Pardoned Sardinian bandit returns to crime

Graziano Mesina 'planned to run drugs, kidnap'

Pardoned Sardinian bandit returns to crime

(By Denis Greenan). Nuoro, June 10 - Sardinia's most famous former bandit was setting himself up to be the island's new drugs lord before his arrest Monday, police said. Graziano Mesina, a hero to many in the 1960 and 1970s for his supposedly anti-capitalist kidnappings, daring prison breaks and glamorous lifestyle on the run, had also returned to his old stock-in-trade and was plotting to kidnap prominent Oristano businessman Luigi Russo. Mesina gave himself up to police Monday morning after being woken from his bed in his sister's house in Orgosolo, a large town on the fringes of the infamous and impenetrable Barbagia highlands where Sardinia's gangs kept their hostages until the 1980s. "He didn't resist, he almost seemed to be expecting us," said the commander of the operation that netted another 26 people on Sardinia and in Calabria. "He wasn't armed, unlike the others". Mesina, 71, who was pardoned by former Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi after more than 50 years in and out of jail in 2004, was arrested on suspicion of criminal conspiracy to traffic drugs. His "marked propensity for crime and personal charisma had enabled him to enlist a whole new generation of recruits," police said. "He was already borrowing many of the characteristics of the main mafias (Cosa Nostra, 'Ndrangheta and Camorra). "If he had had more time he could have created a very strong criminal organisation, very dangerous for the island". Mesina had been in touch with "notorious drug circles in Milan with a view to dealing in heroin and cocaine," said investigators who revealed the probe was opened five years ago, in 2008. Police said Mesina, who was last arrested in 1993 to serve life for a string of kidnappings, had already scouted ahead for his planned kidnapping and had given his underlings "a host of crucial details" about Russo, a wealthy clothing wholesaler. He had already made "preparatory" reconnaissance trips to Russo's home twice, police said. Mesina was considered the historical leader of the infamous Sardinian kidnapping gangs and his exploits brought him mythical status among Italian criminals. He attempted to escape from prison 22 times, and did succeed in 10 spectacular jailbreaks, after which he would hide out with girlfriends in various parts of Sardinia including the capital, Cagliari, where he donned disguise to follow the famous soccer team that won the Serie A title in 1970 thanks to the goal-scoring feats of Gigi 'Thunderbolt' Riva. Even earlier, when in hiding in the Sardinian mountains in the late 1960s, bags of fan mail from mostly female admirers arrived for him from all over the world. Viewed from the outside, and also from many on the political left both inside and outside Italy, the Sardinian shepherds-turned-bandits were romantic figures fighting to preserve a lifestyle threatened by modernity, as well as representing a spirit of anti-capitalist rebellion. One Mesina's most surprising admirers was the long-time dean of Italian journalism, conservative writer Indro Montanelli. The bandit's rugged and solitary image appeared to appeal to the strong libertarian streak of Montanelli, whose visceral anti-Communism did not prevent him siding with some of capitalism's outsiders. But for most others, outlaws of Mesina's ilk were just ruthless criminals who would not shrink from murdering victims if things went wrong. Mesina was first put up for a possible pardon in 1991 but anti-mafia prosecutor Giovanni Falcone, who had been briefly shunted aside to run the Italian jail system before returning to the front lines and dying in a Cosa Nostra bombing in 1992, refused to pass on then Italian President Francesco Cossiga's recommendation. Ciampi, in granting the pardon in 2004, said he was confident Mesina "would turn over a new leaf" - and he seemed to have done so by setting up a profitable tourist business in the heart of his old hostage-hiding country. "But he just couldn't get away from the old life," police said Monday.

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