Top Sicilian Mafia Boss Arrested

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Police officers with Salvatore Lo Piccolo, second from left, shortly after his arrest

"I love you, papà," the son said in tears. "I love you papà." It would have been a touching farewell, if not for the fact that 32-year-old Sandro Lo Piccolo is a convicted murderer — and the dad he was being torn away from is the most wanted boss in the ever-powerful Sicilian Mafia. Top boss Salvatore Lo Piccolo and his son were captured together Monday morning in a small hamlet outside of Palermo in Sicily, a bust immediately hailed as a major victory for the Italian state in its ongoing battle against organized crime. Lo Piccolo, 65, was considered the unrivaled leader of the world's best-known crime syndicate, Cosa Nostra (Our Thing), after the April 2006 capture of legendary capo Bernardo Provenzano. He had been a fugitive since 1983. Salvatore Lo Piccolo was the only one able to take over the mantle from Provenzano, Italy's top Mafia prosecutor Piero Grasso told reporters.

Some 40 members of the same special "Catturando" police unit that nabbed Provenzano in the hills of Corleone found the Lo Piccolos, and several other top Mafia figures, in a pair of well-furnished houses near the town of Cinisi, just west of Palermo. The senior Lo Piccolo, sporting a leather jacket and a mane of white hair and beard, shared only a vague resemblance with the most recent composite sketch. On the premises, police found weapons, cash, fake identification and the tiny handwritten notes that Provenzano also utilized for communicating among mob bosses. Italian media report that the younger Lo Piccolo, who himself had been on the lam for more than a decade, repeatedly called out his love to his father as he was being taken away in handcuffs.

Indeed, the Mafia is still very much a family affair. Loyalty is ensured by blood rites and membership passed down through the generations of certain clans. The elder Lo Piccolo may have spelled his own doom by being in close proximity to his son for a summit on Monday. Provenzano, who evaded capture for 43 years, including a decade as Italy's most wanted man, famously lived in isolation, often in rugged conditions to better duck the authorities.

The older Lo Piccolo, a native of the Tommaso Natale neighborhood of western Palermo, had been Provenzano's top lieutenant in the capital while grooming his son for succession. Since his ascension in the wake of Provenzano's capture, police say Lo Piccolo was also focused on expanding ties with the American mob. He had favored allowing a historic Mafia family to return to the Sicilian capital after more than two decades of forced exile in the United States, following an internal mob war in the 1980s. Dubbed "gli scappati" (the fled ones), the Inzerillo family had been on the verge of total extermination by then boss of bosses Toto Riina, Provenzano's boyhood friend from Corleone, in the bloody Mafia War of 1980-81. With the intervention of relatives in New York, including associates of the Gambino crime family, a deal was worked out that allowed the surviving Inzerillos to take refuge in the U.S., with the agreement that none of them, or their offspring, could ever return to Sicily. But with Riina long since serving life, and Provenzano eventually joining him, several key Inzerillo family members had returned to Palermo to forge an alliance with Lo Piccolo that had appeared to reinforce the ambitious boss's standing, police told TIME.

But whoever bet on Lo Piccolo is now sure to suffer. Pretenders to the throne will now see a power vacuum. Matteo Messina Denaro, who hails from the west coast Sicilian city of Trapani, may be in position now to take over supreme control of the organization. Messina Denaro, 45, is said to have a weakness for fast cars and Armani suits, but was nevertheless highly respected by the more traditional Provenzano. Investigators say they had an almost father-and-son rapport.