Italian and US police arrest 80 in strike at heart of the Mafia

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Police in Italy and the FBI in New York have arrested dozens of alleged gangsters belonging to the most notorious Sicilian crime families in a closely co-ordinated international operation.

More than 80 alleged gang members were rounded up in New York and Palermo in what the head of Italy's parliamentary anti-mafia commission described as "one of the most important operations of the past 10 years". Those arrested in New York included the entire Gambino family hierarchy, and important figures in the Genovese and Bonanno families. Also in the net were union and construction industry officials.

The New York Times reported that the arrested men were expected to be charged with seven murders, including three which date back 25 years, as well as racketeering, extortion and gambling offences.

These were the first successes in a joint operation which Italian sources say had been under way for more than two years. They say it is only the first battle in a new war against the old-time crime families, an operation they codenamed "Old Bridge".

Attilio Bolzoni, a mafia expert with the Roman daily La Repubblica, said investigators "discovered a pact between the 'Sicilians' and the 'Americans' after more than 20 years of domination by the Corleone clan: an attempt to rebuild Cosa Nostra on its old foundations".

Those involved in the US had fled from Sicily during the war between the clans in the 1980s, from which the Corleonesi emerged triumphant. "They had all returned to their home base in Palermo and were ready to start over," Mr Bolzoni said.

The key figure arrested yesterday, according to Italian sources, is Francesco Paolo Augusto Cali, known in New York as Frank or Franky Boy, the Sicilian-turned-American given the task of mending relations with the dominant families back in the old country. "Franky" is said to have been an accredited member of the Gambino family – a "man of honour", as the Italians put it, or "wise guy" in New York slang – for more than 10 years.

Casual observers often get the impression that in Sicily the Mob sails on regardless, little affected by whatever the state may throw at it. Events such as the recent sentencing to five years in jail of Salvatore Cuffaro, the president of the Sicily region, for tipping off a gangster about an ongoing police investigation, enforce that view. But anti-Mafia prosecutors have had many successes since the arrest nearly two years ago of Bernardo Provenzano, the gangster from Corleone who was capo di capi of the Sicilian Mafia.

Provenzano had been on the run for more than 40 years and kept out of prison thanks to an extended network of faithful followers.

He never used the telephone and kept in contact with his underlings through pizzini, brief notes typed on an ancient Olivetti portable that he took everywhere and that were delivered in stages by his accomplices.

The communications system put him out of the reach of electronic bugs – but once he was arrested, the undelivered pizzini helped the police to arrest dozens of his fellow gang members.

Since then, other operations have netted the man considered his successor, Salvatore Lo Piccolo (in November 2007) and many others. And with yesterday's arrests, which were hailed by Italian politicians across the board, police on both continents appear to have put a serious cramp in the efforts of families who were sidelined by the ascendancy of the Corleonesi 20 years ago to make a comeback on their native turf.

In a separate police operation, yesterday also saw the arrest of Vincenzo Licciardi, one of the most feared leaders of the Naples Mafia, the Camorra, who had been on the run for years.