prosecutor’s desk, accusing Provenzano of aggravated murder. In spite of numerous witnesses, when the firstmajor case against Provenzano eventually came to court, he was acquitted. He had confronted his enemies face to face, been shot in the head, arrested and tried – it seemed nothing could touch him.
Provenzano’s burning ambition was to make it in the city. Through their gradual takeover of the illegal meat market Liggio, Provenzano and the rest of the Corleone clan made the journey from their rural home town to the capital of Cosa Nostra.
Palermo was a busy, overcrowded town, swarming with country folk moving off the land and desperate to make a living. The narrow, noisy neighbourhood markets heaved with meat trucked in from the hinterland and fish freshly caught: swordfish with their great glassy eyes and fat tuna like rubber tyres. Stalls were piled high with huge fennel bulbs and fragrant tomatoes. Watermelons were piled up on street corners like bowling balls, the vendors calling out, o molone!
As an enforcer for Liggio’s urban loan-sharking business, Provenzano came into contact with a better class of victim. The moneylending business was based in the centre of the old city, by the bronze lions of the Teatro Massimo. It became a massive money-laundering operation, and the businessmen who ‘invested’ money to be lent to clients at extortionate levels of interest included drug traffickers with links to American mobsters.
In the early 1960s Palermo was the scene of an outbreak of savage violence. War broke out over control of drug trafficking between two Palermo clans, the aristocratic and apparently respectable Greco family and the upstart La Barberas. They fought in the crowded streets and markets of Palermo and in other cities further afield; Angelo La Barbera was shot and seriously wounded in Milan. In Palermo mafiosi exchanged gunfire over bar tables; a famous gun battle was fought across a fish stall, blood mingling with ice and mussel shells flying as men dived for cover, firing from behind dripping swordfish and tuna.
The war reached its grisly climax when a car bomb killed seven policemen. An Alfa Romeo Giulietta had been abandoned with a flat tyre near Mafia boss Salvatore Greco’s palatial villa in Ciaculli, a leafy outpost of Palermo. Responding to a tip-off, carabinieri sealed off the area and saw a crude device on the back seat of the car. Once the bomb had been defused, they searched the car for clues. One officer opened the boot, setting off a massive explosion. The Ciaculli bomb was calamitous: after years of impunity it brought down the full weight of the law against the Mafia.
Nearly two thousand arrests were made, and Liggio was captured the following year, in November 1964. After making a hasty escape from a Palermo clinic, he had sought refuge with two sisters, spinsters, in Corleone, who nursed him back to health. In a peculiar twist, one of the women had been engaged to a man Liggio had murdered, the trade unionist Placido Rizzotto. Liggio’s ‘possession’ of his victim’s fiancée was the ultimate insult.
The prosecutor who signed an indictment against Luciano Liggio and 115 members of the criminal underworld in response to the Mafia war was Cesare Terranova, a judge of great courage and diligence. Terranova also oversaw the creation of a parliamentary anti-Mafia commission, which delivered regular reports on the latest intelligence on organized crime. The state had finally mounted a coordinated response to Mafia violence that had made whole areas of Sicily unliveable.
After the crackdown the Mafia’s ruling body was hastily disbanded, and the various families went to ground. Liggio ordered a cessation of all criminal activity. But once the killings stopped, the pressure from law enforcement let up a little and allowed the Mafia to regroup. It was a lesson that Provenzano did not forget and would later use to great advantage.
Terranova had understood that the Corleonesi’s activities extended far beyond cattle rustling, murder and extortion. His report detailed the bloody years of the vendetta between Navarra and Liggio. But it also demonstrated how the Corleonesi had moved beyond their rural home in the shadow of Rocca Busambra, extending their insidious influence over Palermo and the rest of western Sicily, through their political contacts. They had, he explained, ‘got control of areas ripe for development, by seizing key posts within the public and private administration’.
