|PUBLISHED IN GQ // MARCH 2007|
|Capturing the Last Don|
Bernardo Provenzano was the boss of all bosses of the Sicilian Mafia. He had been a fugitive since 1963, longer than anyone else anywhere in the world. For many years, he ran his organization obsessively, efficiently, and ruthlessly. And then, last April, on a small farm near Corleone, his years on the run came to an end
LAST YEAR THE POLICE FOUND AN OLD MAN HIDING on a farm in a rural region of a small country. The police had been looking for him for forty-three years, which, depending on how you count it, is a world record. He was the head of the most famous criminal organization in the world, had been convicted of dozens of murders, was thought to control a fortune as large as some of the richest men in the country. They found him in a little shed a mile away from his hometown, where his wife still lived and where one of his sons worked as a vacuum-cleaner salesman.
Almost no one had seen him since he was a young man barely more than a teenager. The last picture taken of him dated from before he was officially being hunted. Some people said he was dead. Some people claimed to have seen him dressed as a priest, gliding through the provincial capital in the back of a sedan. Serious journalists and conspiracy theorists both said that the reason he had not been caught was that there were people who didn’t want him caught—because he possessed secrets about powerful people or because he was controlled by the government or because he controlled the government. He was known as the Tractor, because when he was young he was said to mow people down with guns; or the Accountant, because he was quiet and dispassionate and compulsively meticulous; or the Ghost, because no one ever saw him, not even the vast majority of the members of the criminal organization he presided over. Of course, all this made him very popular in newspapers and on television. It seemed that half the books written in this part of the world were about him. This man and his criminal organization were, along with soccer, the great fascination and passion of the country where he lived and operated. Some people loved and revered him, and some people feared and loathed him. But to most people, he was almost imaginary, a fictional character. Until one afternoon last April, when the police found him in a cold room, living among the muddy buckets and hoses and tins a local farmer used to make cheese, and he was brought out into the public.
By the time he arrived at police headquarters a few hours after his arrest, a crowd had gathered. They chanted slogans, got drunk, wept, and mostly just did what people do when they are witness to a spectacle—call their friends on their cell phones and try to get a good view. A few police vehicles pulled up, officers wearing black masks to hide their identity cordoned o the motorcade, and the man climbed out. He walked slowly past the crowd wearing a pair of old jeans, cheap leather work boots, glasses with thick lenses and silver frames, and a police-issue windbreaker. He was very small, seemed kindly and frail, with hair gone completely white. He blinked a few times, smiled an odd inward smile, and disappeared into the police station, never looking at anyone or saying a single word.
THIS MAN'S NAME IS BERNARDO PROVENZANO, he is 73 years old, and until his capture he was almost without doubt the capo di tutti capi (boss of bosses) of the Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian Mafia. Outside of his organization and his family, the person who knows Provenzano best is the man who went into the small shed in Sicily alone to arrest him, Renato Cortese. Cortese is an expert in finding fugitives for the Italian police, and he spent eight years piecing together Provenzano’s life, his affiliations, habits, predilections, movements, medical history, eccentricities. In almost every piece of existing Provenzano footage, you can see Cortese close by, with his dense curly hair, heavy graying beard, and big, dark sunglasses. He’s almost always in physical contact with Provenzano, guiding him by the elbow through the crowd at police headquarters, making sure he doesn’t hit his head as he climbs into a squad car, as if Provenzano were a blind man or a skittish alien who doesn’t understand Earth.
“I became a policeman in 1991,” Cortese says through an interpreter during an interview. “But this is not about me. Let’s talk about the investigation.”
This is our second conversation, and there will be others. He suers through them. Sometimes when the interpreter finishes a question, it just hangs there, Cortese staring at it and stroking his dense beard while the question shrivels up and dies of embarrassment. He knows he’s expected to be cinematic. He is the mastermind cop pitted against the mastermind criminal, two dedicated, obsessed men, so similar metabolically but also sworn philosophical enemies. But he’s not crazy about the idea of being cinematic. It’s embarrassing. Having everything that’s happened in his life over the past eight years reduced to a story people think they know from the movies makes him kind of nauseous.
“Yes, I was assigned to follow the most important figure, Bernardo Provenzano,” Cortese says. He sits in a desk chair, wearing a jacket, his necktie done in a goiterish Italian-guy knot. “Yes, the diabolic figure. He had already been missing over thirty years when I began. We had no photograph of him. We didn’t know his face. There was nothing. It was like following a shadow.”
Today we meet in Palermo, at the secret headquarters of the secret unit that was assembled to catch Bernardo Provenzano. Cortese’s office is empty except for a desk and a telephone, an old stained couch, and a Nativity scene with a noseless Jesus that had been painted on the wall before Cortese moved in. In the room next to us, a couple of young cops in tight jeans are watching feeds from surveillance cameras hidden somewhere in the leafy Sicilian countryside. Cortese likes to keep a soggy little cigarillo in his mouth that often has to be relit, which he does now. The scent of it adds to the immense smell of his unapologetic Italian body odor, an odor so blanketing it seems to seep from the very plaster and ﬂooring of the room. This has been his office since February 2005, when Cortese moved his men into the building and the long last stage of the Provenzano investigation began.
