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Italian mafia boss nabbed in mountain hideout after two decades on the run

Ernesto Fazzalari, a leader of the powerful 'Ndrangheta organization, was captured in the mountainous Calabria region in Italy's south.
June 26, 2016, 4:20pm
Photo via Italian Police/AP

Italy's second-most wanted fugitive, mafia boss Ernesto Fazzalari, was captured on Sunday after two decades on the run.

Police nabbed Fazzalari, a leader of the powerful 'Ndrangheta organization, as he slept in a hideaway in the mountainous Calabria region in Italy's south.

He "went from his sleep to the handcuffs of the Carabinieri paramilitary police," Colonel Lorenzo Falferi told reporters, according to the Associated Press.

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Fazzalari had been on the lam since 1996. He was convicted in absentia in 1996 of extortion, membership of a mafia-like organization, attempted murder and a double homicide. He now faces life in prison.

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Italian prosecutor Federico Cafiero De Raho described Fazzalari as a "merciless killer" and a central actor in a bloody six-year turf war between rival 'Ndrangheta clans that left more than 600 people dead from 1985 to 1991 in Calabria. De Raho recalled one particular grisly episode that involved a victim's severed head being thrown into the air and shot as a target.

Italy's Interior Minister Angelino Alfano described Fazzalari as "one of the most important fugitives and a leading underworld figure," according to AFP.

Fazzalari's notorious 'Ndrangheta syndicate is based in Calabria in the "toe" of Italy's boot, but the group's reach stretches throughout the country, across Europe, and into South America, where it has deep roots in cocaine trade. Europol has ranked the 'Ndrangheta among the world's wealthiest and most powerful organized crime groups. In 2014, Pope Francis condemned the 'Ndrangheta as "the adoration of evil and contempt of the common good."

Authorities told reporters that Fazzalari was sleeping alongside a 41-year-old woman when he was arrested. Next to him was a pistol and two loaded magazines. The woman was taken into custody and is under investigation for weapons possession, according to AP.

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Authorities also said that Fazzalari was able to elude capture for 20 years thanks to an entrenched "code of silence" and the complicity of local citizens. The 'Ndrangheta also has a history of successfully infiltrating local governments.

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In 2004, the Carabinieri discovered Fazzalari's previous hideout: an underground bunker beneath a farmhouse in Taurianova, his hometown, with a tunnel that led to the woods.

Fazzalari was nowhere to be found, but two of his cohorts were arrested. The lair was equipped with air-conditioning system, internet, and television, and stocked with fine wines, bottles of Dom Perignon champagne and Cuban cigars, leading Italian media to describe it as Fazzalari's "five-star bunker." In 2012, the entire local council of Reggio Calabria was sacked on suspicion of having ties to the 'Ndrangheta. De Raho said that Fazzalari and his allies "controlled every clod of dirt."

"He was feeling protected in his territory, by his people," said De Raho.

Italy's most-wanted fugitive is Matteo Messina Denaro, chieftain of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra.

Follow Tess Owen on Twitter: @misstessowen