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Provenzano: The Phantom Of Corleone

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.

The police estimate that up to 80 percent of businesses in Sicily pay protection money to the mafia. It has infiltrated universities and hospitals and other institutions where there is public money to be stolen. If you dig a tunnel, build a bridge or an apartment building in Sicily, La Cosa Nostra and Provenzano would demand up to 10 percent, and share the profits with corrupt officials, who almost always returned the favor.

"We know for example that Provenzano, who had some medical problems, was able to be treated in France," Stille says.

Provenzano, Stille says, left the country on a phony passport. "If you can convince people that – 'I can kill you at any time, anywhere, and I can kill your children,' I can get you to do a lot of things," Stille says.

For years, Provenzano managed to live undisturbed in the Palermo suburb called Bagaria, slipping in and out of the downtown area, where he kept an office next to a driving school. But when Italian police stepped up the pressure, he took up residence in a series of safe houses, moving around Sicily like a ghost.

The Italian police spent eight years trying to infiltrate the courier network that dispatched Provanzeno's orders from village to village, and they bugged the phones of his subordinates, taping thousands of phone calls. Every time they got close, someone on the inside tipped off the mafia. One of them was the police officer who planted the bugs.

"We discovered leaks in our office, people who were leaking about the investigation," says Grasso.

"What were some of the institutions that had been compromised?" Kroft asks.

"Some were in the police force. Some worked with us inside the prosecutor's office," he replies.

"A couple of police investigators who played very important roles in investigations in Sicily in the last 10 years were people who were arrested for collusion with the mafia. So when you have those kinds of connections within law enforcement and within seats of power, you're obviously much more dangerous and much harder to capture," says Stille.

And one of those connections to the seats of power is none other than Salvatore Cuffaro, the governor of Sicily, who is now facing criminal charges for his associations with the mafia.

"He's accused of aiding and abetting the mafia, of revealing confidential information," says Rita Borsellino, a leader of the anti-mafia forces in Sicily.

Her brother, Paolo, was Sicily's top anti-mafia prosecutor when he was assassinated by a bomb blast in 1992. It set off waves of arrests and the trial of hundreds mafia figures, but it has not diminished either the power or the political influence of La Cosa Nostra in Sicily. Rita Borsellino ran against Salvatore Cuffaro, while the governor was facing mafia-related charges. None the less, she lost.

"Is that discouraging to you?" Kroft asks.

"If I let myself be discouraged by these things, I wouldn't have gotten involved in politics. I did it in order to combat this corruption because this is exactly what it is. A politician in this situation shouldn't have even run for office," she says.

Governor Cuffaro maintains his innocence and continues to serve in office while he awaits trial. But Italian prosecutors say the mafia has far more powerful friends than a provincial governor, that its reach and influence extend not only into the corridors of power in Rome, but into the small circle of friends that surrounded former Prime Minster Silvio Berlusconi. Senator Marcello Dell'Utri is now facing nine years in prison for his dealings with the mafia.

Before Senator Dell'Utri came to the Italian parliament, he had worked as Silvio Berlusconi's private secretary, lived in his private residence, and went on to run one of his companies, found his political party and manage his campaigns. In fact, the two men are so close Dell'Utri reportedly has space reserved for him in the Berlusconi family tomb.

"Imagine for a moment that Karl Rove was found to be in bed with the Banano crime family. And this person is put up for parliament, re-elected, still extremely influential," says Stille.

"And he's one of Berlusconi's right-hand men?" Kroft asks.

"Absolutely," says Stille.

One of the men who successfully prosecuted Senator Dell'Utri called him the conduit between the mafia and the former prime minister, and produced audio tapes and more than 30 witnesses to back up his claim.

"What we know for sure is that he was wire tapped talking to this or that gangster. He hired a very dangerous heroin dealer and thug to actually act as Berlusconi's chauffer and bodyguard during the 1970's. Driving Berlusconi's kids to and from school at a time in which they were threatened with kidnapping. That suggests a much deeper kind of relationship," says Stille.

Senator Dell'Utri is appealing the conviction and declined to talk to 60 Minutes, but Kroft did speak with his lawyer, Nino Mormino.

Mormino says the claim that Dell'Utri was the mafia's ambassador to the court of Berlusconi is a "fairy tale that would be hard to prove."

"During the trial last year, the prosecutors said the reason Berlusconi hired Dell'Utri was because Dell'Utri had all these contacts with the mafia before he ever went to work for Berlusconi and that was useful to Berlusconi," Kroft remarks.

"That's absolutely not true. They met in college, played soccer together. Dell'Utri is a man of culture, one of the most important in Italy. You should go see his library. It's extraordinary," says Mormino.

Asked if Dell'Utri will stay with Berlusconi perhaps until he goes to prison, Mormino says, "Well, we hope he won't end up in prison. We're certain he won't go. He'll remain with Berlusconi, that's for sure. Berlusconi won't forget their brother-like bond."

Berlusconi has his own problems right now. The former prime minister is facing criminal charges for tax fraud. He is not the first Italian prime minister to be prosecuted after leaving office – Giulio Andreotti was indicted for having ties to the mafia. He was later acquitted because the statute of limitations had expired.

"I'm no longer surprised by anything anymore. I look at what we are able to prove in the courtroom," says anti-mafia prosecutor Piero Grasso.

He says proving anything in the courtroom is becoming harder and harder these days. Wire tapping mafia figures has always been one of the most successful ways of catching them, but when government officials began turning up in some of those conversations, parliament made it illegal to eavesdrop on lawmakers even if they are talking with the mafia.

"There are laws now that say you cannot tape a member of parliament talking to the mafia. Does that make things difficult for you to make cases?" Kroft asks.

"Everything becomes harder. A mafioso can make a call to a member of parliament and that intercepted call cannot be used without permission of parliament, which means disclosing our investigations," Grasso says.

"It's like a joke," Kroft says.

"It's democracy," the prosecutor replies in English.

"Italian democracy," Kroft remarks.

"Italian democracy," Grasso agrees.

It is that Italian's lack faith in government, the courts, and the rule of law that has allowed the mafia to prosper in Italy. And the fact that Bernardo Provenzano has begun serving a life sentence at a prison in Terni is not going to change that.

"I don't think its going to be easy to take his place. Bosses in prison are still bosses. He's going to be the boss," says Grasso.

How could a mafia boss run a billion dollar empire from prison? The same way he ran it from a one room shepherd's cottage in Corleone. In theory, Provenzano is being held in isolation but the prison director told 60 Minutes he has access to television and the guards, and visits from his family. And once a month he is allowed to send his laundry home to his wife.

Last April, Provenzano was moved from his prison in Terni to a maximum security prison outside Turin. He was reportedly transferred after prison guards gave him a cake for his 74th birthday. Authorities were concerned that the mafia boss and the guards had become "too friendly."
Produced By Leslie Cockburn
Produced By Leslie Cockburn
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