Mafia drug king arrested after five days on the run

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The Independent Online
THE Mafia drug king Pasquale Cuntrera was arrested in central Malaga yesterday, just five days after eluding surveillance and fleeing from Italy.

Italian and Spanish police involved in the joint operation said they believed Malaga was a stop-over en route to Venezuela, where the Mafia boss still owns an extensive chain of hotels and casinos.

Cuntrera, the link-man between the Sicilian Mafia and South America's drug cartels, was released from a high-security prison in Italy on 6 May after a court ruled on a technicality that there was no justification for continuing to hold him in prison. On 19 May an interim arrest warrant was issued, but, by that time, the man who ran one of the world's largest drug trafficking operations had fled the country.

Two days later, the supreme court confirmed his 21-year prison sentence for drug trafficking and money laundering. "An open wound has closed up," said Italian Interior Minister Giorgio Napolitano as news of the arrest broke.

Cuntrera's flight last week led the Justice Minister, Giovanni Maria Flick, to tender his resignation, which was subsequently rejected by Prime Minister Romano Prodi. It also embarrassed anti-Mafia magistrates in Palermo who were forced to admit that for five days in early May they had failed to notice or to act upon a fax informing them that the mafioso was to be released from prison.

Cuntrera, 63, and his brothers, Paolo and Gaspare, left their crime- infested home town in southern Sicily in the Seventies, surfacing in Canada, Venezuela and the Caribbean where they set up a network of financial holding companies and restaurant chains. These fronts covered a smuggling ring of vast proportions, shipping drugs to north America and Europe.

Unmasked by Giovanni Falcone, the Sicilian prosecutor who died in a Mafia ambush six years ago, the Cuntreras were extradited from Venezuela in 1992, loudly protesting their innocence, and three years later went on trial in Palermo.