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Laundry betrays reputed No. 1 Mafia boss in Sicily, ending 43-year manhunt

18:42:39 EDT Apr 11, 2006





PALERMO, Sicily (AP) - In the end, Italy's No. 1 fugitive and reputed Mafia "boss of bosses" was done in not by an informer or a rival gangster, but by clean laundry.


Police tracked the package of clothes to a farmhouse where Bernardo (The Tractor) Provenzano was hiding and closed in when they saw his hand reach through the doorway to take it Tuesday. The capture came in the countryside outside Provenzano's power base, Corleone, the town that inspired the family name in The Godfather.


For more than 40 years, he had practically thumbed his nose at authorities.


He counted on Sicilians' centuries-old mistrust of the state to help him on the run, sleeping in islanders' homes, having his children born at local hospitals, even sending the public health care system a bill for prostate treatment abroad under a false name.


Provenzano, 73, had escaped capture so often since going into hiding in 1963 that he earned a place in the Italian imagination as The Phantom of Corleone. He got his nickname The Tractor for the determination he displayed in a mob career that began as a hitman.


He is believed to have taken over leadership of the Sicilian Mafia following the 1993 arrest of former boss Salvatore (Toto) Riina. During his years on the run, Provenzano was convicted in absentia and given life sentences for more than a dozen murders of mobsters and investigators.


"Bastard! Murderer!" a crowd shouted at Provenzano as black-hooded policemen took him out of a sedan and rushed him into the courtyard of a police building in Palermo after driving him from the countryside.


Wearing tinted glasses and a wind-breaker, the grey-haired Provenzano held up his handcuffed hands as he was hustled away but made no audible comment.


Investigators described an extensive operation to track down the mobster. They said cameras that can see up to almost two kilometres were trained on suspected accomplices as well as the Corleone home where Provenzano's wife and children live.


A few days ago, police noticed a package leave the wife's house, then get delivered by car to a series of other homes. On Tuesday morning, the package left Corleone and was driven to the farmhouse where Provenzano was found staying with a shepherd who doubled as a housekeeper.


"This morning he reached out with a hand to grab the package and that's when we decided to move in," said Nicola Cavaliere, a top police official in Rome.


Italy's national anti-Mafia prosecutor, Piero Grasso, told reporters in Rome that Provenzano was "impassive" and "didn't say a word" when arrested, but later acknowledged his identity.


The last photos that investigators had of the mobster showed him as a young man, but police gave the fugitive a "new face" last year, issuing a composite picture drawn with help from a Mafia turncoat in 2001 that depicted him with white hair and hollow cheeks.


That effort also was helped by descriptions from personnel at a clinic in Marseilles, France, where investigators say Provenzano sought treatment for a prostate tumour two years ago.


Turncoats had told investigators that Provenzano slept in different farmhouses every few nights across Sicily, an island where organized crime has held sway for decades.


He allegedly gave orders with written notes, not trusting cellphone conversations for fear of being monitored by police. Grasso said investigators were studying notes found at the farmhouse, along with a typewriter Provenzano apparently used for writing them.


After taking over the top leadership, Provenzano helped the Mafia spread its tentacles into the lucrative world of public works contracts in Sicily, turning the mob into more of a white-collar industry of illegal activity with less dependence on traditional operations like drug trafficking and extortion, investigators have said.


During the years when Riina was the Mafia chieftain, murders bloodied Sicily. Mob rivals, police, prosecutors and their bodyguards, and sometimes bystanders, were cut down by bombings and drive-by shootings.


Then the bomb assassinations in Sicily of Italy's two top anti-Mafia fighters, magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, two months apart in 1992 galvanized many Sicilians against the mob, helping chip away at the centuries-old "omerta," the island's code of silence and mistrust of authorities.


Provenzano was among the Mafia bosses convicted of ordering Falcone's slaying, but as mob boss he allowed fewer sensational killings and ordered more infiltration of seemingly respectable people into real estate and financial markets, Grasso has said.


Some mobsters considered as potential new leaders for the Sicilian Mafia


Italian investigators say it's not clear who might emerge as the Sicilian Mafia's new top boss, but they will be closing watching aides to the just captured Bernardo (The Tractor) Provenzano. Among them:


-Matteo Messina Denaro, 43, from Trapani, whom some consider the mob's No. 2 man. He has been on the wanted list since 1993 for murder and other crimes.


-Salvatore Lo Piccolo, in his 60s, from Palermo. He has been a fugitive since 1998 for alleged involvement in murders.



? The Canadian Press, 2006

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