Sicilian Mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro has been on the run since 1993, but Italian police hope a series of raids early today will bring them closer to putting one of the most wanted criminals in Europe behind bars, per Deutsche Welle. Authorities say they arrested 11 alleged associates of Denaro, who heads Cosa Nostra, in raids between Palermo and Trapani after deciphering coded messages, per the BBC. Police say Denaro, 53, would communicate with the men, aged 27 to 77, through scraps of paper wrapped in tape and hidden under a rock at a farm in western Sicily. Mobsters were alerted to new messages by former boss and sheep farmer Vito Gondola who would mention agriculture-related codewords like "pigs," "beans," and "fertilizer," as well as phrases like "the sheep need shearing," "the shears need sharpening," and "the hay is ready," reports the Mirror.
One message said, "I've put the ricotta cheese aside for you, will you come by later?" The Telegraph reports the scraps of paper contained instructions for Denaro's henchmen as well as personal messages for his female flames. Cameras and microphones hidden around the farm recorded the men, who read the messages, then destroyed them, police say. They reportedly had 15 days to respond. Gondola was also recorded telling a mobster that Denaro is losing power as criminals "disappear without saying anything." The Cosa Nostra syndicate was considered the most powerful in Italy in the 1980s and '90s but has since fallen from grace as its members are rounded up by authorities. Those nabbed today are "closest to Denaro right now," a police official tells the AFP, noting it’s "too early to say" if the arrests will lead police to Denaro. (Read more Mafia stories.)