Over the course of the past eight years, Cortese learned a lot of what he knows about Provenzano from intercepting notes called pizzini. While Provenzano was capo di tutti capi, these notes were almost exclusively how he communicated with the world, and by reading them Cortese saw that the empire Provenzano ruled was large but intimate. He not only weighed in on which government contracts to bid on and which property to buy but advised minor bosses about what to do when their daughters dated men they didn’t approve of. He ruled by appearing not to rule, by seeming to be merely an old, respected man giving friendly advice. This may have been theater, though. The Cosa Nostra has always been about speaking aectionately to people you plan to kill.
Provenzano typed these notes on plain white paper, using a Brother AX 410 electric typewriter. They were folded a number of times so that they were the size of a narrow box of matches, covered over in tape, and sometimes sewn into the clothes of the messengers. They were passed hand to hand in ritualized encounters—false business meetings, crowded markets, or in what Cortese calls “lonely places”—between trusted men who didn’t know the link in the courier system past their own, so that only the last link knew the location of Provenzano. He wrote his pizzini in fairly simple ungrammatical Sicilian (he dropped out of school in second grade). It’s easy to understand what’s written in the notes, except that instead of proper names there are numbers—Provenzano had invented a numerical system to identify the Cosa Nostra members. In 2001, for instance, the police intercepted this pizzino en route to Provenzano, written by his son:
For a medical visit, I wanted to contact, with your permission, 101223415151214819647415218. Buying land: I have been a little disobedient on this. So I met with the interested person 5121515…and we will meet again after the holidays to discuss.
By 2005 Cortese and his many, many associates had traced the ﬂow of pizzini to an ugly exurban satellite of Palermo that has been dominated for the past 150 years by the Cosa Nostra.
“We tried to understand the beginning of the pizzini chain,” Cortese says. “Starting from [mafioso 1] through [mafiosi 2 and 3] in a nearby town, through [mafioso 4] in another nearby town, to [mafioso 5] in [the town where Provenzano was hiding]. But [mafioso 5] was the last link we could find. The trail was dead from there, and we couldn’t find where it went. So we decided to arrest all these people who were supporting Provenzano. There were more than fifty of them, and we arrested them all. We wanted to leave Provenzano isolated, alone. We called it re nudo. The naked king. So we thought there would be no one left to support him. He would be vulnerable, and he would have to leave this town. We thought we knew where he would go.”
The arrests happened in January 2005. Press conferences were held. The Mafia infrastructure of the ugly Palermo exurb fell in on itself. Ciccio Pastoia, one of the men closest to Provenzano, the man who oversaw his needs like a criminal valet, hanged himself in jail because he felt he’d let the boss down. But nothing was heard from or detected about Provenzano himself. He remained, as he preferred to be, completely silent.
One of the people Cortese works for is Pietro Grasso, the highest-ranking anti-Mafia official in Italy, a handsome man who looks like a politician and works in an office in a baroque landmark building in the center of Rome with filigreed walls and heavy shellacked furniture.
“After those fifty arrests, we discovered that some cops were moles, and they had been informing the Mafia about our investigations,” Grasso says. Grasso smells like Italian cologne; his shirt fits perfectly. Some journalists say he has his job because he won’t make too much trouble for the Mafia; others say he has made too much trouble for the Mafia. “That’s why we couldn’t get him—he always knew what we were doing. We had to change something. So after the arrests, we formed a new team. We identified a group of people, policemen who were above suspicion, and put them in a completely isolated environment.”
Cortese was put in charge of this new group. He chose twenty-six policemen he had worked with in the past. He found an old precinct in Palermo that had been out of use for a couple of years, installed his new team there, and put a uniformed policeman at the front door who believed the men inside were conducting ordinary investigations. And then he turned his focus to a single small town.
“Corleone is his home,” Cortese says. “After these arrests, the men he trusted were all gone, and he felt unsafe. We believed either he would go away or he would go home. But when you are a boss of the Cosa Nostra, you never go away. You rule. So we decided to go to Corleone.”
THE PALERMO MAFIA PROSECUTORS ARE FAMOUS. There are more than a half dozen of them, including one woman who wears short skirts. They occupy a high ﬂoor in the palace of justice in Pa-lermo and preside over all Cosa Nostra investigations in the region. Arguably the two most famous men in the history of Italian crime are two Mafia prosecutors: Borsellino and Falcone. In the early ’90s, they brought almost the entire known Mafia infrastructure to trial at the same time in a dank former castle where the defendants sat in cages surrounding the courtroom while they smoked, whispered, fidgeted, strutted, called out epithets, and for the first time could be looked at, seen by the Italian people. In 1992, Falcone was blown up in his car while he was driving back from the airport; two months later, Borsellino was blown up while ringing the bell to his mother’s apartment building. (Provenzano, who was quickly rising in the ranks of the organization, was convicted in absentia for helping to plan those killings.) Being blown up made Borsellino and Falcone even more famous, elevated them to the status of ghosts, like Provenzano himself. The airport was named after them, as were the highway to the airport, the main square in Corleone, and many government buildings. The Mafia prosecutors now work for the ghosts of Borsellino and Falcone, or at least that is what they will tell you, in so many words.
