Cracking the mafia's secret code

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 July, 2007, 12:00am

On April 11 last year when the Italian police burst into the den of mafia boss Bernardo Provenzano, they found him at work on a pizzino - a small piece of paper on which the boss would write his orders to other members of his organisation. Hidden in these small notes, or pizzini, was the secret code of one of the most violent criminal organisations in the world.

Now, one year after Provenzano's capture, the code has finally been deciphered. The man responsible is Michele Prestipino, the 48-year-old state prosecutor who headed the investigation that led to the boss' arrest. Cracking the pizzini code has led to the arrest of several mafia associates, most recently Tommaso Cannella, 67, boss of a small Sicilian town of Prizzi, near Palermo. He was captured two weeks ago along with nine other members of the Cosa Nostra (Sicilian mafia). They were ready to initiate a war.

Provenzano is known as 'U Tratturi' (The Tractor) because - in the words of one informant - he mows down people. Before his arrest he was the super boss of one of the most feared criminal organisations in the world.

Provenzano was born on January 31, 1933 in Corleone, the small Sicilian town made famous by Francis Ford Coppola's celebrated film, The Godfather, and the home of Italy's most brutal mafia family: the Corleonesi. Provenzano committed his first murders in the 1960s. He was not a boss yet, but he already had what it took to be one. Luciano Liggio, one of the most ruthless mafia killers in Sicily, said of him at the time: 'He shoots like a god, but he has the brain of a hen.'

In the following decades, Provenzano would prove that Liggio's statement was not entirely correct. In 1963, Provenzano was wanted for the murder of three men. He disappeared before authorities could apprehend him. For the next 40 years, the only traces the police had of Provenzano's existence were brief voice recordings taken years earlier (even these would mysteriously disappear from the courthouse in Agrigento) and a mugshot taken by police on September 18, 1959.

In the photo, a slim, clean-shaven Provenzano stares out at the camera; he looks nothing like a powerful mafia boss.

On December 10, 1969 Provenzano stepped back into the spotlight. It was on this day that the super boss organised what is referred to as the 'Viale Lazio Massacre', where he and a small group of men dressed as police officers murdered an entire band of rival mafiosi in Palermo. The slaughter indicated the definitive supremacy of the Corleonesi family in Sicily. Legend has it that The Tractor demonstrated just how cold-blooded he was during the massacre by shooting the victims in the legs before firing the fatal shot.

Provenzano also played a key role in making the 1980s some of the bloodiest years in Italy's history. The mafia, headed by Provenzano and his associate, Salvatore 'Toto' Riina, openly challenged both the state and rival mafia families. In the gangster wars that followed, there was a huge loss of life. In the early 1980s, in one year, more than 1,000 people were murdered in the city of Palermo alone. Among the victims were several investigators who had been trying to combat the mafia. One newspaper headline during those bloody years read: 'Palermo like Beirut'.

In 1992, Giovanni Falcone, a legendary judge from Palermo was assassinated by a car bomb which also killed his wife and bodyguards. One month later, Falcone's associate and good friend, the prosecutor Paolo Borsellino, was murdered while going to visit his mother in Palermo. The mafia had placed a bomb inside a car outside of his mother's apartment. The mastermind behind both of these assassinations was Riina, orchestrator of most of Cosa Nostra's atrocities during the period.

Provenzano did not support either of the assassinations; he understood that sooner or later the state would have to react to the murder of such popular figures and that this could mean the end for the mafia. The state did react, although it did not mean the end of the mafia. More than 100 members of the organisation were arrested and Riina himself ended up in jail. The Tractor however, did not. Evidently, he does not have the brain of a hen after all.

After Riina's arrest, Provenzano became the unrivalled head of Cosa Nostra and directed the mafia in a strategy that allowed one of the most powerful criminal organisations in the world to remain almost invisible for more than 10 years. Under Provenzano's command, the mafia no longer made the headlines. Homicide became the last option and Cosa Nostra slowly disappeared from the papers. Provenzano preferred mediation to massacres.

Then came the morning of April 11 last year. After evading authorities for more than 40 years, the police finally caught up with the super boss using sophisticated video cameras placed in the hills of Corleone. These video cameras eventually identified a package of laundry, sent from the home of Provenzano's wife, being handed from person to person, until it ended up in a den in the mountains of Cavalli, a few kilometres from Corleone. Inside the den, authorities found the boss of the bosses, Provenzano, wanted by police since 1963.

Provenzano is in a maximum security prison in Terni, located just kilometres outside of Rome. Even excluding murders he ordered his inferiors to carry out, Provenzano is suspected of more than 40 homicides. Prosecutors believe the evidence that may put him away are the pizzini.

Provenzano had always used these notes to give his orders; banging them out on an old typewriter, folding them several times, wrapping them up carefully in scotch tape, and then handing them over to loyal 'postmen'. 'It is an archaic system of communication,' affirms Mr Prestipino, 'but it assured security and secrecy'.

It was the style of writing in the pizzini that first roused the curiosity of investigators. The boss always started his messages with, 'Dearest, I received your news with joy and it makes me very happy to know that everyone is in the best of health.'

Provenzano always began in this extremely cordial manner, even when he was delivering unpleasant news. In addition, he always finished his letters on a similarly polite tone: 'My warmest greetings to everyone. The Lord blesses and protects you.'

Provenzano loved to appear like a generous and kind ruler, never a tyrant. The letters of Cosa Nostra's super boss always had the solemn and affectionate tone of a father looking out for his sons. 'For Provenzano, resorting to violence was always the last choice,' explains Mr Prestipino, 'but where diplomacy does not work, the tone and style of the writing in the pizzini gets tougher and more threatening.'

The numerous religious references in Provenzano's notes are fascinating. The pizzini are full of Ave Maria's and invocations of 'The Good God' that follow a precise and calculated rhythm.

These are not just the expressions of a religious devotee. On the day that Provenzano was arrested, there was a Bible in his den which he tried to take with him. The authorities seized it and immediately noticed that there were letters, numbers and notes in it that were organised in correspondence with certain verses.

There were also words underlined in the Bible that were used in orders given in the pizzini. When Provenzano refers to 'God' or writes 'let's act in good faith', he is telling his men to finish up their affairs with moderation and patience and leave behind the tensions that develop when splitting money from a racket.

But Provenzano's religious references are not just about secret codes, they also reflect his deep-rooted faith. In his den in Corleone, police found the walls hung with framed images of the Madonna and Christ.

'The religious references are also a way to legitimise himself and the organisation,' says Mr Prestipino. 'The illusion of having a cause that justifies the crimes that members of the mafia are destined to commit.'

The puzzle of the pizzini would not be complete without 'Jesus Christ'. In one example, Provenzano writes: 'Keep a look out for one or more video cameras that they may have put around the complex, look well ... and tell them not to speak loudly ... but do not thank me [for this]. Thank Our Lord Jesus Christ.'

Provenzano is warning his men here that police have put video cameras in their houses. But who gave him this information? Who is this mysterious 'Jesus Christ' who always appears to be informed about the authorities' investigations?

Provenzano goes on to thank 'Jesus Christ' for having given him safe refuge after a police raid. Investigators believe that this is the code name for a very important person linked to the mafia, a person for whom the boss seems to have an almost religious respect.

Mr Prestipino has some idea of whom it may be: 'We are talking about a specific reference through which Provenzano indicates a person or people that have helped him in difficult moments ... allowing the boss to possess classified information concerning himself.'

Provenzano's captor, however, refuses to name names, saying only, 'In the course of our investigations in recent years, we have identified certain important state figures that protected the boss of bosses during his period in hiding'.