Italian police on Tuesday launched a vast anti-Mafia raid in Sicily, arresting 46 suspects and closing in on the Sicilian underworld's "boss of all bosses," Bernardo Provenzano, who has eluded repeated drag-hunts for more than 40 years.
Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisano said the Sicilian Mafia, known as the Cosa Nostra, had "suffered a very heavy blow. Provenzano is cornered. Life is going to get a lot more difficult for him."
Provenzano was believed to have become the Cosa Nostra's top boss after Salvatore "Toto" Riina was caught in 1993. Provenzano received a life sentence in absentia in 1999 for his part in a bomb attack that killed top anti-Mafia prosecutor Paolo Borsellino and five bodyguards.
National anti-Mafia prosecutor Piero Luigi Vigna said that by arresting many of Provenzano's henchmen, police may now be in a position to flush the Mafia capo out of his hiding place, which is believed to be somewhere near the legendary base of the crime organization at Corleone, west of Palermo.
"We hope that by removing all the water around him, the fish will finally emerge," Vigna said.
A key step in the operation was the arrest of Francesco Pistoia, 62, the man police believe was Provenzano's main link in relaying orders to his lieutenants via a communications system that covered the island.
In an operation that took three years to prepare, 1,000 police and carabinieri officers staged one of the biggest anti-Mafia raids in recent memory. They carried out hundreds of searches, and arrested 46 men on charges of extortion, drug and weapons possession and murder.
Sicily's chief anti-Mafia investigator Piero Grasso told a news conference in Palermo that police brought forward the raid after receiving information the organization was about to embark on a new wave of killings, and that some of the accused Mafiosi were planning to start a new life in South America.
Italian newspapers said one of the intended victims was Grasso himself. The Cosa Nostra has murdered dozens of politicians, judges and prosecutors, including two of Grasso's predecessors.
Such is the sinister power of the mob that the Italian Parliament's anti-Mafia commission has described the criminal organization as not only a force against the state, but one that operates within state institutions.
The ANSA news agency said magistrates suspected that Provenzano had obtained highly secret details of current investigations, which enabled him to evade police searches.