A Don from Corleone just died - and it may have important implications for Italian politics
Bernardo Provenzano, capo di tutti capi in the Sicilian mafia, died this week, aged 83. Some Italian politicians and officials may be breathing a lot easier as a result.
What is it about organized crime and laundry? There seems to a real affinity, and not just because crims need to ‘launder’ their ‘dirty’ money. Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman allegedly – and famously – escaped prison in Mexico in 2001 buried at the bottom of a laundry cart. And Bernardo Provenzano – the Sicilian mafia capo di tutti capi who apparently died this week in an Italian prison at age 83, was famously caught after 43 years on the run when Italian investigators followed the trail of some clean laundry being passed hand to hand to a tiny farmhouse just outside Corleone, in western Sicily.
Corleone is so synonymous with the mafia tradition that Mario Puso chose it as the hometown, and family name, for the central characters in his Godfather trilogy. It is a small hilltown in the western highlands of Sicily, in the heart of the latifundia estates that gave birth to this mafia tradition. The town hall is pictured. Accessible from Palermo and the coast only by difficult, winding mountain roads, it has always been hard for the state and outsiders to govern, as the Allies discovered when they occupied Sicily in 1943.
As I explain in my new book Hidden Power: The Strategic Logic of Organized Crime, the British administrator put in charge of Corleone and the surrounding area tried, valiantly, to keep the mafia from renewing its power by cutting them out of the agricultural market, buying straight from producers. The effort did not last long: few farmers were willing to brave the wrath of the mafia, and the administration found itself confronted, like many occupying powers and international interveners, with the difficult choice of allowing the population to starve, or working with the local strong-men that controlled them.
Interestingly, during the same period, the US Office of Strategic Services (precursor to the CIA) appears to have been much less conflicted in making deals with the mafia. This may have been in part because of the positive experience the US Government had working with the Mob in New York during the previous two years, to govern the docks, police the fishing fleet and, as I reveal in Hidden Power, intimidate unions and the press, break into foreign consulates and even, in one case, catch four Nazi saboteurs who landed on Long Island. But it may also have been, in part, because of an OSS agent, Joseph Russo, who argued that only the mafia had the power necessary to control the black market and influence the population. Russo worked assiduously to strike ‘a bargain’ with the mafia. Russo’s father, it turns out, was born in Corleone.
Corleone was also the birthplace in 1867 of Giuseppe Morello, a mafioso and counterfeiter whose migration to New York in 1894 planted the seeds for the mafia’s transplantation to New York (and who provided a model for some of Puso’s characters). Tomasso Gagliano, another leading New York mafioso who became embroiled in the Castellammarese War between rival mafia factions in the US in 1930-1931, was also a Corleonese.
But the most famous Corleonese mafioso was Salvatore ‘Toto’ Riina. Riina first seized power within the Sicilian mafia, transforming its governing cupola – modelled on the American mafia ‘Commission’ – from a committee for the resolution of disputes between different mafia cosche, into a kitchen cabinet dominated by him and his fellow Corleonesi. Provenzano was his right hand man. In the early 1990s when the Italian political class abandoned their Cold War strategic alignment with the mafia, and stopped protecting them from state investigation and prosecution, Riina and Provenzano organized the assassinations of Italian judges and politicians, and the bombing of a Roman church and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. It was those crimes for which Provenzano was serving his sentence when he died.
Many people may, however, be breathing easier, now that Provenzano is gone. When Riina was arrested, Provenzano became the mafia leader. Under his leadership, the strategy of terrorism and confrontation with the state appears to have ended, with the Sicilian mafia returning to its traditional clandestine posture and criminal strategy. Once again, it became a hidden power. The question that remains unanswered – despite ongoing litigation in the Italian courts – is whether that was a unilateral decision or, in fact, an accommodation negotiated secretly with the Italian state.
Italian prosecutors allege that the Andreotti government negotiated with the mafia, and that when Berlusconi succeeded him in 1994, a 'pact' was reached easing prison regulations against mafia inmates and giving them improved access to the political elite, in return for a halt to the killings and violence. Besides Provenzano, Riina and three other mafia leaders, a former senator (Marcello Dell'Utri, close to Berlusconi, and convicted of association with the mafia), three Carabinieri leaders and the son of the former mayor of Palermo are all defendants in this case, known colloquially as the case of the 'negotiation between the mafia and the state' (trattativa stato-mafia). Even the Italian President, Napolitano, was forced to testify, while in office. If prosecutors prove their case, and it is ultimately determined that there was a renewed accommodation between the state and the mafia in 1994, twenty years of Italian political history may have to be reexamined. Berlusconi, of course, remains an active figure in Italian politics.
With Provenzano's death, however, a whole load of dirty laundry may have been taken to the grave.