A suspected mafia leader whose indiscretions on the telephone prompted Italian police to launch one of its biggest operations against organised crime in Sicily hanged himself in his prison cell on Tuesday night, hours after being arrested.
Gaetano Lo Presti, 52, is alleged to have been one of two people believed to be the new leaders of the Sicilian Mafia – or Cosa Nostra. He had been running cells in the Porta Nuova area of Palermo since last year and had become one of the most powerful gangsters on the island. He was deeply involved in the organisation's decision to try to forge a new power structure after the arrest of the head mobster, Bernardo Provenzano, in 2006.
But Lo Presti, who had recently finished serving a 27-year prison sentence for mafia-related crimes, was being bugged by investigators and was careless in what he told his contacts over the phone. He blurted out the names of other bosses, their plans for the future and – crucially for the timing of this week's raid – he also revealed his opposition to their plans.
When told of the decision to appoint another Palermo leader, Benedetto Capizzi, 65, as the Mafia's capo dei capi – or boss of bosses – he reportedly demanded, "Who authorised this?" – a blunt challenge to his fellow gangsters. The implication was that Lo Presti – appointed boss of Porta Nuova in 2007 by Salvatore Lo Piccolo, one of two brothers who seemed destined to hold sway over the Mafia until his arrest in November last year – believed he had more claim to the top job than Capizzi. There was also the suggestion that blood would be shed in a new round of "mafia wars", to be played out on the streets of Sicily. It was this fear that led police to bring their assault forward and launch an operation that resulted in 94 arrests on Tuesday morning.
The Sicilian Mafia, unlike those of Calabria or Campania, has long had an authoritarian structure, with a single capo dei capi, appointed with the approval of the grand old men of the organisation, and who wields absolute power over his subordinates.
Until his arrest in 1993, that man was Salvatore Riina. Even from prison, where he was serving a life sentence, he was shaping the hierarchy, designed to impose obedience on members to ensure efficiency and loyalty within the organisation. Italian media reports said that Lo Presti did not share his vision. In prison he may have feared revenge attacks and, therefore, moved to take his own life.
Lo Presti took control of Porta Nuova district after the murder of a rival, Niccolo Ingarao, a year ago, and there may have been threats from fellow mafiosi who blamed him for spilling secrets over the phone, which resulted in this week's arrests.
And he had another potential reason for anxiety: his earlier indiscretions led to an important result for the authorities, when transcripts of his conversations were used to convict Salvatore Riina's son Giuseppe, who is now serving a 14-year sentence for mafia association, extortion and money-laundering.
Lo Presti had only recently served a 27-year sentence for Mafia-related crimes.