Mafia boss Vito Gondola is arrested

Vito Gondola

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This is one of the few available pictures of Matteo Messina Denaro, a fugitive since 1993 and said to be the leader of the Sicilian mafia. Eleven of his closest associates have now been arrested

Italian police have arrested 11 suspects linked to the fugitive head of the Sicilian Mafia, including a former boss who ran the leader's secret message system using a sheep-based code.

Matteo Messina Denaro, 53, who has been on the run since 1993, used a farm in Mazara del Vallo to communicate with his henchmen via the aged-old method of 'pizzini' - paper containing messages often written in cipher, police said.

Among the cryptic phrases used to alert clan messages to the presence of the notes were 'the sheep need shearing', 'the shears need sharpening' and 'the hay is ready'.

Although Denaro remains at large, among those arrested was former boss Vito Gondola, 77, whose job it was to call the clan members to alert them to each new message, which was placed under a rock in a field at the farm and often destroyed on the spot after reading. 

'I've put the ricotta cheese aside for you, will you come by later?' he would say on the telephone - a phrase investigators said had nothing to do with dairy products.

Police said the notes were wadded tight, covered in tape and hidden under rocks or dug into soil until go-betweens retrieved them.

The police investigation, which followed the passing of messages between 2011 and 2014, used hidden cameras and microphones around the farm near Trapani in western Sicily to follow the movements of the clan - and discover Denaro's fading glory.

Gondola is caught in one conversation telling another mobster that Denaro - once a trigger man who reportedly boasted he could 'fill a cemetery' with his victims - was losing control over the latest generation of criminals, who 'disappear without saying anything'.

Gondola, who despite his age rose every morning at 4am to tend to his flock, is believed to have once been a right-hand man to Riina.

 

In the 1970s he belonged to a gang used by the Mafia to carry out kidnappings, according to Italian media reports. Three of those arrested were over 70 years old.

The only known photos of Denaro date back to the early 1990s.

He is believed to be the successor of the godfathers Toto Riina and Bernardo Provenzano, who are both serving life sentences, but less is known about him.

He was convicted in absentia as a mastermind of 1993 bombings in Rome, Florence and Milan aimed at intimidating authorities cracking down on the Cosa Nostra.

The 11 suspects arrested 'were the men who were closest to Denaro right now,' said police official Renato Cortese, adding that it was 'too early to say' whether the sting would help investigators close in on the fugitive.

The Sicilian Mafia, known as 'Cosa Nostra' or 'Our Thing', was the country's most powerful organised crime syndicate in the 1980s and 1990s, but has seen its power diminish following years of investigations and mass arrests.

It also faces fierce underworld competition from the increasingly powerful Naples-based Camorra and Calabria's 'Ndrangheta.

An Italian police officer takes Michele Gucciardi (left) into custody. He is one of the 11 men suspected of helping Cosa Nostra fugitive Matteo Messina Denaro

An Italian police officer takes Michele Gucciardi (left) into custody. He is one of the 11 men suspected of helping Cosa Nostra fugitive Matteo Messina Denaro

The men are accused of helping the fugitive run his operation while in hiding from the police. Pictured is arrested suspect Ugo Di Leonardo being escorted by a police officer

The men are accused of helping the fugitive run his operation while in hiding from the police. Pictured is arrested suspect Ugo Di Leonardo being escorted by a police officer

Matteo Messina Denaro, the leader of the Sicilian mafia who remains at large, is believed to have been the successor of the imprisoned godfather Bernardo Provenzano (pictured)

Matteo Messina Denaro, the leader of the Sicilian mafia who remains at large, is believed to have been the successor of the imprisoned godfather Bernardo Provenzano (pictured) 

Larry White
By Larry White 03/08/2015 15:54:00