Marcello Pesce, the leader of one of the most powerful clans in the 'Ndrangheta syndicate that controls much of Europe's cocaine trade, was arrested in a flat in his home town of Rosarno in Calabria in Italy's deep south.
Nicknamed "The Dancer", Pesce, 52, was described by prosectuor Gaetano Paci as an intelligent, educated man. Books found in his residence included works by French writers Marcel Proust and Jean-Paul Sartre.
"Today is a beautiful day for Italy: Marcello Pesce, one of the most dangerous mafia figures still at large was brought to justice," Interior Minister Angelino Alfano posted on Twitter.
Authorities accuse Pesce of being the ruthless head of a family-based clan that controls drug trafficking through the port of Gioia Tauro and also being behind the exploitation of migrant workers employed illegally in the local orange groves.
Former allies have testified to him ordering several killings, including one of an associate who had refused to kill a man blamed for a car accident in which Pesce's wife died.
Police have been hunting him since 2010, when he was convicted, in his absence, of mafia association and sentenced to 15 years in prison, later raised to 16 years on appeal.
Authorities had feared he had fled overseas.
Notoriously ruthless, the 'Ndrangheta has surpassed Sicily's Cosa Nostra and the Naples-based Camorra to become Italy's most powerful criminal organisation thanks to its pivotal role in smuggling cocaine from South America into Europe via north Africa and southern Italy.
The clan-based syndicate has links with Colombian producer cartels, Mexican crime gangs and mafia families in New York and other parts of North America, according to police.
It remains anchored in the rural, mountainous and under-developed "toe" of Italy's boot but has also bought up legitimate businesses across the country to launder its illicit profits.
The name 'Ndrangheta comes from the Greek for courage or loyalty and the organisation's secretive culture and brutal enforcement of codes of silence have made it very difficult to penetrate, although authorities claim significant progress in the last two years.
In one notorious 2013 incident an internal feud was settled by a hitman being fed alive to pigs that had been deliberately starved.
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