The palace of justice is dim and echoey and feels abandoned even though there are plenty of people around. It’s like a building in a nonfunctioning colonial outpost. Some of the prosecutors are milling around outside an office, whispering to each other. Cortese is there. I wave, but he doesn’t see me. There’s another group of men down the hall from us, arguing and smoking, wearing Euro sneakers, with big handguns jammed into their (pre-ripped, vari-color-washed) jeans. One of them eyes us, legs spread, his jeans so tight you can see the bulge of his strangled dick. Emanuele Lo Cascio, my interpreter (and the photographer for this story), explains that these are bodyguards. Emanuele finds it impossible to be a working photographer in Sicily and not cover the Mafia, because that is mainly what people want to know about here. He knows every player in the Sicilian Mafia industry and has internalized the long narrative of the organization and the related narrative of humiliation in Sicily, which he often has to recite for me as slowly and simply as possible. He has no passion for the subject anymore, and once he almost literally throws up while he’s telling me about it.
Then someone’s whispering in my ear. “You two are always together,” Cortese says, about the interpreter and me. “We notice that. We notice everything.”
Michele Prestipino is the prosecutor in charge of investigating Provenzano. He welcomes us into his office and sits in front of shelves of big white boxes containing the files for infamous cases. One of them is for the ongoing investigation of Sicily’s top elected official, Salvatore Cuaro, who stands accused of working closely with the Cosa Nostra.
“Every minute for five years, we looked for Provenzano, me and Cortese,” Prestipino says. “So it’s inevitable that we would come to understand this man’s philosophy. He was the boss for longer than any other boss. Why? His philosophy. His strategy has always been not to make too much noise.”
Prestipino availed himself of the historiography that had accumulated over the years. The first time the name Bernardo Provenzano appears in the files, it was attached to a goon. When a teenage kid like Bernardo Provenzano joined the Corleonese family in the 1950s, he was expected to kill someone. Murder was very -important to the organization. In the early days, Provenzano -appeared to be a man who was especially enthusiastic about this part of his job. An important boss said, “He has the brains of a chicken, but he shoots like an angel.” Provenzano was charged with the murder of an enemy mafioso in Corleone in 1963, and afterward the police issued a warrant for his arrest. He and almost all of the known Corleonese family disappeared as much as they needed to. Which wasn’t much, since the Mafia was more in control of this territory than the state was. In 1969 he was an assassin at the famous massacre on Viale Lazio, when a team of Corleonese showed up at a -rival boss’s office dressed as policemen and then gunned him down. This is when Provenzano was called the Tractor.
In the ’70s, a dierent Provenzano began to appear in investigations. During what became known as the Pizza Connection, when the American and Sicilian Mafia went into a multibillion-dollar heroin business -together, the police heard about a character with a calculator and a balance sheet who compulsively kept watch over the most minute details of the business. In surveillance tapes and informant interviews, they referred to this man, Provenzano, as the Accountant. The man he worked for then was named Riina, the bloodiest boss in the history of the Cosa Nostra. A thousand mafiosi were killed in the war he waged to take over as capo di tutti capi. It’s possible that Provenzano arranged for Riina’s arrest, because he was out of control. It can’t be known for certain if he ascended in 1993 when Riina was arrested, but Prestipino knows that by 1996, Provenzano was the capo di tutti capi.
Then he began to recede further, go silent, and in the newspapers and on television they started to call him the Ghost of Corleone. When Cortese and Prestipino arrested Provenzano’s right-hand man in 2002 and he became an informant, it was the first time someone who actually knew what Provenzano looked like could help update the most recent photograph they had of him, from 1959. He said he was one of the few people who’d ever seen Provenzano.
“Provenzano would talk to only a very few people,” Prestipino says. “And what he would say to one person, he would not say to anyone else. Everyone would know only a little bit. Only he kept the entire picture in his head. That was his organizational-genius—his ability to keep everything moving and organized using a system that divides.”
As Provenzano grew more powerful and isolated, he became more peculiar, fixated. He brooded over his health, the state of his body, its deterioration. Entire pizzini would be devoted to discussing the salutary benefits of eating chicory. The men he was close to became de facto home health practitioners. A man named Angelo Tolentino was known to personally deliver a type of Sicilian honey Provenzano believed to have salubrious eects. After the turn of the millennium, there was a great commotion about the boss’s prostate. Cortese and his associates heard chatter about it. There was a tumor. A cadre of men closest to Provenzano planned an expedition to Marseille, France. They obtained false identification for him, put him in a car, and boarded a ferry. At a clinic near Marseille, a doctor operated on his prostate tumor. When he got home, his medical expenses were submitted under the false name, and the Italian health administration reimbursed him. This is when he could have become known as the Gland.
