Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Da Vinci Code's Mafia Version

Friends of ours: Bernardo Provenzano

When top Mafia boss Bernardo Provenzano was captured in April after 40 years on the run, his hideaway in the Sicilian hills turned up none of the extravagance of Cosa Nostra's cinematic lore. No suitcases of cash, no jewels, nothing to match the popular imagination of the all-powerful godfather. Still, Italian police had no doubts that the square-jawed 73-year-old living in near squalor in an abandoned farmhouse had reigned over the very real-life affairs of Cosa Nostra's billion-dollar business of drug trafficking, high finance and cold-blooded murder. Provenzano, who had been sentenced to life in absentia for a series of high-profile murders, had opted for the spare existence in order to keep the lowest possible profile as he tried to stay one step ahead of Italy's biggest Mafia manhunt ever.

Although no riches were found, there were some precious pieces of evidence when Provenzano was finally nabbed, in the hills above his hometown of Corleone. Most notably, police recovered dozens of the infamous pizzini, the tiny, tightly wrapped typewritten notes that the boss had used to communicate with his lieutenants. Thanks in part to the pizzini, several other key Mafia figures have been arrested since Provenzano's capture. But perhaps the most enticing find of all was a worn copy of the Bible, near Provenzano's bed. The soft-spoken don had filled the volume with notations, arrows and underlinings of certain passages. The markings may simply be the solitary spiritual musings of the boss, who was also found with several crucifixes at the time of his arrest. But Italian investigators suspect that the book could be a kind of Holy Grail in a century-long battle to unravel the secret codes and business methods of the Mafia's vast criminal network.

So far unable to unlock any potential secrets, the Italians have turned to the FBI for their code-busting expertise. A U.S. official confirmed an Italian newspaper story Thursday which reported that the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Cryptanalysis and Racketeering Records Unit will be studying Provenzano's copy of the Bible. In the past, the FBI unit, located at the Bureau's laboratory in Quantico, Va., has uncovered illicit codes of prison gangs and deciphered messages from threatening letters. Now, they will try to determine if there are "any hidden messages" in the holy book, said a U.S. official. "It's an interesting challenge because both the Bible and Provenzano's notes are in Italian."

No doubt the biblical twist will add to the intrigue of the infamous crime network, which over the past century has occasionally crossed paths with the Roman Catholic church. But Cosa Nostra's sins share nothing with those of the Da Vinci Code or Francis Ford Coppola films — they are real. Provenzano is believed to have had a hand in the slayings of countless rival gang members, as well as of innocent bystanders and crusading magistrates. It's no longer a secret that some mobsters are deeply religious. The mystery remains that they can reconcile what they read in the holy scripture with what they write in the book of life.

Thanks to Jeff Israel

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