NEW YORK (Reuters) - Police in the United States and Italy arrested 77 suspected members of the Mafia on Thursday, including some of its most wanted leaders, for an array of crimes going back more than 30 years.
The three-year joint investigation sought to prevent organized crime in New York and Sicily from reuniting their drug-trafficking and money-laundering operations, officials in both countries said.
U.S. authorities rounded up 58 suspects with the help of an informant deep inside the Gambino crime family. Police said the source helped nail the three top Gambino members not already in jail.
A U.S. grand jury indicted 62 suspects with charges including murder, extortion, loan-sharking, gambling, cocaine and marijuana distribution, money laundering, bribing labor officials and embezzling union funds, U.S. and New York state officials said.
“Organized crime still exists,” New York state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo told a news conference. “We like to think it’s a vestige of the past. It’s not. It is as unrelenting as weeds that continue to sprout in the cracks in society.”
The U.S. investigation focused on the Gambino family once run by the late John Gotti. The indictment charges one Gambino family soldier, Charles Carneglia, with at least five murders dating to 1976.
Associates of the Genovese and Bonanno families were also arrested.
More than 300 Italian police were mobilized, mostly in Sicily, in an operation code-named “Old Bridge,” arresting 19 suspects and filing new allegations against four others already detained for separate crimes.
Italian prosecutors said the operation sought to block the re-establishment of the New York-Palermo axis, which ran drug trafficking in the 1980s.
“There was an attempt to rekindle ties between Cosa Nostra in Palermo and New York because the Sicilian Mafia wanted to get back into drug trafficking in a big way,” top anti-Mafia prosecutor Francesco Messineo told reporters in Rome.
The joint probe focused on the Inzerillo family, which was forced to leave Sicily in the 1980s after a Mafia turf war and rebased in the United States. They became known as “the runaways” and there was a split in the Sicilian Mafia over whether they should be allowed to return.
Among those arrested were suspects linked to Salvatore Lo Piccolo, who was arrested on November 5 in Sicily. He had become the new “boss of bosses” after the arrest in 2006 of Bernardo Provenzano, who had been on the run for 43 years.
Caretaker Prime Minister Romano Prodi praised what he called a “brilliant operation against organized crime.”
In what appeared to be a separate operation in Naples, police arrested a suspected leading figure of that southern city’s criminal underworld on Thursday.
Vincenzo Licciardi, 42, purportedly a boss of the Camorra crime group, was arrested in a Naples suburb. He had been on the run since 2004 and was one of Italy’s 30 most wanted criminals, police said.
Writing by Daniel Trotta; Additional reporting by Massimiliano Di Giorgio in Rome, Wladimir Pantaleone in Palermo and Laura Viggiani in Naples, editing by Vicki Allen