Provenzano was as fixated on religion as he was on the details of his physical deterioration. He had a priest come to his hideout so he could receive Communion. He had an altar built in one of his hiding places in Palermo. He ended each pizzino with a benediction: “May the Lord bless and protect you.” The only known female Cosa Nostra boss, who’d been arrested and became an informant, said the single time she saw Provenzano, he was wearing the purple silks of a bishop.
It’s not unusual for bosses to be religious. The Cosa Nostra is like a religious sect—or a terrorist cell or a fringe political group—in that the viability of the organization depends on its ability to make its members believe deeply in the story it tells and the rules it pretends to follow. In that, it overcomes obvious contradictions (loyalty is above all else, except when we kill you; we’re deeply reverent Catholics, but we also like to extort and sell heroin) by playing on emotion, creating mysticism, and telling you that you are just, regardless of your actions, simply because of who you are and what you’re affiliated with.
“He saw himself as the savior of the Mafia,” Prestipino says. “Before him, Cosa Nostra were in the traditional businesses. Extortion from farmers and businesses. Narcotics trafficking. Government corruption, kickbacks from government contracts. But he brought them into the health industry, which, since Italy has nationalized health care, can be corrupted the same way government construction can. He invested in real estate. And he was the first boss to -realize that you could do all this only if you were quiet. So he kept the murders to a minimum, and the murders that did happen were very quiet. And he kept peace among all the families of Sicily. All the bosses respected him; you could see it in the way they addressed him in the pizzini. He carried himself as if he were a saint.”
Provenzano the reformer. The Mass-taking old man of the murder industry who is pained by the violence, the aggression, the infighting, who worries over the fate of his minions and all of Sicily. The reluctant despot: It’s a popular way to see yourself when you are the head of an organization that is systematically starving a people. There are lots of Sicilian phrases you hear when you interview people about the Mafia. One of them says, “In Sicily the road to the truth is long and indirect.” True enough. Another one, which is deployed to explain why men like Provenzano live truncated, shitty lives as fugitives instead of moving to a discreet nation in Africa where they can live on the beach with 200 servants, says: “In Sicily, it’s better to rule than to fuck.” In Provenzano’s case, he isn’t the capo di tutti capi because he likes to rule; he’s the capo di tutti capi because without him so much more violence would befall Sicily. That’s the story he is telling to his organization, to the police, to the people, probably to himself. He’s somehow worked over the logic so that his ruling the Mafia is an act of divine beneficence.
Prestipino is now ready for us to leave. Interviews are fine, but he gets anxious; he’d prefer to be poring over his case files, sequestered behind bulletproof glass, digesting thousands of pages of transcripts of wiretaps and interrogations, keeping watch over the narrative and history of the Cosa Nostra. To become a Mafia prosecutor, you have to almost completely renounce the world, renounce your old friendships, your old self. You spend all your time either alone or with other prosecutors, having esoteric conversations unintelligible to anyone else, like Talmudic scholars expert in some lost text. To even begin to fight the Mafia, it is necessary for the Mafia prosecutors to operate outside the government, which can’t always be relied upon to want the Mafia to go away. Before Falcone and Borsellino, some members of the government would not even concede that the Mafia existed. The history of the Mafia goes like this: First it was ubiquitous and also invisible, an organization that convinced the populace that it was both powerful and immaterial; then Borsellino and Falcone made it corporeal, and everyone got a brief view of the ugly, shabby, stingy meanness of the men who formed it; and then it disappeared again, thanks to Bernardo Provenzano, and people started to wonder again if it was such a big deal. The Mafia invented itself and then made itself disappear. The Mafia prosecutors had to invent themselves to be able to see it.
* * *
IN FEBRUARY 2005, after arresting Provenzano’s men, Cortese’s team moves into the abandoned precinct near the Duomo in Pa-lermo. Eighteen of them are local, and eight are from Rome. Some are experts in following people; some are experts in placing bugs; some can find traces of people in public records, like at the driver’s license bureau or the department of health; some can watch hours and hours of surveillance video without getting bored and missing something. The Duomo Squad, as they are known to the few officials aware of them, limit their investigation strictly to Corleone, an hour’s drive from Palermo.
“In a town like Corleone, everyone knows each other,” Cortese says. “An undercover policeman can’t go to a bar or hang around town. It’s impossible. They’ll know you’re a stranger instantly.”
Because of this, Cortese and his men operate at a physical remove from the people they watch. They mostly use hidden cameras. Two teams of men place the first camera, about the size of a tube of lipstick, about a half mile from a big pink house on the outskirts of town, where Provenzano’s wife lives with one of their middle-aged sons. Provenzano’s wife had disappeared with him when he went into hiding; then she returned over twenty years later with two children and has been living in Corleone ever since. She owns a dry-cleaning establishment. Even if everyone knows she is the wife of the capo di tutti capi, even though whenever she enters the local bar or the main piazza everyone stands and greets her like a dignitary, it is important to continue to operate the dry-cleaning business, because it makes a statement about the kind of people they are, and because the Mafia has always taken advantage of a quirk of human nature—that you can convince people of something absurd simply by looking them in the eye and insisting over and over that it’s true. “The theater is as important as the reality for the Mafia,” one of the Mafia prosecutors told me, “and really for all Sicilians.”
