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Police close on Mafia No.1

'Scorched earth' around Cosa Nostra chief Messina Denaro

15 March, 17:32
Police close on Mafia No.1
Police close on Mafia No.1
Police close on Mafia No.1

(ANSA) - Trapani, March 15 - Nineteen Mafia suspects were arrested Monday in an operation police said had helped them close the net on fugitive Cosa Nostra No.1 Matteo Messina Denaro.

"This is a very heavy blow to the Sicilian Mafia," said Justice Minister Angelino Alfano. The arrests were made near the western Sicilian city of Trapani where Messina Denaro, 47, built up his power base before beating Palermo chieftains to become Mob kingpin after 'boss of bosses' Bernardo Provenzano was caught in 2006.

The operation, stage two of a "scorched earth" sweep that began in June with the arrest of 13 people, tracked couriers to affiliates and front companies much further afield.

Some 40 raids were carried out in Trapani, Palermo, Caltanissetta, Turin, Como, Milan, Imperia, Lucca and Siena.

"The operation is not only important because of the number of arrests and raids but, above all, because much of the network of accomplices and backers set up by Messina Denaro to keep him hidden and enable him to give orders has been taken apart," Alfano said.

Police said they had broken up the boss's communication system which used the same type of coded and hand-delivered notes, called 'pizzini', invented by Provenzano to evade surveillance.

"We have uncovered and broken up the 'postal service' used by Messina Denaro to give his orders," special police unit (SCO) officer Vincenzo Nicoli' told Sky TV news.

"The boss used a close-knit network formed by his most trusted men and members of his family," Nicoli' said.

One of those arrested was Messina Denaro's older brother, Salvatore.

"The circle is closing around the No.1 fugitive," said Interior Minister Roberto Maroni.

"This operation, Golem II, is a decisive step because we have scorched the earth around the boss of bosses," he said.

"I'm optimistic that we'll catch him too as soon as we can".

Police said that, like a US-Italian operation that last week caught 27 suspects in Palermo, New York and Miami, Monday's operation also showed that, following a recent wave of arrests of high-ranking members, "Cosa Nostra is turning to its 'historic" bosses".

Several companies in the food, catering and distribution sectors were seized as suspected fronts for the boss.

Messina Denaro has been hit hard over the last year by the seizure of some 1.4 billion euros from two construction magnates and a supermarket king, all operating in western Sicily, believed to be among his chief bankrollers and money launderers.

Palermo Chief Prosecutor Francesco Messineo said recent operation were "part of a strategy of capturing Messina Denaro by drying up the water he swims in".

The government recently launched a new anti-mafia plan centred on asset seizures and opened a centralised confiscation agency in Reggio Calabria.

ONLY MEMBER OF 'MASSACRE' MAFIA STILL AT LARGE.

Justice Minister Angelino Alfano said Messina Denaro ''is the only member of the 'massacre' mafia left at large,'' referring to bombing campaigns in Sicily, Rome, Florence and Milan in 1992-93 that killed 20 people including the anti-mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino.

In two days in December police arrested Cosa Nostra No. 2 Gianni Nicchi, 28 and another boss among Italy's 30 most-wanted criminals, 74-year-old drug lord Gaetano Fidanzati.

Police captured 17 of the men on the list last year. Last June, in Golem 1, 13 people suspected of helping Messina Denaro elude capture were arrested in the provinces of Trapani, Palermo, Rome and Piacenza.

Some 40 inmates in 15 jails were also searched after evidence they had been sending messages to the Cosa Nostra head.

Messina Denaro, who has been on the run since 1993, is believed to be expanding his criminal empire abroad and police have found evidence of trips to Austria, Greece, Spain and Tunisia.

In Golem 1 police found evidence he travelled under fake ID papers supplied by the Rome-based head of a showbiz security firm, Domenico Nardo.

After Provenzano's arrest, Palermo boss Salvatore Lo Piccolo appeared to be vying with Messina Denaro for control of Cosa Nostra but his capture in November 2007 left the scene clear for the Trapani boss to take command.

Messina Denaro, who is reportedly idolised by Cosa Nostra younger troops because of his charisma and ruthlessness, has managed to become one of the world's top drug dealers despite being on the run for 16 years, the FBI says.

Notes found in Provenzano's farm hideout outside Corleone in April 2006 showed that the Trapani boss had been in constant touch with the elderly boss.

The young boss sent more messages than any other Mafia leader to the sheepfarm outside Corleone where Provenzano, 77, was smoked out after 43 years in hiding.

Denaro, nicknamed 'Diabolik' after the cult Italian comic criminal, sealed a reputation for brutality by murdering a rival Trapani boss and strangling his three-months pregnant girlfriend.

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