Bernardo Provenzano, Who Led Sicilian Mafia Clan, Is Dead at 83


By SAM ROBERTS
Bernardo Provenzano, the godfather of Sicily’s flesh-and-blood Corleone crime family who eluded the police for 43 years and who was a convicted conspirator in the murder of Italy’s two leading Mafia prosecutors, died on Wednesday in Milan. He was 83.
His lawyer, Rosalba Di Gregorio, said he had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease, cancer and a stroke, and that he had been hospitalized since 2014 under the supervision of prison authorities.
In 2006, Mr. Provenzano was arrested in a squalid shepherd’s shack where he had been living about a mile from Corleone, the hardscrabble hilltop town where he was born, which Mario Puzo mythologized as the original home of the New York gangsters who swaggered through novels and movies about organized crime, most notably “The Godfather.”
Mr. Provenzano was originally nicknamed the Tractor, a name he earned by viciously mowing down investigators, journalists and other victims.
He was later called the Accountant, for his mastery of the mob’s finances and, after he became the boss of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra clans in 1993, his relatively conciliatory regime, during which there were fewer bloody bombings and a shift from narcotics to white-collar crime.
He had another name, too: the Phantom, which stemmed from his record as Italy’s longest-sought fugitive. Armed only with a photograph of Mr. Provenzano from 1959, the authorities had sought him for murder since 1963 but failed to apprehend him until 2006 — leading cynical Sicilians to suspect that he was being protected by powerful people.
In the 1980s and ’90s, he managed the Mafia’s finances from an 18th-century villa in Bagheria, a Palermo suburb, forgoing telephones and bank accounts, and surreptitiously being chauffeured to business meetings in an ambulance.
After he holed up in his dilapidated farmhouse refuge outside Corleone, about 36 miles south of Palermo, he subsisted largely on honey and vegetables. He communicated by passing typed notes on tiny rolled-up pieces of paper peppered with religious references (Mr. Provenzano was said to have been a devout Roman Catholic and had five Bibles on hand) and passed hand to hand by a chain of messengers. It might take as long as 48 hours for a note to travel the mile from his farmhouse to town.
Bernardo Provenzano was born in Corleone on Jan. 31, 1933, to farmworker parents. He left school to work in the fields when he was 10, the same year the Allies liberated Sicily. As a teenager, before he was ever wanted by the police, he was being pursued by fellow mobsters during a gang war. But unlike Vito Andolini in “The Godfather,” he remained in Sicily.
Mr. Provenzano sided with Luciano Leggio, who ran the clan until he was imprisoned in 1974. Mr. Leggio was succeeded by Salvatore Riina, a bloodthirsty boss who installed Mr. Provenzano as his second in command (despite Mr. Leggio’s verdict that Mr. Provenzano “shoots like a god but he has the brain of a chicken”).
Mr. Riina was arrested in 1993. Four years later, he and 23 of his top lieutenants were sentenced to life imprisonment in the 1992 bombing death of Giovanni Falcone, the crusading prosecutor whose assassination made him a martyr of Italy’s war against organized crime. Mr. Provenzano was the only one of the 24 who was not apprehended at the time.
Mr. Falcone was killed with his wife and three bodyguards as their car sped over a culvert packed with explosives on a highway outside Palermo. His death and the subsequent murder of his top associate, Paolo Borsellino, were ordered by Mr. Riina and the five-member Cupola, the commission of mob bosses, which included Mr. Provenzano, to pressure prosecutors into backing off. But the killings and the bombings of Italian monuments the next summer backfired, prompting a crackdown on organized crime.
Mr. Provenzano managed to elude the police for nearly a decade more. As recently as a month before he was captured in 2006, his former defense lawyer declared that Mr. Provenzano was dead and insisted that his “hunters” were chasing a ghost.
Investigators continued to monitor his partner, Saveria Benedetta Palazzolo, and their two sons, Angelo and Paolo, who had returned to Corleone in 1993. They spotted a bundle of laundry and tracked it over several days as it was passed from her house to the farmhouse outside of town. When the door opened and a hand reached out to retrieve the bundle, they arrested their prey.
Mr. Provenzano, then 73, offered no resistance, but delivered a be-careful-what-you-wish-for warning that suggested his arrest might spark another Mafia war.
“You have no idea,” he said cryptically, “what you’ve done.”
While its extortion and protection rackets survive, however, the Sicilian Mafia has never fully recovered from the backlash to its bloody legacy.

Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting from Rome.