The trial took place in Calabria, to avoid any possible jury-rigging or corruption of magistrates. There was no court of law big enough to hold so many defendants and their lawyers, so the proceedings took place in a primary school. Among Liggio’s protégés, Provenzano and Calogero Bagarella were still on the run, although Riina and Leoluca Bagarella, two angry young men, were in the dock. Strangely enough, the prosecution’s star witness seemed to have suffered some sort of breakdown and, having denied everything in court, spent the rest of his life confined to a mental asylum. The trial ended in a raft of ac quittals.
The following year Liggio and sixty-two others went on trial in Bari. Provenzano, Ruffino and Bagarella remained in hiding. Yet again Riina was in the dock; yet again the prosecution case was sabotaged. One prosecution witness, a Corleone barber who had seen Provenzano and the others firing at three of Navarra’s men, retracted his statement in court and disappeared shortly after the trial. When the prosecution produced the shattered brake lights from Navarra’s car, collected at the scene of the shoot-out, they realized the glass had been switched for another make of car.
Magistrates demanded life sentences for Liggio, Provenzano and Bagarella. But on 10 June 1969 the court acquitted every one of them on grounds of insufficient evidence (Riina alone was given a small penalty for receiving stolen goods). Provenzano and Bagarella were cleared of the triple murder of Navarra’s men in the forest above Corleone. The judges claimed that the culture of omertà; had made it impossible to prove anything against the defendants, and Liggio was cleared of murdering Navarra, for lack of evidence. This was in spite of a report by the carabiniere colonel Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa, warning that Liggio was ‘to be considered one of the most dangerous elements that the province of Palermo has ever contributed to the history of the Mafia’.
Provenzano and Riina continued to work for Liggio, who now had a place on the ruling body, known as the ‘commission’, and behaved like a capricious child – they were continually having to smooth over problems he had needlessly created. Liggio liked to sunbathe naked, and when he was living on the run, in a villa lent him by a man of honour in Catania, disported himself on the terrace in full view of the neighbouring apartments. One sunny day he received a summons from the local police. Since there was already a warrant out for his arrest, he sent Binnu down to the station to find out what they wanted. Provenzano didn’t know whether the police had identified the notorious fugitive; when he was told that the neighbour had merely made a complaint about Liggio’s naked sunbathing, he was not amused.
Dodging a police hunt, Provenzano moved constantly around western Sicily, from the Mafia stronghold of San Giuseppe Iato, a traffic-choked little town in the hills inland from Palermo, to Cinisi, another Mafia fortress between the mountains and the sea. He was sheltered by mafiosi who knew that none of the locals, not the old men sitting in their circle of chairs in the square, not the heavily pregnant young mothers struggling with shopping and children, or even the local priest, would ever say a word about a stranger in town.
During the mid-1960s Provenzano was sought by police more assiduously than at any time during the next twenty-five years. The experience gained during this time on the run stood him in good stead when he later became Italy’s most wanted. He understood how much people put themselves out to shelter a fugitive, and tried to return the favour with as much grace as he could muster. As he travelled around, moving at night and staying indoors most of the day, there were several close calls. In Castronovo, a small and secluded town high in the mountains north of Agrigento, he and his friends were ambushed by carabinieri. The stone-built town has a church in every square, where the people took cover from ricocheting bullets as the carabinieri pursued the outlaws through the streets, both sides firing as they ran.
Liggio moved to northern Italy, to make serious money, and Binnu followed him. Milan was becoming a major financial capital, and as the Mafia moved in, it gained a reputation as the New York of organized crime. Police got a tip-off that Binnu always drank his morning espresso at the same bar in Turin. They staked out the place for two weeks, but there was no sign of him.
The Corleonesi were almost all living on the run, moving around and dodging arrest warrants. This underground existence became one of their most feared traits: not even the other Mafia families knew who they were or what they looked like. This increased their fearsome reputation: you never saw them, you only saw the bodies in the aftermath of their passing. Provenzano’s mystique grew: no one knew for sure whether he was just a hit man or held a more important role. The fact that he had evaded the authorities successfully while notching up several murders increased the mythology around him.
During these years the old city of Palermo was being consumed by a building boom that would see the destruction of much of the city’s charm and most of its green spaces. The Palermo families were infiltrating local government and development companies to cream off a substantial fortune from the building frenzy. Power struggles between families culminated in a massacre that changed the course of Mafia history. And it was this terrible event that gave Provenzano his next big chance.
