Police in Sicily arrested 11 suspected mobsters they believe were helping Sicilian mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro evade capture and spread his orders to the rest of the criminal organisation.
The suspects used coded language and hand-written notes to communicate with the highest-ranking Sicilian mob boss currently at large, police said in a statement.
Messina Denaro has been sought since 1993 for planting bombs that killed 10 people in Florence and Milan.
Since 2012, Italy‘s Carabinieri police had staked out an isolated farmhouse in southwestern Sicily with high-tech surveillance equipment. They observed the meetings in which the mobsters would gather to read Messina Denaro’s messages.
To tell one of the group that there was a message waiting, the owner of the farm would communicate in code words, like “the sheep need shearing” or the “the hay is ready”, police said.
The messages, known as “pizzini”, were handwritten by Messina Denaro himself, folded into small balls and wrapped in adhesive tape. They were hidden in the ground under a rock, and then destroyed after they were read, police said.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi hailed the arrests as a blow to the mafia, urging police to continue their work and “finally capture the most-wanted fugitive”.
To avoid police wiretaps and surveillance, the Sicilian mafia has long used written correspondence instead of any form of electronic communication.
Denaro’s predecessor as boss of bosses, Bernardo Provenzano, was captured in a farmhouse near his hometown of Corleone in 2006 with several pizzini on his desk.
The Sicilian mafia, known as Cosa Nostra, was once Italy’s most powerful criminal group but has lost some of its sway due to the state’s success in capturing most of its top bosses.
Meanwhile, across the Strait of Messina, the Calabrian mafia, known as the ‘Ndrangheta, has grown stronger by becoming one of Europe’s biggest smugglers of cocaine from South America.