ROME (AP) — Police searching for Italy's No. 1 Cosa Nostra fugitive arrested 30 people Friday in a pre-dawn sweep of his stronghold in Sicily, including his sister, whom prosecutors say was helping to transmit the Mafioso's orders and run extortion rackets during his years on the run.
The raids also arrested a nephew and a cousin of Matteo Messina Denaro, who has been at large since 1993. The 51-year-old Messina Denaro has been convicted in absentia of murder, Mafia association and other crimes, and investigators say he runs the Mafia's rackets in western Sicily.
The capture of other top Mafia bosses in the last few years has moved him to the No. 1 slot on Italy's most-wanted list of mobsters. "We have never come as close to Matteo Messina Denaro as today," Carabinieri commander Mario Parente told reporters in Palermo, Sicily's capital.
The fugitive's sister, Patrizia Messina Denaro, looked defiant as police put her into a car after arresting her at 3 a.m. Friday at her home in Castelvetrano, a town in the crime clan's stronghold area of Sicily.
Investigators said wiretapped conversations between suspects revealed that she had been in contact with her fugitive brother and played a key role in transmitting his directives to other mobsters in the clan.
The investigation showed that his "sister can carry out a role, traditionally held by males. But this doesn't mean that men weren't capable of taking Matteo Messina Denaro's place" at the helm of Cosa Nostra in western Sicily, Prosecutor Teresa Principato told reporters.
She said others are suspected of helping Messina Denaro avoid capture, but that investigators decided not to arrest them now. Principato was suggesting investigators hope those people will inadvertently help lead police to the boss's hideout.
In his long years on the run, Principato said, Messina Denaro, hasn't strayed that far from his home base, although he occasionally is believed to have gone abroad. Police said in a statement that his sister has played a key role in the clan's extortion racket. Investigators said extortion revenue has been used for the fugitive's expenses while in hiding and to support families of jailed mobsters.
Besides shaking down merchants, the fugitive's crime clan has extorted money from local residents who received inheritances, the investigators said. The probe that led to Friday's crackdown found close ties between the mobsters and local businessmen, and several of those arrested were business figures suspected of colluding with Cosa Nostra for mutual gain, authorities said.
A Carabinieri statement said the probe discovered "an almost monopolistic control of the construction sector" by the Castelvetrano crime clan. One project the Mafia allegedly infiltrated was the construction of a windmill farm to generate electricity for public roads and restaurants.