For several months, this is the only camera. Cortese and his men look for patterns: when the shopping is done, when deliveries are made, when blinds are opened and closed. They notice that only family members enter or leave the house—no friends, no strangers. They notice that a man named Giuseppe, who is married to Provenzano’s niece, shows up several times a week. He and Provenzano’s son work together selling Kirby vacuum cleaners. One afternoon, they notice Giuseppe leaving the house with a plastic bag. An ordinary plastic bag, the kind they give you at the grocery store. Occasionally, on other days, they see Giuseppe leave the house with plastic bags that he didn’t have when he showed up. New cameras are installed; surveillance methods that Cortese won’t elaborate on are deployed. The day after Giuseppe leaves the wife’s house with a bag, he brings it to his father’s house and then leaves again without it. His father, Calogero, is known to have Mafia affiliations. Which is by no means conclusive evidence of anything. Anyone who hangs out with Provenzano’s family can be said to have Mafia affiliations. So they install another camera and watch Calogero’s house.
There is a fountain near this house that is very popular with the people in Corleone. They see that Calogero gets his water there, sometimes early in the morning when it’s still dark and other times when it’s very crowded. Once, when he gets water at the fountain, he has a plastic bag with him—and on that day, he runs into a man named Bernardo Riina. Riina leaves with the bag, climbs into his four-by-four, and drives off.
Ten months after the Duomo Squad is formed, this is where they are in the investigation. They suspect that these bags are in transit to Provenzano. But they can’t figure out where they go once Bernardo Riina puts them in his four-by-four. New cameras are installed. The investigation widens.
* * *
ONE AFTERNOON, I meet two members of the Duomo Squad at an outdoor café in Palermo. Call them Bracelets and Wolf Eyes. They’re already seated when we arrive. Bracelets is tall and handsome, with a beard. He’s wearing jeans, chocolate brown Nikes, and a cropped chocolate brown corduroy jeans jacket. Coiled around his neck five or six times is a thin leather strap with little gold trinkets hanging off it; there’s another one wound around his wrist. Bracelets is one of Cortese’s chief deputies and is Wolf Eyes’ boss. Wolf Eyes started out as a bodyguard for a Mafia prosecutor and then was recruited to work for the fugitive department. He has brown hair bleached by sun, a tan face, and spooky yellow wolf eyes. To make it even more confusing, he is also wearing bracelets. He sits silently, stirring his cappuccino, in a colorful striped dress shirt under a ﬂamboyantly pin-striped suit jacket. Bracelets won’t divulge whether or not they’re married except to say they both have people who care about them. But they don’t look married. They look like the men who are stealing your girlfriend at a dance club.
Bracelets and Wolf Eyes say they didn’t do much of anything in Palermo while the investigation was going on except work. Maybe watch a soccer game or go to the nearby bar for an espresso. “When we went to eat,” Bracelets says, “we always fought over who was going to sit in the corner of the room against the wall. That’s what we all wanted. I do that even when I’m on a date; ask him
Wolf Eyes nods his head.
“But the key when you do what we do is to see without looking. You know what I mean? See without looking.”
They say the longer the investigation went on, the further along they got on the plastic-bag chain, the more intense the atmosphere became. Bracelets says he couldn’t turn o the switch. He was working, at least mentally, all the time. It was true for all of them. The normal world where other people live relocated to a distant planet; their relationships with those who couldn’t know what they were doing—wives, husbands, brothers, girlfriends—began to shrink. They even started cooking at the office. The Palermo men taught the Romans how to cook a Sicilian-peasant specialty, grilled unidentified lamb guts.
“Have you ever had grilled unidentified lamb guts?” Wolf Eyes says through Emanuele, the interpreter.
This is the second time he’s spoken. “No? Well they’re fucking amazing.”
A little while later, Wolf Eyes looks at Emanuele. “Hey, you’re from Palermo?” Yeah, Emanuele says.
“Were you in Piazza Bologna yesterday? With a girl?” Emanuele says that yes, he did happen to be in Piazza Bologna yesterday with a girl. “You got mad at a driver who backed into your motorcycle,” Wolf Eyes says. Emanuele says, Yes, that’s right. Wolf Eyes sips his cappuccino, looking Wolf Eyeish. This man has never met Emanuele before. Yesterday he didn’t know what Emanuele looked like. Wolf Eyes is either telling us: Our powers of observation and recollection are greater than you could imagine—am I freaking you out? Or he’s saying: We were watching you, and we want you to know that we were watching you—am I freaking you out?
Except for Cortese, no one from the Duomo Squad has ever spoken with the press about the investigation. Bracelets has been given clear instructions about what they can discuss (the general plot, their emotions) and what they can’t (specific tactics, sources of information) and for how long he should talk (apparently forty-five minutes). In the middle of the interview, Cortese calls. Bracelets takes the call, and when he comes back to the table, he says the interview is over. Emanuele tells me later that Bracelets smiled at him in a way that meant “My boss thinks I’m talking too much.”
