Italian police score with capture of a Mafia boss: Dawn raid finds alleged murderous gangster asleep in bed

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THE ITALIAN police yesterday notched up another important success against the Mafia by capturing Benedetto ('Nitto') Santapaola, the most wanted boss after Salvatore Riina, who was arrested in January.

Santapaola, who had been in hiding for 10 years, was surrounded and captured in a huge dawn raid on a remote farmhouse in eastern Sicily as he and his wife lay sleeping. There was a gun by his bedside but he did not get a chance to use it. 'Sooner or later everything comes to an end,' he commented philosophically.

Santapaola was described by the Interior Minister, Nicola Mancino, as Riina's 'most ferocious ally'. He started as a door- to-door shoe salesman in Catania and became head of a vast and lucrative drug-running and extortion empire, via a long series of murders and bloody gang warfare. His most notorious alleged murder was in 1982, of General Carlo Alberto dalla Chiesa of the carabinieri.

But his most horrifying, according to statements by a Catania pentito (supergrass), Antonino Calderone, was the alleged murder of four small boys who had snatched his mother's handbag. They were taken into the countryside and kept without food for two days while other Mafia members tried to dissuade Santapaola from having them killed. Finally, Calderone alleged, Santapaola forced several members of his clan to strangle the boys and throw their bodies into a well.

Santapaola, who is believed to have dominated the Mafia in Catania and much of eastern Sicily, is allegedly a member of the Cupola, or Mafia's government of top bosses. But it appears unlikely that he took over Riina's role - if indeed Riina ever gave it up - as 'boss of all the bosses'. Several pentiti have declared that traditionally the head of the Mafia comes from Palermo and it would be unthinkable for the organisation to be led by someone from Catania, where the Mafia arrived only relatively recently.

For years Santapaola was regarded as a respectable and successful citizen. From shoe-hawking he graduated to a rosticceria, a kind of fast-food shop, then to smart car-showrooms, with openings attended by local dignitaries. But his businesses were a front, first for local protection rackets, then furious gang warfare from which his clan emerged the strongest, and then for extortion and drug-running.

He has narrowly escaped capture several times. In one hideout that was discovered recently, investigators found a greetings card that was allegedly signed by a former defence minister and local Socialist MP, Salvo Ando.

(Photograph omitted)