The Sopranos? No, the Shepherds

By Federico Varese, the director of The Centre for the Study of Lawlessness and Extra-legal Protection at Oxford University (THE TIMES, 14/04/06):

BERNARDO PROVENZANO, the boss of the Corleone Mafia family, is finally behind bars after 43 years on the run. The so-called “boss of bosses” is accused of more than 100 murders. Legend has it that he strangled no less than 50 people. Documents found on his desk by the police testify that he was running the day-to-day affairs of the “family”. This wealth of information will help prosecutors to reconstruct the map of the family’s protection racket in Palermo, its links with local politicians and other Mafia groupings in Sicily.

A question remains: can this diminutive, silver-haired senior citizen really be the head of the most powerful criminal organisation of the world, with connections across the Atlantic, in the rest of Europe and Asia? Surely, we need to rethink the stereotypical picture of the Mafia: this man has little in common with Michael Corleone, the fictitious head of the New York City Corleone family penned by Mario Puzo and made famous by the Godfather film trilogy (Mario Puzo candidly admits in his memoirs that he never met a real honest-to-God gangster in his life and the book is pure fiction).

While Michael Corleone presided over an economic empire, stretching across several countries and with all the trapping of a CEO, Provenzano mostly hand-wrote his orders on little pieces of papers dispatched by trusted “postmen” to his accomplices and clients (recently, though he had started to use a typewriter). Provenzano’s hideout was a mere ramshackle cottage at the top of a field called Horse Hill (Montagna dei Cavalli), two miles outside his home town of Corleone, the inspiration for the Puzo novel’s Mafia family.

The cultural and human horizon of Provenzano is that of an uneducated Sicilian shepherd. An accomplice dubbed Provenzano a ferrigno duro, a Sicilian expression reserved for shepherds who spend week after week in the mountains, carrying with them only a sleeping bag and dried meat. Ruthless and cunning, the ferrigno duro does not belong to the same planet of the urban gangsters depicted in the Godfather and The Sopranos.

In stark contrast with the media-savvy dapper American don John Gotti, Provenzano has no style, no ability to articulate, no contacts outside a very small network of mountainous villages in the hills outside Palermo. Despite all the talk of protection in high places, Provenzano’s most valuable contact in his time in hiding was another shepherd, a childhood friend who owns a few sheep and sells ricotta in the local market.

An invaluable guide to Provenzano’s world is still the ethnography written in the late 1920s by Charlotte Gower, an American anthropologist. She spent a year in the small village of Milocca, some 80 miles south of Palermo. When the fascist police raided the village searching for mafiosi, “the square,” she wrote, “was filled with bleating sheep, goats, horses and mules”. With minor alterations, these words could well describe the central square of Corleone today.

Another unchanging feature shared by these mafiosi is their deep attachment to the Catholic Church. On the Provenzano’s desk, the police found five copies of the Bible. On the wall above his bed, was hanging the picture of Padre Pio, an Italian saint. The Bible is still open on Luke, 6, 44-46: “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh. And why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?” (The passage is underlined). One of the last messages Provenzano wrote ends: “I salute you and thank you with all my heart. Let God guide us to do good deeds for everybody”. In a society like Italy, with a sharp decline in church attendance and little knowledge of the Bible, this aspect of Provenzano’s worldview is remarkable.

Scholars have documented the ambiguous relationship between the Catholic Church and the Mafia since at least 1861, when the Italian State expropriated church property and the Church in turn refused to recognise the authority of the new Italy. Much of the clergy were content for the Mafia to mock the authorities. It was only in the 1980s that the Catholic Church took a firm stand against the Sicilian Mafia, at the time of the murder of Giovanni Falcone, the Palermo prosecutor. Still, bosses in hiding managed to have their children baptised and even marry.

How much of a threat can such an organisation be, though, when its boss can hardly type? The evil that the Sicilian Mafia causes should not be shrugged off lightly. Deeply rooted in a relatively small territory on the Western side of the island, despite the pressure of the Italian police it is still able to exercise a control that eludes the legitimate authorities. As a long-time observer of the Mafia, Attilio Bolzoni, wrote today: “It was Provenzano that assured public order in Western Sicily.”

In hazardous and uncertain mafialand, if a business wants to flourish it has to acquire violent protectors. The corrupt local elite may benefit, but the main losers, of course, are ordinary Sicilians and their fleeced pockets.

The likes of Provenzano do not need high-tech gadgets and the internet to enforce their rackets. As his many victims know, the barrels of a lupara will do.