More than 80 alleged mobsters were last night in jail or on the run in New York and Sicily after what was hailed as the biggest transatlantic strike against Cosa Nostra in almost 25 years.
US law enforcement officials arrested 54 suspects, including three said to be important members of New York's Gambino crime family. More arrests were made in Sicily, where prosecutors in Palermo signed a joint warrant for the arrest of 29 others.
After capturing the "boss of bosses" of the Sicilian mafia two years ago, and arresting his would-be successor in 2007, investigators said the latest operation had thwarted an attempt to re-forge links between the island's mobsters and US organised crime.
The mass-arrest warrant issued in Palermo referred vaguely to "illegal trafficking", but there were also hints in the document that a faction of Sicily's Cosa Nostra, allied to "dons" in America, had been trying to muscle its way back into the international drug business.
Some Italian commentators suggested this could have been part of a plan to fill the vacuum at the top of the island's mafia left by the 2006 arrest of the "capo di tutti i capi", Bernardo Provenzano. His capture set off a chain of investigations and operations, culminating in yesterday's coordinated raids by the FBI and Italian police, which have dealt crushing blows to the Cosa Nostra.
Those arrested in the US, mostly in the New York area, faced accusations including murder, racketeering, extortion, loan-sharking and pension fund embezzlement, an official said. They allegedly included the three highest-ranking members of the Gambino clan not already in prison.
According to Italian reports, one was Francesco "Frankie Boy" Cali, identified by prosecutors as a link man between the two branches of the Cosa Nostra.
In an intercepted telephone call, a reputed Sicilian gangster was heard to say: "Frank is our friend. He's everything over there."
The speaker, Gianni Nicchi, in his 20s, is described by investigators as one of Cosa Nostra's fastest-rising "stars". The warrant records that he acted as a go-between, crossing the Atlantic for meetings with US "godfathers".
Other leading dons marked for arrest belonged to the losing faction in the so-called "second mafia war" of the 1980s. Some of the few who escaped death fled to the US where they were given protection by the Gambino family.
Since about 2000 several have quietly returned to Sicily. They include 36-year-old Giovanni Inzerillo, the son of Salvatore Inzerillo, whose murder in 1981 sparked the conflict.