Bernardo Provenzano born January 31, 1933 in Corleone, Sicily is a member of the Sicilian Mafia (Cosa Nostra) and is suspected of having been the head of the Corleonesi, a Mafia faction that originated in the town of Corleone, and de facto capo di tutti capi (boss of bosses) of the entire Sicilian Mafia until his arrest in 2006.
His nickname is Binnu u tratturi (Sicilian for "Binnie the tractor") because, in the words of one informant, "he mows people down."Another nickname is The Accountant due to his apparently subtle and low-key approach to running his crime empire, at least in contrast to some of his more violent predecessors.
Early yearsHe was born and raised in Corleone, the third of seven brothers, born to peasants. Provenzano left school at ten without finishing primary education, and worked in the fields. He joined the Mafia in his late teens. At the time, Michele Navarra was the head of the Mafia Family of Corleone, but Provenzano became close to Luciano Leggio, a young and ambitious mobster. Navarra and Leggio went to war against each other in the mid-1950s.
In August 1958, Provenzano was one of the 14 gunmen who backed Leggio in the ambush and murder of Michele Navarra. Leggio subsequently became the head of the Family. Over the next five years, Provenzano helped Leggio hunt down and kill many of Navarra's surviving supporters. In May 1963, Provenzano went on the run after a failed hit on one of Navarra’s men – at this point he was not running from the police, but from Mafia vendetta. Leggio said of Provenzano: "He shoots like a god, shame he has the brains of a chicken..." On September 10, 1963 an arrest warrant was issued against Provenzano for the murder of one of Navarra's men. Provenzano now also had to run from the police along with most of the rest of the Corleonesi. Leggio went to prison for murder in 1974, effectively leaving Totò Riina in charge. Provenzano became the second in command of the Corleonesi, Riina's right-hand-man.
Provenzano participated in the Viale Lazio massacre on December 10, 1969: the killing of Michele Cavataio for his role in the First Mafia War. The attack nearly went wrong and Cavataio was able to shoot and kill Calogero Bagarella (an elder brother of Leoluca Bagarella the brother-in-law of Totò Riina). According to legend, Provenzano saved the situation with his Beretta 38/A submachine gun and earned himself a reputation as a Mafia killer with the attack. However, according to Gaetano Grado, one of the participants who turned government witness later, it was Provenzano who messed up the attack, shooting too early.
During Riina's time as godfather, Provenzano was believed to operate behind the scenes, dealing with the financial side of the criminal enterprises that he and Riina orchestrated, particularly heroin trafficking. It is not known to what extent that he participated in the Second Mafia War of 1981/82, initiated by Riina, which left over a thousand Mafiosi dead and resulted in the Corleonesi becoming the dominant Mafia faction in Sicily.
Throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s, Provenzano created a private fiefdom in Bagheria, a suburb of Palermo. In his stronghold, mafiosi met and handed out construction contracts, buying silence and loyalty. One long-time collaborator of Provenzano’s described the boss’ residence in the 18th century villa Valguarnera: "a beautiful place, classical style, where Provenzano lived in hiding, peacefully with his family... He used to get taken to meetings in an ambulance."
Elevation to GodfatherSalvatore Riina was arrested in January 1993 and subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment for ordering dozens of murders, including the two high-profile bombings (the Capaci massacre and Via D'Amelio massacre) that killed prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. Falcone and Borsellino had been in charge of the Maxi Trial in the mid-1980s. Provenzano was also convicted of the same murders, in absentia.
It was not immediately clear that Provenzano had succeeded Riina. He had not been publicly seen since 1963, and when his wife and two grown sons came out from hiding in 1992, many then suspected that Provenzano was dead, from natural causes or otherwise. Informants subsequently claimed otherwise, saying that after Riina's arrest in 1993, Provenzano became the boss of the Corleonesi. It is said that two other mobsters, Leoluca Bagarella and Giovanni Brusca, challenged his leadership, but, even if they succeeded, they were both captured and imprisoned in 1995 and 1996 respectively.
Under Provenzano leadership, the Mafia became less bloodthirsty and more efficient. Provenzano is reported to have tried to arbitrate between rival Mafia factions competing for business, and steered away from the attacks on high-profile figures that were hardening public opinion against the Mafia and provoking police to respond. He was a careful operator, who took few overt risks, revealing his whereabouts to only a handful of associates. He shunned the telephone and issued orders and communications (even to his family) through small, hand-delivered notes called "pizzini".
Curiously, many of the notes from Provenzano that police have intercepted sign off with religious blessings, such as one that concluded "May the Lord bless and protect you."Coincidentally, according to mob godmother-turned-informant Giuseppina Vitale, Provenzano then appeared at a 1992 Cosa Nostra summit meeting dressed in the purple robes of a Catholic bishop. Religious behaviour and language progressively became the prominent features of Provenzano's figure. For example, Provenzano systematically underlined verses from the Bible and took notes of relevant passages to be threaded in his pizzini through otherwise routine instructions regarding daily business matters. He also recurrently thanked ‘Our Lord Jesus Christ’, and referred to ‘The Divine Providence’ and ‘Our beloved Lord’, expressing the hope that ‘He might help us to do the right things’. In particular, the expression Con il volere di Dio (With God’s will), to date has been counted 43 times, and it often appears more than once in the same piece of communication. Religion would therefore play a pivotal role in the way Provenzano established his leadership, succeeded in mediating between different mafia ‘families’ by creating a less centralised, more reticular structure, and eventually prevented the decline of the organisation.