Police Arrest Suspected Sicilian Mafia Members After Cracking Farming Code

Italian police arrested 11 men who they say are members of the Sicilian mafia early on Monday morning , after months of filming and recording meetings at farms in western Sicily, according to Italian newspaper la Repubblica. Police say the alleged mobsters were communicating using a code based on sheep farming.

The Italian state police special operations unit, SCO, and Carabinieri special operations group, ROS, have been monitoring the farm near Trapani, Sicily, since 2011. Police say they discovered the mobsters were receiving messages from the notorious mafia leader Matteo Messina Denaro on "pizzini"—small pieces of paper. The messages, allegedly containing instructions and personal messages to the leader's lovers, were folded and sealed with tape and destroyed after reading, according to an investigator speaking with Italian newspaper la Repubblica.

Denaro, sometimes known as the "phantom of Castelvetrano" due to his repeated evasion of the authorities, is believed to be the successor of Sicilian godfathers Toto Riina and Bernardo Provenzano, who were imprisoned for life in 2006. In 2002 Denaro received a life sentence in absentia for terrorist bombings in Rome, Florence and Milan in 1993 that targeted anti-mafia investigators.

Italian authorities say well-known former mafia lieutenant Vito Gondola, 77, who was apprehended on Monday, was responsible for communicating the arrival of a new message from Denaro to the Sicilian Mafia, known as the Cosa Nostra, Italian newspaper la Repubblica reported.

Gondola was recorded on the phone using phrases common in sheep farming to alert others to the presence of a new pizzini. Phrases such as "I've set the ricotta cheese aside for you, will you come by later?" "the fertiliser is ready for the field," and "the sheep need shearing," were frequently employed for communication.

Speaking with another alleged mobster, Gondola said in a recorded conversation that Denaro, 53, who has been on the run since 1993, was losing control over the new generation of Mafiosos and criminals, according to the Guardian. Police official Renato Cortese said the 11 men arrested, "were the men who were closest to Denaro right now."

The Italian police have previously narrowed in on the location of Denaro but have failed to capture the fugitive. Teresa Principato, an Italian prosecutor coordinating the investigation, told the Telegraph: "Despite heavy surveillance of the territory and years of sting operations, we still haven't been able to get him. This means he enjoys protection at a very high level."

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi encouraged law enforcement to continue in their investigations on his Facebook page on Monday, writing: "Onwards all, to finally capture the super-fugitive boss. Italy is united against organised crime."

Leoluca Orlando, the mayor of nearby Palermo, told the Telegraph: "The circle is closing and every day that passes the arrest of Messina Denaro gets closer... But the mafia has changed. It has become more horizontal. There are no more 'boss of all bosses.' Even when he is arrested, the mafia will not go away."