PALERMO: Matteo Messina Denaro’s brother-in-law, Rosario Allegra, exits the police headquarters in Palermo.—AFP

ROME: Italian police yesterday arrested some of Cosa Nostra kingpin Matteo Messina Denaro's closest aides, uncovering a network which allowed him to marshal his mobster allies over a quarter of a century on the run. Police told reporters that 21 people were arrested in towns near the Sicilian city of Trapani where Denaro's criminal empire is based, as part of the "Year Zero" investigation that allowed authorities to uncover a system of paper notes, or "pizzini", that Denaro uses to give orders to his underlings.

Among those in custody yesterday were Denaro's closest allies, including brothers-in-law Gaspare Como and Rosario Allegra, who are alleged to manage the boss' most important affairs. "The Trapani mafia is (securely) in the hands of fugitive Matteo Messina Denaro and we can say that because its most important members are his own family," said Pasquale Angelosanto, head of the Italian carabinieri's ROS special investigative unit. Angelosanto was speaking at a press conference in Sicilian capital Palermo.

Police had previously told AFP that 22 people had been captured but clarified that the 22nd person would be Denaro himself. Denaro vanished in 1993, with the police seeking his arrest on a range of crimes including dozens of murders. Police also arrested a businessman involved in the online gambling industry, through which it is suspected Denaro earns some of his money.

Palermo's assistant public prosecutor Paolo Guido said that six of the accused were local mafia bosses. Police told reporters that despite reports of Cosa Nostra's demise, the Trapani branch was "particularly lively and active in control of the area" and operating in the classic mafia industries of "extorsion, property fraud and assignment of public works contracts."

Trigger man

Police also confirmed the existence of wiretapped recordings of one of those arrested yesterday praising the notorious January 1996 murder and dissolving in acid of Giuseppe Di Matteo. Di Matteo, the 14-year-old son of mafia turncoat Santino, was kidnapped in 1993 in a vain attempt to stop his father from collaborating with the authorities.

"Did he not do the right thing? He did the right thing!" news agency AGI reported the suspect as saying, apparently preferring to the perpetrators. "It's right that we don't touch kids ... but why didn't you retract? You obviously didn't care about your kid." Another recording has Denaro and his deceased father Francesco, once a local boss, compared to Padre Pio (1887-1968), an Italian friar and saint who was the subject of great popular devotion in Italy. One alleged gangster says the two mafiosi should have statues dedicated to them.

A former trigger man, who once reportedly boasted that he could "fill a cemetery" with his victims, the 55-year-old Denaro is believed to have become the "boss of bosses" following the death of Salvatore "The Beast" Riina in November. He is suspected to have been behind the 1993 bombings in Rome, Milan and Florence that killed 10 people just months after Cosa Nostra murdered anti-mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in similar attacks. In 2015, police discovered that he was communicating with his closest collaborators via the pizzini system, which were being left under a rock at a farm in Sicily.--AFP