The Arrest of a Mafia "Ghost"

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LUCA BRUNO / AP

Mafia boss Bernardo Provenzano is escorted by police as he enters a Police building in Southern Italy on Tuesday

The latest word, just 10 days ago, had him dead and buried. A prominent Rome lawyer who has represented the family of Bernardo Provenzano, the boss of bosses of Sicily’s Cosa Nostra, told an Italian newspaper that he believed the Mafia chief had died several years ago. Other Mob leaders, attorney Salvatore Traina claimed, were using Provenzano’s "ghost" to distract authorities and cover their own tracks. That storyline, like dozens of others that have circulated for decades around Italy’s Most Wanted mob boss, appears to have evaporated on Tuesday with word that the 73-year-old boss was arrested on the outskirts of his hometown of Corleone.

Italian police say Provenzano, who had been on the run from authorities for four decades, was taken into custody without incident in the rolling hills of central Sicily. According to Italian news reports, he was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt and confirmed his identity shortly after the arrest in a farmhouse outside the town first made famous by the protagonists in the Godfather saga.

Of course, Mafia truth always blows away any fiction. Provenzano has become a legendary figure since the arrest in 1993 of his boyhood friend, and then top Mafia boss, Tito Riina, who had launched a bloody war against crusading anti-Mob prosecutors. Some believe Provenzano tipped off the cops to his buddy’s whereabouts in order to take over the worldwide crime syndicate and tone down its high-profile war against the state. With the last known photograph of Provenzano dating back to 1959, authorities began a decade-long hunt for the elusive boss, who they believed had not strayed too far from home and relied on protection from locals. Authorities say Provenzano, nicknamed the "tractor" for his skills at mowing down rivals in his youth, had largely transformed Cosa Nostra over the past decade into a less violent, more efficient economic machine.

Still Provenzano, spent much of his energy simply evading arrest. He avoided all telephone and electronic communication, sending hand-delivered orders to his lieutenants via small, tightly folded pieces of paper, known as pizzini. It is believed that authorities may have honed in on their target after intercepting a recent batch of pizzini to his family, which lives openly in downtown Corleone. Still, mystery will continue to swirl around the battle against the Mob, which has all too often revealed political connections to the criminal organization. Suspicions and perplexity were inevitably multiplied Tuesday by the timing of Provenzano’s arrest, which came in the midst of the hotly disputed Italian national elections. But there are always old and new lessons to be learned about the Mafia—for nothing is ever exactly as it appears, and a dead man can get captured alive.