ROME - The No. 1 Cosa Nostra fugitive communicates with henchmen using written messages buried in dirt or hidden under boulders on sheep ranches and comes and goes from Sicily, possibly thanks to high-level protection, investigators said Monday after nabbing some of his alleged accomplices.
In early morning raids in the countryside of western Sicily, police took into custody 11 men investigators contend helped convicted Mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro wield power despite being at large since 1993.
Investigators described how Messina Denaro, 53, disdains telecommunications and relies on handwritten notes, or "pizzini,'" to relay orders. The notes were wadded tight, covered in tape and hidden under rocks or dug into soil until go-betweens retrieved them. The messages were ordered destroyed after being read.
Messina Denaro was convicted in absentia as a mastermind of 1993 bombings in Rome, Florence and Milan, The attacks were aimed at intimidating investigators after "Boss of Bosses" Salvatore Rina was arrested in Palermo following two decades as a fugitive. After the 2006 arrest of Bernardo Provenzano, after 43 years in hiding, Messina Denaro became the most-wanted Mafia chieftain. He has been called by many the "boss of bosses" for his current position of power.
Police used eavesdropping devices and video cameras hidden in trees near farmhouses to help discover the message-delivery system.
During more than two years of investigation, police monitoring tapped phone conversations began to recognize a pattern.
Whenever one of the alleged Messina Denaro aides used to speak of "sheep," ''fertilizer" and "ricotta," a cheese that can be made from sheep's milk, other suspects would soon come to the farmhouses, the Italian daily La Repubblica said, quoting one of the investigators. The investigators eventually figured out such farm talk were actually code words signaling there were messages for or from the fugitive.
Among those arrested was a 77-year-old sheep grazer who investigators said played a key role in the message system.
"Don't let yourself be deceived by the fact they were simple ranchers," Prosecutor Teresa Principato told reporters at a news conference in Palermo. "These were very loyal men of Messina Denaro" and who "carried weight inside the organization."
Principato said the fugitive sometimes "leaves Sicily and even Italy." How he eludes capture isn't known, but "after so many years, and constant, punishing (investigative) work, he clearly enjoys some very, very important protection."
Palermo Police Official Rodolfo Ruperti said Messina Denaro commands loyalty from mobsters young and old with what the investigator called generations-bridging "charisma."
In 2013, the fugitive's sister was arrested, suspected of running extortion rackets for her brother. Infiltration of public works contracts remains another Sicilian Mafia revenue source, after mainland 'ndrangheta mobsters started dominating cocaine trafficking.