As a reporter back in the late 1970s, I had written about the Mafia and its corrupt financial ties to a Philadelphia city union. The exposé had even prompted an anonymous phone call: “You will end up like Jimmy Hoffa,” the voice said, implying we might end up encased in cement somewhere.
But now I was in Sicily, retired and vacationing, when a talk arranged by our tour group, Overseas Adventure Travel, brought me face to face with two middle-aged men whose lives had been touched by the Mafia in ways I had never imagined.
The two were both born in Corleone, the traditional hometown of capos of the Sicilian Mafia (and, of course, the raison d’etre for the name of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Godfather.” )
Angelo Provenzano, son of the notorious Sicilian chief, Bernardo (Binnie the Tractor) Provenzano, was one of the speakers. The other, Gino Felicetti, had fled Italy as a youngster with his family after a relative was murdered by the Mafia.
Gino, who has long lectured about the Mafia in Sicily, acted as the historian of the program, showing slide after slide of gruesome killings presumably orchestrated by Angelo’s father and the capo under which he worked. The visuals included blood-drenched scenes of the 1992 murders of two Italian magistrates, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, who had tried to prosecute the Sicilian mob.
|Magistrate Giovanni Falcone's 1992 death scene|
For his part, Angelo revealed what it was like growing up in hiding with his mother, father and younger brother. He was home schooled, he said, moving often and had no friends. He had no clue as a youngster what his father did for a living. But he felt loved by him.
|Angelo Provenzano, a son tries to build a life|
In 1992, Bernardo reinstated his wife, 16-year-old Angelo, and Angelo’s nine-year-old brother back to Corleone, in an effort to allow them to be educated and lead honest lives, Angelo said. Living openly for the first time, he learned his father’s true occupation.
Meanwhile, his father continued to hide out, even as he became Sicily’s capo di tutti capi (boss of bosses) in 1993 upon the arrest of his superior,Toto Riina.
From the mountains, communicating only by pieces of paper, Bernardo ran the organization while police hunted him as a suspect responsible for orchestrating 15 murders. Some news reports say he tried to steer the mob away “from the attacks on high-profile figures that were hardening public opinion against the Mafia and provoking police to respond.”
In 2006, police finally cornered him; he died in prison 10 years later, at age 82 having spent 43 of those years in hiding.
Angelo’s life struggle has been trying to reconcile the love he still holds for his father with the mobster’s heinous deeds. Not to mention that neither he nor his brother, tainted by the sins of their father, has been able to land good jobs or create sustainable businesses. Even a laundry that Angelo tried to run with his mother in Corleone failed.
|Bernardo Provenzano, arrested 2006|
“He might have been wrong. He might have made choices that I don’t understand that I don’t know about,” Angelo has said. “That’s basically his business, his choices. To me, he’ll always be my father.”
In his talk to us, Angelo said he experienced his father as a loving, protective figure. “I think of him as a father, not as a man.”
The evening with Gino and Angelo is now a routine part of the Overseas Adventure Travel tour of Sicily, though in its first year, 2015, it caused an uproar as Italians protested the platform being given to Angelo to say kind words about his father and by extension the Mafia.
But it has quietly continued, with Angelo earning money for his participation.
Responding to the Italian media criticisms, he said this was an opportunity to work in an important sector, tourism. “Do I have the right to a normal life or not?”