Italy tightens net around mafia godfather with 22 arrests

Italian police arrested the closest aides of Cosa Nostra kingpin Matteo Messina Denaro on Thursday, clamping down on a tightknit, family-run clan which has kept the mobster safely hidden over a quarter of a century on the run.

Italy tightens net around mafia godfather with 22 arrests
Matteo Messina Denaro's brother-in-law, Rosario Allegra, exits the police headquarters in Palermo on Thursday. Photo: Alessandro Fucarini/AFP

Twenty-one people were arrested in towns near the Sicilian city of Trapani where Denaro's criminal empire is based, as part of the “Year Zero” police investigation that allowed authorities to uncover a system of paper notes, or “pizzini”, that Denaro uses to give orders to his most faithful associates.

Those include brothers-in-law Gaspare Como and Rosario Allegra, both in custody, who allegedly manage their boss's most important affairs.

“The Trapani Mafia is (securely) in the hands of fugitive Matteo Messina Denaro and we can say that because its most important members are his own family,” said Pasquale Angelosanto, head of the Italian carabinieri's ROS special investigative unit.

Italy cracks sheep code in mafia sweep
An identikit image of Matteo Messina Denaro, designed by the police in 2006. Photo: Polizia di Stato

Angelosanto was speaking at a press conference in Sicilian capital Palermo. Palermo's assistant public prosecutor Paolo Guido said that six of the accused were local Mafia bosses.

'Active control'

Denaro, now 55, vanished in 1993, with the police seeking his arrest on a range of crimes including dozens of murders, and authorities say he has evaded justice by being more “mobile” than others on the run, who tend to hunker down in hideouts.

“It would be pointless to say we're closing in on him. He's a different type of fugitive to the other big targets, who've all been arrested, and that means locating his whereabouts is particularly hard,” said Palermo prosecutor Francesco Lo Voi.

Police also arrested a businessman involved in the online gambling industry, one of Denaro's suspected income sources. Police told reporters that despite reports of Cosa Nostra's decline, the Trapani branch was “particularly lively and active in control of the area” and operating in the longstanding Mafia industries of extorsion, property fraud and clinching public works contracts.

Police told AFP that the gang used people apparently above suspicion to take part in judicial auctions to buy seized assets cheaply and sell them on at a profit. They also confirmed the existence of a wiretapped recording of one of those arrested on Thursday praising the notorious January 1996 murder and dissolving in acid of 14-year-old Giuseppe Di Matteo.

The son of Mafia turncoat Santino was kidnapped in 1993 in a vain attempt to stop his father from collaborating with the authorities.

“Did he not do the right thing? He did the right thing!” news agency AGI reported the suspect as saying in the recording, apparently referring to the perpetrators.

“It's right that we don't touch kids … but why didn't you retract? You obviously didn't care about your kid.”

Trigger man

In another recording, Denaro and his deceased father Francesco, once a local boss, are compared to Padre Pio, a friar who died in 1968 and was subsequently sainted and is revered in Italy. One voice says the two mafiosi should have statues erected in their honour.

Denaro, a former trigger man who once reportedly boasted that he could “fill a cemetery” with his victims, is believed to have become the “boss of bosses” following the death of Salvatore “The Beast” Riina in November.

He is suspected to have been behind bombings in Rome, Milan and Florence in 1993 that killed 10 people just months after Cosa Nostra murdered anti-Mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in similar attacks.

In 2015, police discovered that he was communicating with his closest collaborators via the use of pizzini, which were being left under a rock at a farm in Sicily.

By Terry Daley

READ ALSO: Citrus fruits and Cosa Nostra: The origins of the Sicilian mafia

Citrus fruits, scurvy and Cosa Nostra: Analyzing the origins of the Sicilian mafia
Photo: Petr Jilek via Shutterstock


Italian police seize €250 million and arrest 56 in latest mafia blitz

In its latest mafia sting, Italian police took down a large 'Ndrangheta ring in southern Calabria, placing 56 people under investigation including a regional councillor and a former head of the regional tourism board.

Italian police seize €250 million and arrest 56 in latest mafia blitz

The early-morning blitz by over 300 police focused on areas of Calabria – Italy’s poorest region – under the control of the Mancuso clan, a powerful branch of the infamous ‘Ndrangheta, many of whose top operatives are among hundreds of defendants in an ongoing ‘maxi-trial’.

Fifty-six people, many already in prison, were put under criminal investigation for a series of crimes including mafia-related conspiracy, extortion, kidnapping, bribery and possession of weapons, police and prosecutors said.

READ ALSO: ‘Ndrangheta: It’s time to bust some myths about the Calabrian mafia

Besides alleged mafia members, the operation also snared businessmen, a regional councillor released from prison days earlier, a former head of the regional tourism board and two civil servants, police said.

The incarcerated boss of the clan, Luigi Mancuso, also known as “The Supreme”, is the biggest mafioso in the massive mafia trial that started in January 2021.

Still, police said, his clan and affiliates, including the La Rosa and Accortini families, have continued to dominate illegal activities in the Vibo Valentia province, which is located right on the toe of Italy’s boot and is widely known as the ‘Coast of the Gods’ due to its stunning coastal views.

One mafia scheme involved the infiltration of a foreign tour operator in Pizzo Calabro, overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea.

No one talks

In Calabria, the extent of the ‘Ndrangheta’s reach in the local economy has made it near impossible to eradicate it.

By controlling the bulk of cocaine flowing into Europe, the ‘Ndrangheta has surpassed Sicily’s Cosa Nostra in power and wealth. It has extended far beyond its rural roots and now operates internationally, with illegal gains reinvested in the legitimate economy.

In the area around Vibo Valentia, extortion of local businesses and the fixing of public tenders is also common.

The allegations against those arrested Thursday include the transport and sale of stolen farm machinery to Malta and Romania, police said.

The sting carried out on Thursday extended to other parts of Calabria, Palermo in Sicily and as far as Rome and Milan, police said.

READ ALSO: Meet Nicola Gratteri, the prosecutor leading Italy’s battle against the mafia

In a press conference, anti-mafia prosecutor Nicola Gratteri, whose efforts to defeat the ‘Ndrangheta have forced him to live under police escort for over 30 years, called the group a “fierce mafia syndicate” controlling areas around the tourist resort of Tropea.

Francesco Messina, who leads Italy’s organised crime investigative unit (DAC), cited the economic power of the clan, which relies locally on “substantial” extortion activity.

The “total absence” of complaints to authorities was striking, Messina said, underscoring the ‘Ndrangheta’s power to intimidate.

By Alexandria Sage