A veteran mobster was arrested after 17 years on the run, but scores of people applauded Tuesday as he was escorted out of the police barracks and taken to jail.
Giovanni Tegano, a member of the 'ndrangheta organized crime group, was on the list of Italy's top 30 most wanted fugitives. Officials described the 70-year-old as a notorious figure in the crime-ridden area and hailed his arrest as a tough blow to the 'ndrangheta, a crime syndicate based in the poor region of Calabria.
Police cordoned-off the cheering crowd as Tegano was leaving the police headquarters in Reggio Calabria, southern Italy, on Tuesday.
"Giovanni is a man of peace!" one woman shouted. The white-haired, bespectacled Tegano smiled and waved back.
"Given his role, seniority and the importance of events he knew, he had risen to the ranks of one of the 'ndrangheta's most important figures," said top police official Renato Cortese. Tegano's years in hiding added to his charisma in the eyes of fellow mobsters, Cortese said.
The 'ndrangheta, linked to crime around the world, is today considered more powerful than the Sicilian Mafia.
Tegano is regarded as one of the few remaining mobsters of the 'ndrangheta's old guard. He was implicated in a turf war in the mid-1980s that left scores dead, and for that he has been convicted to life in jail.
Officials said the mobster was apprehended Monday evening in a house on the hills surrounding Reggio Calabria, the regional capital. Also arrested were five men who were with him and are accused of helping him during his years as a fugitive.
Tegano did not resist arrest, though he had a loaded gun with him, Cortese said.
Tegano remained active despite his old age, the ANSA news agency reported. The villa where he was arrested was not far from the poor neighborhood in Reggio Calabria that had long been the center of his illicit activities.
Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said Tegano's arrest is the "hardest blow that could be dealt to the 'ndrangheta today." Reggio Calabria police chief Carmelo Casabona said the arrest "closes a dark chapter" in the city's history.
Officials said they were saddened to see the applause from the crowd, which some described as made up of relatives and friends.
"We'll work harder to win the hearts of people," Casabona said.