March 8, 2007 / 9:56 AM / 12 years ago

The Provenzano Code: the Mafia's answer to Dan Brown

ROME (Reuters) - If you thought cracking “The Da Vinci Code” was tough, try unscrambling “The Provenzano Code”, the cryptic cipher the Mafia’s “boss of bosses” invented to rule the mob for years when he was Italy’s most wanted man.

Italian police officers lead Sicilian Mafia boss Bernardo Provenzano (C) from a police station in the southern city of Palermo April 11, 2006. Numbers, alphabet letters, Bible quotations, references to Jesus -- they are all in a new book by Sicilian magistrate Michele Prestipino, who tries to unravel Mafia mysteries with notes that came to light with Provenzano's arrest last April. REUTERS/Marcello Paternostro

Numbers, alphabet letters, Bible quotations, references to Jesus — they are all in a new book by Sicilian magistrate Michele Prestipino, who tries to unravel Mafia mysteries with notes that came to light with Bernardo Provenzano’s arrest last April.

“The Provenzano Code”, which hit Italian bookstores on Thursday, uses dozens of “pizzini” (little pieces of paper) which Provenzano wrote to communicate with lieutenants, to try to reconstruct the recent history of Sicily’s Mafia.

“This is not just the Mafia as seen close up by outsiders, this is Cosa Nostra explained by Cosa Nostra, the Mafia explained by Mafiosi in their own words,” Prestipino told Reuters in a telephone interview from Palermo, Sicily’s capital.

“We now have what amounts to the largest Mafia archive ever,” he said.

Provenzano was undisputed head of the Sicilian Mafia from 1993 until his arrest on April 11 ended 43 years on the run.

When police finally nabbed him in a farmhouse near the hill town of Corleone, made famous in “The Godfather” films, his “command center” was decidedly not high-tech.

The arsenal Provenzano wielded to run the Mafia consisted of two typewriters — one manual, one electric — a dictionary and a copy of the Bible brimming with homemade tabs, underlining and annotations of Old and New Testament verses.

A rough-hewn slab of wood served as a desk on which rested an in-box and an out-box he used to keep track of business.

KEEP IT BETWEEN YOUR TOES

The “pizzini”, typed on onionskin paper and folded tens of times until they could even fit between two toes, were sealed in transparent tape and dispatched via a chain of messengers.

“The language he used is the only instrument we have to understand the personality of the man who for more than 10 years headed one of the most powerful crime organizations,” said Prestipino, who wrote the book with journalist Salvo Palazzolo.

Provenzano, who quit school after second grade in Corleone, wrote in often ungrammatical Italian. He assigned numbers from two to 164 to his accomplices — he was number one — and many of them did not know which number referred to which person.

One of the most mysterious accomplices was known as “the adored Jesus Christ”. He figures in several notes where Provenzano thanks him for getting the mob out of tight spots.

“We don’t know if “the adored Jesus Christ” is a person or a group,” said Prestipino. “When he wrote to his underlings he never disclosed the identity.”

In one note, Provenzano thanked “the adored Jesus Christ” for informing him that police had hidden a video camera near a farmhouse where the Mafia was to have held a summit in Sicily.

“It’s hard to imagine that it was divine providence that told Provenzano about the places where police had installed cameras and listening devices,” Prestipino said.

Provenzano, who has refused to cooperate with police and is now in solitary confinement in one of Italy’s most secure prisons, was very attached to his well-worn, annotated Bible.

Full of mysterious cross references, he several times asked to have it returned. But investigators refused because it is a potential treasure trove of information.

FBI code crackers from their Cryptanalysis and Racketeering Records Unit in the United States are helping Italian colleagues decipher it and its relation to the “pizzini”.

“We have not yet been able to figure out if a (deeper) code is hidden in the annotations, the underlining, the occult contents,” Prestipino said.

additional reporting by Wlady Pantaleone and Antonella Ciancio

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