When a Godfather Becomes Expendable

By Andrea Camilleri, the author of “The Smell of the Night” and other novels in the Inspector Montalbano series. This article was translated by Stephen Sartarelli from the Italian (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 21/04/06):

AFTER no fewer than 43 years on the run, Bernardo Provenzano, considered the supreme leader of the Sicilian Mafia, the boss of bosses, was finally captured last week.

It was long known that he was ill and needed medical care — so ill, indeed, that less than a month ago his former defense lawyer declared that Mr. Provenzano was dead and his “hunters” were chasing a ghost. News of his capture was greeted with enthusiasm by honest Sicilians (who constitute the overwhelming majority) and Italians, all of whom wanted to give thanks to the magistrates, carabinieri and policemen for their success.

But 43 years on the lam is a lot of years, too many for a civilized country. They weigh heavy, and cannot be erased by the joy of seeing the man arrested. How did this happen?

Nicknamed Ù Tratturi in Sicilian — because, like a tractor, wherever he passed he never left so much as a blade of grass in his wake — Mr. Provenzano was a shrewd man, cautious to the point of obsession, but not deemed very intelligent. Another legendary boss, Luciano Liggio, once said that Mr. Provenzano “shoots like a god but has the brains of a chicken.”

Though very rich, he lived like a pauper. Though powerful, he lived like a vagrant, or almost. He was arrested in a spartan cottage outside Corleone, the town where his family lived, and when he was periodically watched by the police over the last ten years, he seemed to have always lived this way — keeping to stables, caves and tumbledown, secluded cottages, sleeping on improvised, rude beds.

What seemed to matter more to him than wealth or comfort was the taste, the thrill, of power, including the power to decide who lives and who dies.

The authorities said that Mr. Provenzano would transmit his orders — regarding such matters as who should be rewarded with government contracts, whom one should vote for in local and national elections, how one should act on specific occasions — by means of pizzini, little scraps of paper folded several times over, which his trusty couriers (mostly peasants with spotless records) would pass from hand to hand along lengthy, circuitous and seemingly random routes.

These were necessary precautions to reduce, as much as possible, the risk of interception. One pizzino, for example, took more than 48 hours to travel the mile between the boss’s cottage and Corleone. Others could take weeks to reach a nearby destination. The telephone was out of the question.

In every pizzino, there was always a mention of God and his will and protection and, in Mr. Provenzano’s cottage, the authorities found five Bibles, one rosary, a variety of images of saints and a crucifix. Many mafiosi consider themselves religious when in fact they are simply superstitious. When he did attend Mafia meetings, Mr. Provenzano always made someone walk in front of him. And if some sixth sense told him he shouldn’t go at all, he didn’t.

But can any of these precautions explain 43 years without capture? Obviously not. It is said that he once eluded arrest because conflicts and rivalries among the various police and military forces chasing him left a few escape routes open. (The local and national police, the special forces, the anti-Mafia commission, the customs police, to name a few, all have separate and sometimes contradictory jurisdictions.) If this is true, it was the only time such a thing happened.

What really made his many years on the lam possible was the vast, intricate, durable and invisible web of protection that had been created around him. Much of this network consisted of supporters above suspicion, including prominent politicians, high-level businessmen and successful professionals. And since over the course of these 43 years many of the people who first helped Mr. Provenzano avoid arrest eventually died of old age, it follows that the task of protecting the boss was passed on to their sons, grandsons, relatives, friends and associates. It is no exaggeration to say that at least two generations of men “above suspicion” have been direct or indirect accomplices of Mr. Provenzano.

The vastness of this phenomenon is only one part of the evil that surrounds Mr. Provenzano. Without a doubt at least a few of his protectors remain not only reputable but practically untouchable, because of the authority they’ve acquired in their respective fields. Until these people are discovered and arrested, a successor to Mr. Provenzano might use them to similar ends.

After all, the boss’s arrest does not spell the end of the Mafia or even its decapitation. For some time now, the Mafia has been more than just Bernardo Provenzano and the boss himself has simply been the antiquated custodian of a highly productive garden that his more powerful fellow mafiosi let him tend until sickness and old age made him a burden. Perhaps it was decided that the time had come for the boss to be left to his own fate.

There’s an Italian expression that goes: “When one pope dies, another is made.” In the Mafia, however, the new pope is made (though never officially proclaimed) the moment the old one begins to fall ill. Lately the names of two possible candidates have been circulating: one is 43, a native of Trapani, and a fugitive for the last 12 years; the other is 63 and from Palermo, with 13 years on the lam. Will we have to wait another 30 years before both are captured and brought to justice?