Alleged Mafia boss hangs himself in Sicily jail

ROME – An alleged Mafia boss who was caught on wiretaps purportedly discussing Cosa Nostra’s new hierarchy hanged himself in a Sicilian jail hours after his arrest, police said Wednesday. State radio said he used his belt.

Authorities had arrested some 90 Mafia suspects in raids Tuesday to prevent what they said were the Sicilian mob’s efforts to rebuild itself after the arrests of several top fugitives had left the syndicate’s leadership in disarray.

Carabinieri paramilitary police in Palermo said Gaetano Lo Presti, 52, hanged himself in his cell in a Palermo jail Tuesday evening. Police said they couldn’t talk about the details because the suicide was under investigation and an autopsy was planned.

Investigators believe Lo Presti allegedly headed a Mafia clan in Palermo’s Porta Nuova district, Palermo police said.

The capture of top fugitives in recent years, some after years or decades on the run, has weakened Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian mob. Also threatening its psychological and economic hold on the Mediterranean island has been a spreading rebellion of Sicilian businessmen who are refusing to pay “protection money” to Mafia henchmen.

Authorities say they ordered Tuesday’s raids to head off a bloody power struggle among rival mob bosses as the crime syndicate was being rebuilt. State TV reported that investigators believed Lo Presti was planning to kill off supporters of a rival who he didn’t want to see rise to the top of Cosa Nostra.

National anti-Mafia prosecutor Piero Grasso indicated that wiretapped conversations had helped investigators uncover Lo Presti’s strategy.

A Palermo police official, speaking on condition of anonymity because his commander was away on an investigation, confirmed that Lo Presti was overheard in intercepted conversations speaking about Cosa Nostra’s power struggle.

Italian news reports said Lo Presti, in the monitored conversations, had reportedly expressed views that contrasted with how the imprisoned “boss of bosses,” convicted Salvatore “Toto” Riina, envisioned the new hierarchy.

Grasso, the top Mafia prosecutor, noted that some of those arrested Tuesday had been convicted two decades ago in Palermo’s “maxi-trial” of hundreds of mobsters, served long sentences and then resumed criminal activity when they were released.

Lo Presti himself had finished serving a 27-year prison sentence only a few years ago, state TV reported.

While Sicily’s Cosa Nostra has been reeling under blows in the last decade, organized crime syndicates on Italy’s mainland have grown increasingly powerful and violent.

Authorities say Cosa Nostra has been eclipsed in power and reach in international drug trafficking by the Calabrian ‘ndrangheta, which is based in the “toe” of the Italian peninsula.

Camorra crime families based in the Naples area have been waging a terror spree for months, with some businessmen who have refused extortion demands among the victims of arson or killings.

Separately in Naples in Wednesday, authorities arrested 13 city officials and businessmen, one of a series of unconnected corruption probes that have swept across Italy in recent days, news reports and officials said.

On Tuesday, the head of Italian operations for the French oil group Total, Lionel Levha, was questioned as part of a corruption investigation in Potenza, southern Italy, the company said. Levha was being investigated for alleged corruption linked to oil drilling contracts in the oil-rich southern region of Basilicata, the ANSA news agency reported.