Police raided a summit of Mafia dons in Sicily on Monday, arresting a longtime fugitive who authorities say was revitalizing the crime syndicate's ties with U.S. mobsters and was vying to become Cosa Nostra's next "boss of bosses."
The capture of Salvatore Lo Piccolo, on the run for more than a decade, dealt another blow to the Sicilian Mafia, already weakened by several recent arrests, outmuscled by other underworld groups and facing an unprecedented challenge to one of its main sources of income: the extortion racket.
"It's a tough blow ... because they (the Lo Piccolo family) were in charge of restructuring the Mafia," said Francesco Forgione, head of Italy's anti-Mafia parliamentary commission.
Lo Piccolo, sentenced to life in prison for murder and on the run since 1993, was captured in a morning raid on a house in the countryside outside Sicily's capital, Palermo, police said.
Also arrested were Lo Piccolo's 32-year-old son Sandro — another top Mafia figure sentenced to life in prison and wanted since 1998 — as well as two men accused of being local bosses, both on Italy's list of 30 most wanted fugitives, officials in Palermo said.
Investigators believe Lo Piccolo, 65, could have eventually emerged from a power struggle as the Mafia's new "capo di tutti i capi" following the capture of top boss Bernardo Provenzano, the reputed No. 1 of the Cosa Nostra crime syndicate. Provenzano, who was on the lam for more than 40 years, was arrested on a farm near Corleone, Sicily, in April 2006.
"After the arrest of Bernardo Provenzano, it was the turn of the Lo Piccolos," Palermo Police Chief Giuseppe Caruso told the Italian news agency ANSA. "We were on the trail of the bosses for a long time, and this is a great result."
Caruso said that in the last two months investigators closely watched the house in the village of Giardinello because it was there that Lo Piccolo would huddle with fellow mobsters.
Police then bided their time in the hunt for Lo Piccolo, reasoning that "surely he was about to hold another operational meeting," Caruso said.
Monday's summit was taking place in a small storage room at the back of the house when police surrounded the building and fired warning shots, forcing the men inside to come out and surrender. Separately, two men accused of aiding the Lo Piccolos in their run from the law were arrested, police in Palermo said.
Prosecutors say Lo Piccolo, who is from Palermo, was vying to become Cosa Nostra's unchallenged top boss, pitted against another fugitive, Matteo Messina Denaro, a younger boss from the city of Trapani, in western Sicily.
Denaro has been on Italy's wanted list since 1993 for murder and other crimes.
"Salvatore Lo Piccolo was the only one capable of carrying on Provenzano's legacy," Piero Grasso, Italy's national anti-Mafia prosecutor, told ANSA. "He was at the head of Cosa Nostra in Palermo and was attempting to climb to the top of the organization."
When Provenzano was arrested, police found "pizzini" — coded notes about the administration of Cosa Nostra affairs delivered by the boss' lieutenants.
The information provided by decrypted notes and by Mafia turncoats lead to a wave of arrests, further crippling the syndicate already reeling from the loss of Provenzano and of previous No. 1 boss Salvatore "Toto" Riina, who was arrested in 1993.
In September, police arrested the man who handled the financial assets of Provenzano and other top bosses and last month they captured a mobster known as the "re del pizzo" — the "king of extortion fees" — for allegedly running a vast illegal protection racket in Palermo.
Another recent blow came when the Sicilian chapter of Italy's industrialist lobby Confindustria vowed to expel industrialists who pay the "pizzo" to the Mafia, long one of its most lucrative sources of cash.
Some experts say the businessmen apparently felt the time was right to rebel because extortion fees were skyrocketing as lower-level mobsters jockeyed for status in the power vacuum created by Provenzano's arrest.
In addition, authorities say the Mafia has been largely eclipsed in power and reach by other crime syndicates, like the Calabria-based 'ndrangheta, which controls Europe's lucrative cocaine market.
As part of their strategy to restructure the Sicilian mob, the Lo Piccolos were trying to revitalize previously difficult relations with the Inzerillo and other Mafia clans in the United States, Forgione said.
"They cultivated close ties with the American families of Cosa Nostra and had invested largely in business and financial activities," he said without elaborating.
During Monday's raid, police seized seven guns as well as a number of "pizzini" — a discovery that could spell further trouble for mobsters still at large.
Locals in Palermo celebrated the arrests outside police headquarters; one held a bottle of sparkling wine while others unfurled sheets painted with anti-extortion slogans.
When a police convoy brought Lo Piccolo in, hooded anti-Mafia officers waved and cheered from the car windows before the boss, held in a headlock by a masked policeman, was lead into the building amid jeers from the crowd.