* * *
IF YOU WANT to argue for two hours about where you can get the best ricotta in Corleone, pretty much anyone in town will oblige. There’s a strong contingent who believe it comes from a small sheep farm about five minutes outside Corleone on a slope called Horse Mountain (loose translation). This group would seem to include Mr. Four-by-Four. He is the last known link on the underground plastic-bag railroad, so he is watched closely by the Duomo Squad. And they see him at this farm, in his four-by-four, on several occasions. Cortese becomes convinced that this is the next link. Wolf Eyes and several other operatives begin a stakeout of the cheesemaker.
There are two buildings on the property: One the cheesemaker uses to milk his sheep and make his cheese; the other is apparently abandoned. At night several men put a high-powered surveillance camera in a rocky outcropping a mile or two away, attach it to a couple of car batteries, and train it on the abandoned house. For a while, they see nothing. The house emits no light; it almost disappears when the sun sets. No sound can be heard. Then, one afternoon in early spring, they see the cheesemaker adjusting a TV antenna outside of it, a strange thing to be doing outside an empty shed. The man watching the videotape calls Cortese, and when Cortese comes into the Duomo precinct and reviews the tape, he believes for the first time he knows where Bernardo Provenzano is.
On Sunday, April 9, 2006, Cortese’s men see Giuseppe, the vacuum-cleaner salesman, leave the pink house with a plastic bag. This is an opportunity to follow the bag sequence from the beginning to, they hope, the end. Cortese wants confirmation, to see the bag being delivered to this little abandoned shed. As soon as the bag departs the pink house, a small team leaves Palermo for Corleone. Wolf Eyes had helped scout out a simple house a mile or two from the cheesemaker’s farm. It’s a single room with no heat or plumbing and a concrete ﬂoor. Maybe it belongs to someone and maybe it’s abandoned, but they don’t have time to find out. Cortese, along with Bracelets and three other deputies, are shown into the little house, where they set up a monitor for the video feed and seal themselves inside. In the woods nearby, other members of the Duomo Squad take up positions in case they are also being watched or someone (a local, the owner of the little house) should wander too close to them. Later on Sunday, Cortese gets a phone call reporting that the bag has been delivered to Mr. Four-by-Four’s house, the last link before the cheesemaker. And then…nothing.
It is the longest day of Cortese’s life. All Monday they stay inside the little house, completely silent. No one has slept. They take turns resting on the concrete ﬂoor. They run out of sandwiches. They pee into water bottles. That night the batteries for the camera die. Several men put on dark clothes and sneak onto the mountainside to change them, then steal their way back toward Cortese in his quiet house.
* * *
TUESDAY MORNING, and Provenzano is inside the little shed. He’s been in here for days. Maybe weeks, maybe months. Certainly as long as the camera was installed in the rocks, as long as Cortese has been pissing in a bottle just over the hill, watching greasy green-and-black images piped into his little mountain redoubt. The windows are sealed; the door is sealed; the house is a mess, a shed, with wreckage, dented farming implements—the kind of place you see and think, The old farmer shouldn’t be left by himself. At night he watches TV with a blanket over his head so no light can be seen. His son wrote out instructions for the VCR in a pizzino that he keeps close by: First push this button, then turn that knob. He watches videotapes of the American soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful, dubbed into Italian. Sometimes he listens to an old Walkman. He’s been given tapes of an Italian singer who was popular in the ’40s and an audiocassette soundtrack of The Godfather. He also has an audiocassette of songs sung by the Smurfs. Today he is likely following the national election—which ended yesterday—on TV, a drawn-out spectacle that becomes Italy’s Bush v. Gore. Some people will think that what happens today, Tuesday, April 11, at Horse Mountain only happens because of the result of that election.
Sometime after noon, the sounds of a truck pulling into the farm can be heard. There are footsteps, some chatter, the slamming of car doors. Provenzano is expecting a package today—some laundered clothes. Sometimes he gets a plate of baked pasta made by his wife down on the other side of town, a woman he may not have seen for the past decade. But not today. A little less than a half hour later, he hears the cheesemaker’s approach. They exchange some words through the closed door. Then Bernardo Provenzano opens the door and extends a hand, takes the bag of laundry inside, and closes the door. It is the first physical trace of Provenzano that Cortese, watching on his monitor, has ever seen. A frail old hand. Cortese calls it il manino, the little hand.
The sound of the four-by-four filters into nothing, and Provenzano settles in for his day. He is supposed to administer himself an injection in a little while, for his cancer, and that has been set up and is ready to go. He puts a sheet of typing paper into the electric typewriter and begins to compose a pizzino.
