Investigators have intercepted a hand-written letter sent to a jailed mobster that has shed new light on the secret language that allows mafia bosses to stay in contact with clan members from behind bars.
The mafioso in question, Michele Zagaria, the head of the Camorra's brutal Casalesi clan, was dragged from an underground bunker near Naples and jailed last December, after 11 years on the run. At the time, Raffaele Cantone, a former Naples magistrate who has lived under armed protection since 2003 after Zagaria ordered his assassination, hailed the capture.
"With Zagaria's arrest, the Casalesi clan as we've known it ceases to exist. It's the end of an epoch," he said.
But closer scrutiny of the seemingly innocent letter, sent earlier this month to Zagaria in the notorious Novara prison, where he is serving a life sentence for murder, suggests he is anything but out of the loop, according to the author and Camorra expert Roberto Saviano, in an analysis in La Repubblica newspaper.
The letter, which begins: "Dear Uncle, I know that you have more important things to do than listen to me..." goes on, says Mr Saviano, to relay information about how the clan is restructuring, its activities with other crime groups, and even its contact with bent politicians. "The language is cryptic and allusive, a real construction of coded messages," he said.
Thus "the friends are going on holiday and they took the home-made jam and they say 'hi'," is probably an assurance that clan members are due for court appearances but will keep their mouths closed.
"We're all well and the children are growing up" probably refers to appointments and promotions necessitated by the jailing of senior clan members including Zagaria, who is nicknamed Capastorta, or "twisted head", in reference either to his asymmetrical features or to his violent reputation.
"At the market we filled the car with fruit" might refer to arms – hand grenades are commonly known as pineapples – or simply to lucrative dealings in large fruit and vegetable markets, which are commonly run by mafia clans.
A reference to "Uncle Nicola in his gallery" appreciating "everything that he's heard" quite possibly alludes, according to Mr Saviano, to Silvio Berlusconi's former economics minister, Nicola Cosentino, who magistrates want to arrest for presumed Camorra links.
Mr Saviano admits that despite being a leading authority on the Naples mafia – like Mr Cantone he has lived under armed guard since publishing his best-selling book Gomorrah: Italy's Other Mafia – much of his interpretation of the letter is speculation.
He suggests that the recipients themselves might not immediately understand the contents of such communications until subsequent events – such as arrests or killings – provide meaning or context.
What was not in doubt, he said, was that Camorra members used a complex system to ensure their words could not be used against them in court.
Zagaria's jailed former boss, Francesco "Sandokan" Schiavone, is also thought to have retained influence over the Casalesi clan from behind bars.
The clan, notorious for its internecine violence, runs a lucrative illegal waste disposal business and also makes hundreds of millions of euros a year from extortion, drug trafficking and smuggling of illegal migrants and arms.