THE Sicilian mafia and the US mobs once controlled a multi-million dollar industry of vice that spanned the Atlantic, ruling with bloody vengeance.
But as their power base was slowly broken by concerted efforts by authorities in both Italy and the United States, so they have been supplanted by more ruthless gangsters in South America and Eastern Europe.
This week’s arrest of Matteo Messina Denaro, the “last godfather” and boss of the feared Sicilian Cosa Nostra mafia, is seen by many as marking the end of the fabled crime group.
Denaro spearheaded a brutal campaign of terror in the 1980s and 90s when the Cosa Nostra declared war on the Italian state, murdering judges, bombing churches, and even declaring a vendetta against the pope.
That he was caught living just 10 miles from his birthplace in western Sicily reveals how his inner circle had shrunk smaller and smaller over his 30 years on the run.
But as John Dickie, Professor of Italian at UCL explained, it is just a sign of how far the infamous Cosa Nostra’s fortunes have fallen.
He told The Sun Online: “Mafia bosses who go on the run stay in their local territory. That’s where their organisation and support networks are, and when they can hide most effectively.
“A generation ago, when Denaro went on the run, western Sicily was ‘hostile territory’ for the state.
“The mafia had given itself the right to kill anyone with impunity, and to take its extortion tax from any economic activity, whether legal or illegal.”
Describing the mafia at that time as a “shadow state,” he added that Sicily in the 1990s was at real risk of turning into a “narco” republic.
“Over the last 30 years, the Italian state has slowly gained back ground, and that has cut away at Denaro’s support network,” he said.
“That support network extended up and down the social scale, and included siblings and business supporters.”
Dickie, author of “Cosa Nostra: The History of the Sicilian Mafia”, called Denaro as the “last” of the major mafia bosses on the island.
“This represents the turning of the page for Sicily, and it’s another sign that the Sicilian mafia is in a really bad way,” he said.
The Cosa Nostra is one of the four major mafia-type organisations active in Italy today.
Of the three others, the most powerful is the ‘Ndrangheta mafia based in Calabria, southern Italy.
The other two are the Camorra centred around the southern port city of Naples and the Sacra Corona Unita, based in Puglia, also in southern Italy.
This represents the turning of the page for Sicily, and it’s another sign that the Sicilian mafia is in a really bad way
While the ‘Ndrangheta has long had links to the cartels of South America, Dickie explained that the Cosa Nostra was once all-powerful because it had something the other mafia groups didn’t – a trans-Atlantic bridge.
With its sister organisation La Cosa Nostra in New York made up largely of the five ruling families, the Sicilian mafia had access to the richest market for illegal goods in the world.
But in the 1970s, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act came into law.
This federal law, designed to combat organised crime in the US, allowed criminals to hit with extended penalties and a civil cause of action for their roles in criminal organisations.
As Dickie explained: “The bridge has been broken. This was a major cause of the decline of the Sicilian mafia.”
This was followed in the 1980s by the Commission Trial which targeted American mobsters, and the Maxi Trial in Palermo, Sicily, which saw 338 mobsters jailed.
Denaro’s arrest, therefore, is less a hammer blow for the mafia in Sicily, but a reflection of how far its fortunes have fallen.
It also reflects the decades-long battle by authorities and cops in Sicily to target the mob.
To demonstrate the chaos at the top of the Cosa Nostra, its coordinating body, where the “Boss of Bosses” meets with his deputies, hasn’t been able to meet in person since 1993.
Dickie said: “They have tried four times to reform and elect a new boss of bosses, but each time police have been watching and bugging them.”
This has seen a number of further mobsters arrested, prosecuted and jailed while trying to restart the commission.
“If you are a mafia boss, your business will cross into other bosses’ territories,” he said. “For example, if authorities are building a road and you want to take your cut, the road will pass into another mafia boss’s territory.
“You need a presiding authority, or the situation will descend into bloodshed. Things don’t work nearly as smoothly or as neatly without the commission.”
But the decline of the Cosa Nostra doesn’t mean the end of the mafia completely.
While the Sicilian mafia’s ties to the US mob have been destroyed, the ‘Ndrangheta has a far more global reach.
“Italian mafia organisations are territorial,” Dickie said. “They exist to control territory and be a shadow state.
“When the Cosa Nostra suffers, the citizens and state win, not another criminal organisation.
“It means the freedom to run a business without extortion demands.”
The Sicilian mafia is no longer plying the international drug routes like they used to, Dickie explained.
But drug markets, which are more of a “free-for-all” the Ndrangheta are now far more successful.
The arrest of Denaro, the last living “godfather” of the Cosa Nostra’s so-called “massacre wing”, could allow the Ndrangheta to step into this void in the international drug markets.
Italy’s former national anti-mafia and anti-terrorism prosecutor Federico Cafiero De Raho told the Financial Times: “His absconding highlighted the extraordinary power of Cosa Nostra.
“His arrest has broken this strength.”
But where the mafia’s power has subsided, other groups have swept in to take their place.
Europe has been hit by what Belgian federal police chief Eric Snoeck described as a “tsunami” of cocaine in recent years.
Some 240 tons of the drug were seized in 2021 according to Europol, nearly five times more than a decade earlier.
Europe has become a lucrative market for the big drug cartels, shipping their good into the continent via major ports such as Antwerp and Rotterdam.
With Antwerp torn apart by gunbattles, Belgium’s chief prosecutor Johan Delmulle warned that the country could soon “be regarded as a narco-state,” the same direction that Sicily was feared to be heading in the 1990s when Denaro was at his height.
Cartels in Colombia and Mexico control the vast majority of the world’s cocaine market, bringing their brutal violence to Europe.
Eastern European gangsters are also now in control of drugs markets in many parts of the continent.
But Denaro’s capture may not mean the death of Cosa Nostra entirely.
The mafia is only ever as powerful as its network of corrupt officials it can rely on.
Denaro’s capture may give a new, hungrier leadership the chance to rise up.