On 10 December 1969 the builder Girolamo Moncada was holding a late meeting in his office in viale Lazio, the centre of a spate of new development, on the western side of the city. It was attended by, among others, his sons, the firm’s accountant and the Mafia capo Michele Cavataio. Not unusually, all the men were armed.
Cavataio, described as ‘a cunning killer with a face like a gorilla and a turbulent past’, was suspected of inciting the Mafia war, setting families against each other and creating suspicion and trouble. Finding himself pushed aside by the new generation, he had built a powerful, if unofficial, group of older capos around him and orchestrated a series of murders.
After the war was over, tensions were still running high in Palermo, and Cavataio represented a common enemy. He attempted to blackmail his way out of trouble by boasting that he had drawn a map of the Palermo Mafia families, including the names of all the members. The police had no knowledge of the Mafia groupings or the identity of the various families – even making such a map was dangerous. While the boss of Catania went through the motions of negotiating with him, Salvatore Greco, whose villa had been partly destroyed by the bomb at Ciaculli, put together a group of hit men, with Bernardo Provenzano at the head.5
At 7.30 on that December evening two police cars stopped outside Moncada’s office. While Totò Riina stayed in one of the cars to direct operations, six men in police uniform ran towards the building. Bernardo Provenzano and his friend Calogero Bagarella were in the lead, followed by Damiano Caruso, from the Riesi family. They burst into Moncada’s office, pointing machine guns and shouting ‘Freeze!’ Before anyone could think about moving, Caruso opened fire – des troying the advantage of surprise. One man was shot in the chest and fell. The accountant managed to fire a shot but was hit in the stomach. Moncada’s sons were hit several times. Cavataio ducked behind a table and returned fire, shooting Bagarella full in the chest. He caught Provenzano in the hand, then dived under the desk, playing dead.
The order was to set fire to the office. The men looked around at the corpses and at the wounded groaning on the floor. Provenzano wanted that map. He’d heard that Cavataio kept it hidden in his sock, so he grabbed his ankles and started pulling. As he heaved, he felt some resistance and realized that Cavataio was still alive. As they struggled, Cavataio, who had his gun in his hand, tried to shoot Provenzano in the face, but he had run out of bullets. Provenzano was trying to shoot him with his machine gun, but it jammed, so he clubbed him unconscious with the butt. When he got a hand free, he drew his own handgun and shot him point-blank.
The shoot-out had lasted just a few minutes and left five men dead. Provenzano, covered in blood, carried his friend’s body out to the waiting cars and heaved him into the boot. They buried him secretly on top of another body in the Corleone cemetery.
The viale Lazio massacre became one of the most notorious events in the history of Cosa Nostra, and nearly forty years later the trial of its alleged protagonists, now old men, is still ongoing. Although there were initially protests against the high-handed way the assassination of Cavataio had been decided and executed by the Palermo families, the other clans no longer had the stomach for a fight, and the Grecos, with their ambitious allies the Corleonesi, consolidated their power.
There were lessons for Provenzano from viale Lazio too, as the historian Salvatore Lupo explains: ‘A frontal attack such as that is a highly unusual event in Mafia history. Usually the adversaries circle each other, one of them falls into a trap and is disappeared, or there’s a setup and someone tries to shoot him.
‘The Mafia is not made up of gangs who shoot at each other. The horror of that attack brought down the full weight of law enforcement. The Mafia manages to operate undisturbed when it doesn’t hurt anyone. Any mafioso who understands that, tries to do business and settle disputes without creating a massive disturbance.’
A disturbance had most definitely been made, and yet the shoot-out prepared the ground for Provenzano’s promotion. His reputation for tenacity was affirmed, as was his nickname, u’ tratturi (‘the Tractor’), because, as one collaborator expressed it, ‘where he passed, the grass no longer grew’. He was unstoppable, dogged and fiercely determined. The country boys from Corleone were discovering that, wherever you are from, violence is power.
