Italian prosecutors and police on Tuesday cheered the capture in Brazil of a leading mafia boss who has skirted justice in Italy for nearly 30 years.
Rocco Morabito, number two on the Italian interior ministry's most dangerous fugitives list, was arrested Monday in northeast Brazil.
His capture came almost two years after his audacious escape from a prison in Uruguay, where he was awaiting extradition to Italy.
Morabito — considered a "capo" or captain of the 'Ndrangheta organised crime group — was found in the city of Joao Pessoa along with another Italian fugitive, following a global operation involving Italy, Uruguay and the United States.
Dubbed "the king of cocaine", he has been wanted since 1994 by Italian authorities, who for decades have been trying to slowly chip away at the 'Ndrangheta, the country's most powerful mob syndicate whose tentacles reach far beyond its historical base of the Calabria region.
Morabito is "one of the most important brokers in narco-trafficking", said Giovanni Bombardieri, chief prosecutor in the southern Italian city of Reggio Calabria, during an online press conference.
Investigations begun immediately after his prison escape in 2019 indicated that Morabito was in Brazil, said Pasquale Angelosanto, commander of Italy's carabinieri special operations unit, which deals with organised crime.
Uruguayan prosecutors said Tuesday that Morabito would be extradited directly from Brazil to Italy, where he "has committed the most serious crimes" and could face a 30-year prison sentence.
Enjoying the beach
Morabito appeared to be hiding in plain sight, said Massimiliano D'Angelantonio of the special operations unit.
"He led a pretty normal life, going to the beach, frequenting local places. He didn't seem to be living like a fugitive but had a social, normal life," D'Angelantonio said.
Among other crimes, Morabito is accused of ensuring the transport of drugs into Italy and their sale in Milan, as well as attempting to import 592 kilograms (1,300 pounds) of cocaine from Brazil in 1992 and 630 kilograms a year later.
Before his arrest in a Montevideo hotel in September 2017, Morabito had lived for 13 years under a fake identity in the Uruguayan resort town of Punta del Este.
In 2015, an Italian court sentenced him in his absence to 28 years' imprisonment, later increased to 30 years.
On the run
The bold prison break-out by Morabito and three other inmates in 2019, who escaped through a hole in the roof, set off a massive manhunt in Uruguay and spurred the resignation of the country's prison chief.
Originally from the Calabrian town of Africo, Morabito arrived in Italy's business capital of Milan at age 23, quickly carving out a reputation for himself.
Nicknamed "U Tamunga" in reference to a German military vehicle, the DKW Munga, the young Morabito became a charismatic figure in Milan who soon attracted the attention of anti-mafia investigators.
In October 1994, police moved in during one of his regular drop-offs of suitcases filled with millions of lira to Colombian drug traffickers in Milan. He managed to escape.