Sacra Corona Unita Raises Ante of Violence, Killing Witnesses; Carabinieri Investigators Deployed

Italy’s southern Puglia region was the site of lethal brutality this week courtesy of one of the country's lesser-known organised crime syndicates.

On Wednesday, a group of up to five gunmen riding through the region shot at two other vehicles in separate, but related, incidents, killing four.

One of two cars in which people were murdered this week.

The violence commenced on Wednesday when four or five gunmen opened fire on another vehicle, killing two men inside. Law enforcement sources have since identified the man they believe was the main target as a Foggia mob boss, and the other man, the driver, his brother-in-law. (A civil war within the region's Mafia group may have set these events in motion.)

But the shooting wasn't over; in a brutal twist that may have finally awakened Italy's sleeping giant, the killers chased down and also killed two locals in another car, who apparently witnessed the shootings and tried to speed away.

The Foggia crime syndicate, known as Sacra Corona Unita, is blamed for 17 killings this year alone.

The president of the Foggia province of Puglia, where the shootings occurred (at an abandoned railway station on Wednesday), has said that the way to combat the group, which recently expanded its reach and added drug trafficking to its repertoire, was to bring in more uniformed law enforcement as well as trained investigators.

The group raises its head periodically despite its relatively lower profile than the Ndrangheta in Calabria and the Cosa Nostra in Sicily.

Two strategies against the group began in recent years. The Italian parliament sent a group of specialists into the area twice to study the Puglia Mafia. Also, Carabinieri detectives were recently assigned to Foggia for the first time.

This week's violent ambushes in San Marco may one day be viewed as what finally caused the turning point for the crime syndicate lurking in Foggia – in the spur of the Italian boot. The group started decades ago as an offshoot of the Naples Camorra.

As law enforcement continually overlooked it, the Sacra Corona Unita has been in growth mode. In recent years it ramped up rackets beyond its traditional focus on agriculture to tourism. The group also is believed to have commenced drug smuggling operations out of Albania.

Investigators said they were looking into whether the recent bloodshed had resulted from clans feuding over territory, or if it was part of something like a civil war within the group.

Anti-mafia investigators said in a recent report that the Foggia syndicate had two main groups, one on the Gargano peninsula and the other inland. Also, the Sacra Corona Unita is now considered "one of the most dangerous in Italy for the number of unsolved killings and the pervasive climate of omerta," one report noted.

"The Foggia mafia is particularly ruthless and impenetrable, operating on a primordial level," Franco Roberti, a top anti-mafia prosecutor, told La Stampa. "As we have seen in the recent dramatic episode, it is decidedly more violent and aggressive than the more organized mafias like the 'Ndrangheta, Cosa Nostra and Camorra."

In 2014, the group was spotlighted after a brutal murder of a witness and one of her children. Gunmen ran their car off the road and shot them to death in Taranto, Italy. Two other children who were also in the car survived by playing dead. The woman - the widow of a murdered mafioso - had provided information that led to the arrest of several criminals. Her partner, a convicted murderer, was out of prison and moving to regain control of the local drug market.

The violence in Puglia has grown worse over the past 15 years as law enforcement systematically locked away many powerful bosses who'd been holding the group together.

The Sacra Corona Unita (SCU) is an offshoot of the Naples Camorra. Often described as a coalition of criminal groups, it was formed in the early 1980s. Like Italy's three major Mafias, it also has a code of conduct and a hierarchical structure, as well as the ability to manipulate and infiltrate various institutions.

Cutolo, founder of Sacra Corona Unita.

Located in the region Puglia, in the "heel" of the Italian peninsula, it is the most recent Mafia group established. It was founded by Camorrista Raffaele Cutolo, who decided to expand his operations into Puglia, thereby gaining access to the Adriatic seaport cities. He was also willing to work with independent street gangs. He formed this group as a breakaway splinter group of the Camorra. Cutolo (born December 20, 1941) was said to be a charismatic leader who built his new group to "renew" the Camorra. Various nicknames of his include "o Vangelo" (the gospel), "'o Principe" (the prince),"'o Professore" (the professor) and "'o Monaco" (the monk).

Apart from 18 months on the run, Cutolo has lived inside maximum-security jails or psychiatric prisons since 1963 and is now serving multiple life sentences for murder.

Bill Cutolo told us that, based on what he was told by his father, the deceased William (Wild Bill) Cutolo, former underboss of the Colombo crime family, the Cutolos here are related to the founder.