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Woman Mafia boss arrested

SICILIAN POLICE arrested one of Italy's few female Mafia bosses yesterday as she was having breakfast in her home town near Catania.

Surprised in a friend's apartment, Concetta Scalisi, 45, did not lose her head. As members of the anti-Mafia squad told her she was under arrest, she smashed a glass and began slashing her stomach and hands with one of the shards. The aim of the well-dressed Sicilian matron, one of a handful of female mafiosi, was apparently to ensure she went to hospital rather than to Catania's high-security prison.

Ms Scalisi has been on the run since September. She is charged with belonging to Cosa Nostra and organising a triple murder. Unlike other women, who are increasingly active in what was once a male domain, she was not said to be simply passing on orders from a jailed husband or having Mafia properties put in her name.

"Concetta is the boss, the number one of the Scalisi clan," explained Enzo Montemagno, head of the Catania anti-Mafia squad. "She is brains of the organisation. It is one of the few cases in Italy where a woman is really running the show."

He described Ms Scalisi as a well turned out, conservatively dressed matron "whose expression made it clear she was not someone to be messed with".

Married with two adult children, Ms Scalisi grew up adoring her father, Antonino, the charismatic and powerful local boss. When he was shot dead in a Mafia vendetta in 1982, her brother Salvatore took over. When he, too, was killed five years later, she stepped in to reorganise the family. In deference to the Mafia's patriarchal traditions, she brought in two nephews - but she was the decision maker.

It was during this period that investigators say Ms Scalisi eliminated three "family" members who had stepped out of line - providing the weapons, a refuge and logistical support for the killers. She faces a possible life sentence if convicted.

When her nephews were arrested in 1997, Ms Scalisi reportedly took complete control of mob operations in the hill town of Adrano, with a population of 20,000, near Catania. That included loan sharking, drug dealing, extortion and controlling public works contracts. She also came into contact with her family's traditional allies, the clan of Nitto Santapaola, one of Sicily's most ruthless mobsters.

Ms Scalisi's arrest came after a difficult and frustrating undercover operation. "In a small town where the Scalisi can count on considerable support, it is not easy to trail or observe those close to Concetta without being noticed yourself," Mr Montemagno said.

Three times police thought they had her, only to burst into a building and find no trace. Yesterday morning at breakfast time, however, their painstaking work paid off.