Italian police on Monday arrested a well-connected and seemingly respectable architect in Sicily who they believe has taken over the command of the most powerful Mafia clan in the city of Palermo.
Investigators have been on Giuseppe Liga's trail for the past two years since they found references to him in pizzini -- coded messages used by clan members to communicate -- found in their secret hide outs. During the long and intricate investigation, Liga's phones were tapped, his home bugged and he was secretly videoed and taped as he went about his daily business in the city.
Italian TV news yesterday showed police video of what they say is him receiving an envelope stuffed with extortion money. Four mafia clan-members-turned-state-witness have told investigators that Liga took over the Lo Piccolo "family business" after the clan boss Salvatore Lo Piccolo, and his brother Sandro, were arrested in November 2007.
"The architect," as he is being referred to in the press here today, was arrested on suspicion of mafia conspiracy, extortion and setting up front companies. Police believe he was the man who handled revenue from all the rackets controlled by the Lo Piccolo clan based in the San Lorenzo district of Palermo.
"What we are seeing is the 'financialization' of the Mafia." Palermo prosecutor Antonio Ingroia told ANSA news agency.
Liga, 59, is a stout, distinguished, well-known architect in Palermo with a range of local and national political connections. Since the '70's, he has secured various large construction contracts in Palermo including a high-profile residential complex. Gaining political clout, he led the national Catholic association Movement of Christian Workers from 1989 to 1997 and was head of its Sicilian chapter until he was suspended from his position earlier this month after news that he was being investigated for Mafia ties emerged.
In tapped phone calls quoted in "La Repubblica" daily today he often spoke of "finding people to be angels" and "dispensing blessings" in a misleadingly pious way.
Investigators believe Liga is the proof of what they have been suspecting for some time: Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian crime organization, has made the leap and is no longer being run by undereducated, unsophisticated, "ricotta-eating," criminals from the Corleone area.
The crime conglomerate is now in the hands of the Palermo-based clans who have been away doing a lucrative business in the US and have now returned to take control. These clans are now led by white-collar, educated workers who have a respected and highly visible role in the political and social life of the city. The new breed of clan bosses are now part of the financial, industrial and political elite of the city and have strong social links to the community.
"This is not just the ascent of one man [within the organization] but of a whole social strata, another whole level, " said Prosecutor Ingroia, who spoke to reporters after the arrest and stressed that the country's investigative powers and resources must now focus on the people who control the clan's finances. "Ever more often we have found that the command has been handed to figures who were once financial 'consultants' of bosses." Police attention has been focused on arresting mafia killers and the dangerous bosses who are still on the run until now he said but attention must now be given to hitting Cosa Nostra's financial power.
The Architect's ConnectionsIn a recent interview Liga gave to a Siclian magazine, called "S," he boasted of his ties with Palermo-born politicians like the former mayor Leoluca Orlando and the present Governor of Sicily, Rafaele Lombardo. Hoping possibly to throw off suspicion that he had links to organized crime, "the architect" lamented in the interview that his childhood friendship with Salvatore Lo Piccolo meant that he was victim of a "misunderstanding" and that like others in the Palermo construction business he too had been forced to pay protection money to Lo Piccolo.
Italian Justice Minister Angelino Alfano called the arrests an "important result" in the fight against organized crime and law enforcement officials hailed the capture as a further "extraordinary success" following the arrests of almost 20 Cosa Nostra associates and couriers last week.
Liga was arrested with three other top mafiosi including his suspected right-hand man, Giovanni Angelo Mannino.
Sicily's governor, Rafaele Lombardo, who is not under investigation, immediately moved to distance himself from Liga and spoke of the dangers of doing business in Sicily to journalists today. He said one had to be very careful, especially in Palermo, as to who one had dealings with.
"Thank goodness! Thank God I do not receive people at my home and only in my office or at public meetings and institutions." He told ANSA.
"Anyone who comes to see me has to leave his name and address. From now on we will also snap a quick ID photo to keep on file".
"The architect" will be questioned in jail today.