US and Italian police arrest 19 alleged mafiosi as organised crime clan tries to reclaim old turf in Sicily

Nick Squires
An FBI officer and an Italian police officer escort a suspect named Tommaso Inzerillo after he was arrested in Palermo during a joint operation called 'New Connection'  - AFP

New York’s notorious Gambino family and alleged mafia dons in Sicily were targeted in a series of raids on Wednesday carried out by more than 200 officers from the FBI and the Italian police.

The coordinated operation was an aggressive move against the crime families’ hopes of re-establishing their presence on Sicily, from where they fled during a vicious war between rival clans in the 1980s.

The war was waged by Salvatore “Toto” Riina, a murderous boss of bosses nicknamed The Beast for his brutality, who was arrested in 1993 and died behind bars in 2017.

He had waged a vendetta against rivals in the Inzerillo family, forcing many of them into exile in the US.

Since Riina’s arrest and imprisonment, the Inzerillos had been trying to reclaim their old turf in and around Palermo, in league with the Gambino family of New York, police said.

"The investigation has shown the strong bond established between Cosa Nostra (in) Palermo and US organised crime, with particular reference to the powerful Gambino crime family of New York," a police statement said.

Nineteen people were arrested in the joint operation, codenamed “New Connection”, which was conducted by Italian anti-mafia police and their counterparts from the FBI.

Thomas Gambino, one of 19 people arrested in the operation, escorted by an FBI officer and an Italian detective Credit: AFP

They included Francesco and Tommaso Inzerillo, respectively the brother and cousin of Totuccio Inzerillo, a mafia don who was gunned down with a Kalashnikov assault rifle on the orders of Toto Riina in the 1980s.

Also arrested was Salvatore Gambino, not a member of the American Gambino clan but the mayor of the town of Torretta near Palermo. He is charged with mafia association.

“Didn’t we win the election for you?” he was asked by another one of the arrested men, Simone Zito, an Italian who was living in the US, according to a conversation wire-tapped by police.

Addresses in New Jersey, New York and Philadelphia were raided by the FBI. Video surveillance released by the police showed Thomas Gambino, the son of alleged mobster Joseph Gambino, discussing the sale of a plot of land in the Dominican Republic.

“The Gambino and Inzerillo families brought to their knees by the forces of law and order,” Nicola Morra, the president of Italy’s parliamentary anti-mafia commission, wrote on Twitter. “We can defeat the mafia.”

Those arrested will be charged with crimes ranging from mafia association to fraud and aggravated extortion.

Police confiscated assets and businesses worth around €3 million.

The alleged Mafiosi were involved in a wide range of illicit businesses, from online betting to whole food supplies, investigators said.

The operation is a blow to attempts by the Inzerillo family, with the backing of the Gambinos, to re-establish themselves in Sicily after being chased out in the 1980s.

“The Inzerillos were ethnically cleansed out of Palermo by Riina at that time. The ones who were not murdered were given literally minutes to get out,” said John Dickie, professor of Italian studies at University College London and the author of Mafia Republic – Italy’s Criminal Curse.

Alleged links between Cosa Nostra and the Gambino family go back a long time.

“These trans-Atlantic links have been going on for decades,” said Prof Dickie. “The Gambinos and the Inzerettos come from adjacent territories in Sicily. They’re inter-related. Mafiosi from one side of the Atlantic will cross to the other side if they are being pursued by the authorities or their enemies.”

The Gambinos are one of five Italian-American mafia clans based in New York.

Salvatore 'Toto' Riina launched a vicious clan war in Sicily in the 1980s Credit: AP

The head of the family, Francesco "Franky Boy" Cali, was gunned down in a drive-by shooting in front of his mansion in Staten Island in March.

He was married to Rosaria Inzerillo, a relative of the Inzerillo clan in Sicily.

In May it was alleged that the Gambino crime family sent an explosives expert to Sicily to help Cosa Nostra blow up Giovanni Falcone, a crusading anti-mafia investigator, in the 1990s.

A mafia “pentito” or turncoat told Italian investigators that the Sicilian mafia received training with the bomb and its remote-controlled detonator from an American “man of honour” sent from New York by John Gotti, the then head of the Gambino family. Gotti died of natural causes in 2017 at the age of 77.

Falcone was murdered because he had managed to put so many Mafiosi behind bars during a series of maxi-trials.