Italian police have arrested 94 suspected Mafia gangsters who they claimed were on the brink of creating a command structure under a new godfather to relaunch Cosa Nostra as a power in the land.
In a huge pre-dawn operation, more than 1,000 officers swooped on dozens of addresses in Palermo and around Sicily. Masked officers climbed gates and tore down walls as helicopters hovered, pouncing on known mafiosi, many with long prison terms behind them.
Since the 2006 arrest of the top mobster, Bernardo Provenzano, the Sicilian Mafia's ranks have been in disarray and investigators said yesterday's operation had been unleashed as gangsters were planning to reconstitute the so-called "Provincial Commission", a cabinet under a new boss with absolute power. "If that [Provenzano] operation... brought Cosa Nostra to its knees, this prevented it from getting up again," Italy's anti-Mafia prosecutor, Pietro Grasso, told reporters.
Yesterday's operation was codenamed Perseus, after the Greek mythological hero who beheaded Medusa, and Mr Grasso said it "severed all the strategically important heads of a new ruling structure that had to deliberate, as it once did, on all serious acts".
Historically, the Provincial Commission was the executive body that decided on the Mafia's most notorious atrocities, including the murders of Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, the investigating magistrates killed by road bombs in 1992.
Investigators said a preliminary summit meeting was held on 14 November. From bugged phone conversations, they obtained a full list of those present and those who had sent their apologies, as well as details of the issues discussed and the decisions adopted. The object, as one bugged gangster put it, was to "re-establish Cosa Nostra" in the old style, with a single all-powerful boss, a "capo di capi".
While other Italian Mafia outfits – in particular the Calabrian 'Ndrangheta and the Camorra from Campania -- have enjoyed vigorous growth in recent years, the Sicilian Mafia has been floundering since the spectacular arrest of Provenzano.
The mobster, known as the Tractor for his propensity to mow people down, had been a wanted man for more than 40 years. For much of that time, he eluded arrest by refusing to use telephone, post, fax or computer, relying solely on minuscule notes typed by him and delivered by a complex network of couriers. When police cracked the code used in the notes, they discovered his hideout and were able to dismantle much of his organisation. As a result, the Sicilian Mafia has been recovering its strength only slowly and with great difficulty.
A younger generation of Mafia leaders cast aside Provenzano's reluctance about using the phone, allowing police to amass a huge quantity of wiretap information, the key to yesterday's success.
Detectives learnt that the efforts to rebuild the Sicilian Mafia were being supervised from behind bars by Provenzano and his predecessor, Salvatore Riina, the brutal head of the Mob during its most violent phase, who is still regarded as the Mafia's ultimate authority. Riina was arrested in 1993, and is now serving a life sentence for his numerous murders.
The third veteran gangster involved in breathing new life into the Mob was Matteo Messina Denaro from the Trapani, who is still on the run. The three veterans had apparently agreed on the choice of another old-timer, Benedetto Capizzi from the Villagrazia section of Palermo, to be the new boss of bosses.
Investigators said Operation Perseus had taken nine months and that its denouement had been brought forward when they learned from wiretaps that one of the "families" within the Palermo Mafia – Porta Nuova – objected to the choice of Capizzi as the new head of the organisation. As a result, police feared a killing spree and the outbreak of a new Mafia civil war.
Investigators said many of those arrested yesterday had recently been released from prison on health grounds, and were serving out their sentences under house arrest. They held clandestine gang meetings in Palermo's municipal hospitals, the only place outside their homes where they were allowed to spend time under the terms of their release.
Number of suspected Mafia gangsters arrested in yesterday's raids across Sicily.