After his acquittal in Bari, Liggio spent most of his time being treated in clinics in northern Italy. In December 1970 the court of appeal sentenced him to life for the double murder of Dr Navarra and his colleague. But by this time he was nowhere to be found.
In Liggio’s absence Totò Riina represented him on the ruling commission of Cosa Nostra, making up the triumvirate with Gaetano Badalamenti, the boss of Cinisi, and Stefano Bontate, the ‘prince of Villagrazia’. Riina was ambitious and steely, sarcastic and intolerant of mistakes. It would not be long before the Corleone cuckoo shoved his fellow commission members out of the nest.
One Palermo mafiioso voiced the alarm of many Palermitani, who knew the Corleonesi had their sights on the city: ‘What’s Riina going to do in Palermo, if we’re all united? We’ll give him a kick up the arse and send him back to Corleone to grow corn.’6 Going back to the rural Mafia was the last thing on Riina and Provenzano’s agenda, and everybody knew it.
The new bosses of Corleone were an unknown entity. They had started out as rustic bandits, thugs and killers, and made careers for themselves in Cosa Nostra – not the usual trajectory for a Mafia boss, points out Salvatore Lupo. ‘Liggio was defined as a gangster and a killer, which does not correspond to the usual model of capomafia.’
Until that point Mafia bosses had come from dynasties raised on organized crime. These Corleonesi had no such pedigree.
Riina was bitter about men of honour like Bontate, who came from middle-class, old-money families. ‘He was crazed with jealousy and envy’, said Francesco Di Carlo. ‘He was drunk with power.
‘I said to him once, "You’ve got it in for these people because they come from a big dynasty that goes back hundreds of years, great-great-grandfathers who got rich in Cosa Nostra, and you had no one before you, not even your father. . . ." His family were poor, some of them had been in prison, they were dirt poor. I remember doing a whip-round and giving him money for the Corleone family’s legal expenses.’
Riina never lost that instinctive need to overcome the poverty of his roots: when he made millions later in his career, he bought land – the peasant’s dream – land of his own. Provenzano would return to the countryside when he had to, holding meetings in farm buildings and sleeping in sheep sheds, but he didn’t have the same need to possess land. But for now the two friends’ ambitions centred on the city.
Circumstances were in their favour. In 1970 Badalamenti and Bontate were arrested, and while the older bosses were in prison, Riina continued his relentless rise. Even though kidnapping had been outlawed, the Corleonesi snatched prisoners on other families’ territory, causing huge embarrassment and making large amounts of ransom money.
Nino Calderone, whose brother was the boss of Catania, like others on both sides of the law, regarded the Corleonesi as a new breed, unlike any mafiosi they had dealt with before. ‘The heads of the Corleonesi were incredibly ignorant, but they were cunning, like devils, and at the same time they were smart and ferocious, which is a rare combination in Cosa Nostra.
‘Toto Riina had intuition and intelligence and was difficult to fathom and very hard to predict. At the same time he was savage. His philosophy was that if someone’s finger hurt, it was better to cut off his whole arm just to make sure.
‘Binnu Provenzano was nicknamed u viddanu, "the lout", because of his fine manners. My brother called him u tratturi, "the Tractor", after his skill as a murderer, and after the effect he had on any problems, or people, he had to deal with.’
Riina and Provenzano had built on their different strengths and respected their differences; as their reputations grew, few others felt comfortable around them, and they never needed to justify their actions to each other. They knew where they came from and what they wanted to achieve. Riina, backed by Provenzano, had taken Liggio’s place. As the situation required, Provenzano would transform himself from a ruthless killer into a political operator.
In 1970 the court of appeal in Bari found Bernardo Provenzano and Salvatore Riina guilty of conspiracy and banned them for life from holding public office. Fortunately for them, they didn’t need to occupy any public office in person. They had someone to do it for them. Their key political contact was Vito Ciancimino, the son of a Corleone barber and one of the most corrupt and malign influences on the Palermo political scene.
Ambitious, greedy and self-obsessed, Ciancimino would take the Corleonesi a long way.
Excerpted from Boss of Bosses by Clare Longrigg.
Copyright © 2008 by Clare Longrigg.
Published by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
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