Less than an hour later, another car comes into the driveway at Horse Mountain. More than one car. There are three four-wheel-drive vehicles, moving at a slow, deliberate pace. A man with a beard and big sunglasses jumps out of the lead car before it comes to a complete stop. The farmer scuttles over. Maybe it’s someone buying cheese. The farmer is sti and small in his old age, and when he realizes the man with the beard is heading toward the little shed, he tries to step in front of him. The man throws the farmer to the ground and then turns to look at the shed, where the door is open, and the two men see each other for the first time. Provenzano, standing there with 10,000 euros stashed in his underwear, tries to push the door shut, but Renato Cortese slams it open, breaking the glass and cutting his hand. The two men are standing inside this little shed.
At first Provenzano may believe he’s being assassinated. He pus up his chest. But a look of understanding crosses his face, and he lets his arms fall, palms out, a gesture of capitulation. He says, “You don’t know what you’re doing.”
Cortese asks him only one question. “Do you want to tell me your name?” he said.
Provenzano answers, “If you know who I am, why do you need me to say it?” Of course, it’s theater. He means: Nothing is changed even though I am here with you.
Cortese goes outside and makes a signal to his men. Some of the men start to cry. Then they go inside the little shed to meet Provenzano. They’re all wearing black masks, except for Cortese, to hide their identities. But when they get inside the shed, they stand in front of him, remove their masks, and say: I am the one who caught you, and I’m not scared.
“It was just as I imagined it,” Bracelets says. “This place, this house, this man, this typewriter. If I were to do a painting of Provenzano’s place as I imagined it, it would be exactly this way. To know somebody so well without knowing him, this is very emotional.”
* * *
WHATEVER YOU EXPECT to find in the town of Corleone, you will likely not find it. It’s not really a country town, and it’s not really a city. It’s not like it was in The Godfather, which you’ll be ashamed to have wondered about. The main bar in town does play the Godfather theme sometimes, and some local entrepreneurs do make a liqueur called Don Corleone, which they advertise with a banner. One resident claims to have found Al Pacino’s ancestors here in Corleone and has been trying to find Pacino in Los Angeles through directory assistance. But otherwise, no one cares.
Corleone is working-class, 12,000 souls, light industry, dark row houses that look heavy enough to plunge through the earth’s crust, stores that sell things. But it’s a working-class town that’s built in a hobbit realm. Columns of rock rise out of the streets in ungodly formations. The town is backed into a high, sheer cli that rises over it. It’s where you’d drive the rebel army to slaughter them because they’d have nowhere to run. Provenzano grew up on a narrow dead-end block of shuttered houses, made from dark stone, that look cold and dead. The other salient feature of this town is the lack of residents. Despite its population, as far as I can tell after three or four visits, only about seven people live here, all of them short. The only people in the main square today are a Swedish couple consulting a map of famous Mafia murders. There’s no sign of human habitation at the home of Provenzano’s wife, the pink house with all the shutters closed, perched above an abyss, with sheep grazing green hills out beyond.
At the cheesemaker’s farm where Provenzano lived his last free days, Emanuele and I ditch the car and walk up to the police line that cordons o the property. It’s not as rural as Cortese would have you imagine. It’s almost suburban. Across the street are a few “vacation” houses that people from Corleone commute five minutes to in the summer. The lot next to the cheesemaker’s farm is empty, and Emanuele and I climb up a little blu on it so we can look down on the shed. The grass is overgrown, and the land is stricken with a plague of tiny white snails that explode when we walk. There’s an old Fiat behind the house where the Gland was hiding. And there’s the famous TV antenna.
The police have excavated the property, looked for tunnels, bunkers, caches of money, what have you. But they have found nothing except what was in the house. The electric typewriter. Hundreds of pizzini, which were used to make a new round of arrests last summer. A Bible with lots of strange writing in it, which may have been used as Provenzano’s journal or a guide to a new code, based on biblical references, and is now in Quantico being examined by the FBI. A portrait of the Virgin Mary on the wall.
“He gets caught with a bag of laundry?” Emanuele says as we look down upon this ugly little farm. “It’s ridiculous! The big boss. The genius of crime. He gets caught because of a bag of underwear? It took forty-three years to catch a man two miles away from his home? It’s ridiculous. There is more to the story.”
Meanwhile, the organism lives on without him. Eighty percent of businesses in Sicily still pay protection money to the Cosa Nostra. The highest elected official in Sicily, on trial for being in business with the Cosa Nostra, continues in his post. They have once more started delivering goats’ heads to people the Cosa Nostra wishes to send a message to. The organization now squeezes a good portion of its $10 billion in government contracts from the health industry. Ine∞ciency abounds. Last year, a 78-year-old woman died of a heart attack after waiting four hours in an emergency room.
An old police car pulls up with its one-fat, one-skinny crew of unshaven Corleonese policemen. Someone’s seen us via hidden camera, and they’ve been dispatched to investigate. They tell us Corleone is a wonderful place to be a police officer.
“If we want to have a coee with someone,” the skinny one says, “it’s no problem. We have friends. There’s no hostility toward policemen.”
They stay with us until we leave.
* * *
THE PRISON IN CENTRAL Italy where Provenzano is being held is meant to be the Supermax of Italy. It’s where the murderers go, the Mafia bosses and assassins. But it looks more like an elementary school in a Long Island suburb—low, ﬂat, brick, the cheerful bright blue trim only rendering it more sad. The warden and I eat some delicious pesto in the prison cafeteria. He tells me the prison has its own olive orchard, and soon the inmates will be making another batch of their olive oil.
