PALERMO, Italy (Reuters) - Authorities said they had arrested the brother of Italy's most wanted mafioso on Monday, along with 18 others accused of helping Sicilian boss Matteo Messina Denaro avoid capture.
In operation "Golem 2", more than 200 police from Palermo and Trapani in Sicily arrested Salvatore Messina Denaro.
He was arrested along with others who authorities said were members of a network surrounding the "boss of bosses" of the Cosa Nostra, who has been on the run since 1993.
The detainees face charges of organizing godfather Messina Denaro's secret correspondence "in order to help him remain on the run", said a police statement. Other charges include mafia association, corruption and protection rackets.
Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said the latest arrests were the result of one of the most important police operations of the last decade, greatly increasing the chances of catching Messina Denaro.
"We have dismantled the postal system of the most dangerous boss," said Maroni in a statement. "The net is closing in on him and I'm optimistic we'll be able to capture him soon."
Detectives believe the crime boss is hiding out close to his family home at Castelvetrano, near Trapani, and is moving between safe houses.
Like previous fugitive godfathers, Messina Denaro controls the mob by sending secret "pizzini" -- tiny pieces of paper typed on wafer-thin paper and hidden between the messenger's toes -- which are used to communicate between mafia lieutenants.
Police have inflicted major blows on the mafia with the arrests of several top godfathers in recent years, including Bernardo "the Tractor" Provenzano in 2006 and his successor, Salvatore Lo Piccolo, in 2007.
It is not clear if the arrests have had any impact on the business interests of "Mafia Inc". Small business and retailers' association Confesercenti -- whose members bear the brunt of mafia extortion -- says the main crime syndicates bucked the recession last year to raise 'profits' by almost 8 percent.
Messina Denaro, nicknamed "Diabolik" after a comic-book character, has a playboy image. He learnt to shoot a gun at 14 and is wanted for the murders of at least 50 people.
He once bragged he had killed enough "to fill a cemetery" and made his reputation by murdering rival boss Vincenzo Milazzo and strangling Milazzo's three-months pregnant girlfriend.
In May 2002, Messina Denaro was sentenced to life in absentia for his part in the 1993 mafia bombing campaign on "civilian" targets in Milan, Florence and Rome, which left 10 people dead and more than 90 injured.
(Writing by Ella Ide; editing by Stephen Brown)