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Provenzano: The Phantom Of Corleone

Steve Kroft Reports On The Mafia's Influence In Italy

This segment was originally broadcast on Dec. 10, 2006. It was updated on Aug. 3, 2007.

Unhappy with the way things have been going here in the United States? Tired of scandal and corruption, and people saying the republic has gone the way of ancient Rome? Well, things could be much worse. All you have to do is look at present day Rome, and Italy, where the mafia with its friends in business and government still forms one of the country's biggest enterprises. Prime Minister Romano Prodi has called the mafia "the constant reality."

For well over a century, the mafia has endured by forming relationships with people in power, playing a role in who gets elected, and developing a web of protection that reaches into the highest levels of the Italian government. And as correspondent Steve Kroft reports, there is no better example than the "Phantom of Corleone."

If you were to pick a place in Italy that typifies it all, the obvious choice would be the village of Corleone, a 13th century market town in the mountains of Sicily. It was the home of the fictional Corleone family in "The Godfather" and American tourists come there to soak up the atmosphere. But Corleone's connection to La Cosa Nostra is more than fictional.

In April 2006, Italian police raided a tiny shepherd's cottage outside of town hoping to capture the real godfather of La Cosa Nostra, Bernardo Provenzano, the "Phantom of Corleone," who had been a fugitive for 43 years.

Italy's top anti-mafia prosecutor Piero Grasso, monitored the progress from Rome.

"I was in direct contact with those carrying out the mission from right here in this room, and the first thing they said was 'Caught,caught caught!' It was very emotional to catch him after so many years," Grasso recalls.

Police finally caught Provenzano by following a package of clean laundry from his wife's house in Corleone to a one-room shack on a farm that produced ricotta cheese. One of the most powerful men in Italy had been living the life of a pauper, typing out directives to underlings on tiny slips of paper called "pizzinis," that were delivered through an elaborate courier network.

"There were also notes from the rest of the organization, an old fashioned but effective means of communication," says Grasso.

The mob boss was running the mafia with little notes. "It was a method that did not require any technology, especially phones," Grasso explains.

Provenzano had been a fugitive so long, Italian police weren't even sure what he looked like. All they had was a photograph from the 1960's, and composites of how he might have aged. When Provenzano was finally taken into custody and marched into the courthouse in Palermo it was the first time in more than 40 years that anyone in Italy would admit to seeing him. His closest neighbor was too frightened to show his face when talking to Kroft.

Asked if he saw anything unusual at the farmhouse, the neighbor told Kroft, "Nothing. I get up late, go to the village to buy my bread, then I watch TV."

"Did you think any of your neighbors knew he was here?" Kroft asks.

"Even if they did know, these things are very dangerous," the neighbor replies.

In Corleone, where Provenzano grew up and his family still lives, there was resignation and a kind of collective amnesia.

When asked about Provenzano, one man who called himself "Gino de Corleone" told Kroft with the help of an American friend, "He don't even know who he is. He never saw him before."

It is almost as though Bernardo Provenzano didn't exist. Yet he ran one of the oldest and biggest enterprises in one of the richest countries in Europe, an enterprise based on extortion, bribery and murder. Provenzano was charged with 28 murders, and suspected in taking part in as many as 400 others, including the murder of policemen and two of Italy's top anti-mafia prosecutors in elaborate bombing attacks 14 years ago.

"Provenzano got his place in the Corleonese mafia by being a superb killer," says author Alexander Stille, who has spent years investigating the Sicilian mafia and its reclusive boss.

Asked how a fugitive could run a multi-billion dollar operation, Stille says, "They can count on not just the members of their own organization but the rest of society to protect them. If you've been watching the Sopranos or Godfather, something like that, you think that they're just a bunch of violent thugs. But they're also doctors, engineers, politicians."

"And these people benefit financially from their association?" Kroft asks.

"Sure, absolutely," the author says.