Provenzano lives in a prison within a prison within a prison, a walled-off section of a building with a population of one. Most days he reads the Bible. He walks alone in a small yard for two hours. Every fifteen days he is allowed to take Mass with a priest. He never reads the papers; he likes to get his news from TV. His meals come from a special, personal chef so that he is not poisoned. He keeps an obsessive journal, mostly a log of what he eats and the functionality of various parts of his body. His wife and children are allowed to visit Provenzano once each month, with a glass partition between them. When they leave, he is permitted to send his laundry home with them in a plastic bag. His lawyer is allowed to visit him whenever he wants.
“He has more than a hundred murder charges against him,” his lawyer, a drawn man with pale eyes and a voice like he’s been eating lawn-mower blades, said when we met in Palermo. “But there is not one murder where he is accused of actually being present physically. They consider him to be the capo di tutti capi. So everything that happened in the last forty-three years, he is charged with. In America either you order a homicide or you don’t. In Italy it is something called moral complicity. Because he was the boss, he has moral complicity to those murders.”
This is why Provenzano has always operated at a remove, to claim innocence by separation. Later in the conversation the lawyer said, “People act like this man has special powers. He doesn’t. But he is very intelligent. He knows his situation. He will spend the rest of his life in jail. The guards don’t talk to him. No one is allowed to speak to him. He will never touch his wife or children again. But no part of him wants to give up. He does not complain. He is a perfect gentleman. He follows all the rules they give him. He always blesses me when he sees me. So maybe you could say he has special powers. Because he can live a life that others could not.”
After lunch, the warden shows me the closed-circuit TV in his office, where he can watch surveillance from dierent parts of the prison. He can tune in live feed from Provenzano’s cell if he wants, but he won’t put him on for me because that’s against the rules. Instead we watch prisoners from the other part of Provenzano’s building. They are all organized-crime figures, and they’re kept quarantined from the rest of the population. There are some well-known criminals here, including the son of the most famous mafioso ever, Salvatore Riina, who declared war on the state in the ’80s and ordered the assassination of the two Mafia prosecutors in the early ’90s. Some suspect he was given up by Provenzano. When Provenzano entered the prison, one newspaper reported, Riina’s son shouted out that Provenzano was a cop. Riina’s son has denied he ever said anything. We watch some smeary green figures on-screen get wanded as they head back from the showers in their bathrobes.
“For us it’s easier to manage the Mafia prisoners, because they’re more quiet,” the warden says. “They have principles, values, respect, and honor. Even when Provenzano came here, for the first days there was total silence because of the code. We don’t know what it means. It’s not a public code. There’s no book we can look in.”
That the criminals behave according to a code is what’s appealing about the Mafia. Part of the reason organized criminals everywhere have success in marketing themselves is that they take the unpredictability out of crime. You know who is going to kill you, and why, and when. You get robbed on a weekly basis (it’s called extortion) instead of not knowing what might happen. Of course, the criminals can also change the rules whenever they want. It’s usually not a good bargain.
The warden says Provenzano has revealed himself only once over the months he’s been here. “The first period he was here, we weren’t able to see the charisma of a boss,” he says. “We thought it was fake. But once, I went into his cell with another officer. Provenzano was silent. The other officer joked and said, ‘You know, this is the worst warden you could ever have!’ And I said, ‘Do you agree with him? Am I the worst?’ Provenzano says one cold sentence: ‘This officer understands what his limits are with the warden.’ He meant: ‘I understand the power in your relationship perfectly; you can joke with the warden because the warden lets you joke with him.’ It’s about power. And his power is: I’m outside of your world and will not be drawn in.” The warden looks to see if this story is chilling. I want it to be chilling, but it’s too Sicilian for me. It’s a little over my head. Then he says, “Normally, this doesn’t happen. You will say, ‘How are you, Provenzano?’ and he will say, ‘How God wants me to be.’ Or he’ll say, ‘Everything will work out as God plans.’ ”
“We interrogated him once,” Prestipino, the Mafia prosecutor, told me. “But he will never answer.”
When I ask Pietro Grasso, the anti-Mafia czar, about that interrogation, he says, “He knows a lot of the mysteries of Italy. Mysteries he will never tell.”
Provenzano probably sees himself as somehow anointed. Not just because of his pax mafioso or his trying to bring the Mafia into more reputable disreputable businesses, but by dint of his sacrifice. His whole life has been sacrifice. At the end, he had sacrificed almost everything: a mile away from a wife and family he could not physically touch, his vast fortune hidden somewhere and virtually useless, sitting in that shed by himself with a blanket over his head. And now he lives out his last days in silence, in a small cell, eating alone, watching soap operas on television. It’s not that he endures the sacrifice, maybe. It’s that sacrifice is his currency. It’s his nourishment. It’s what he accumulates. Sacrifice is his ultimate piece of Sicilian theater, one that he now puts on for himself.