Antonio Iovine, one of the four bosses of the infamous Casalesi clan, started answering the questions of anti-mafia prosecutors earlier this month, La Repubblica wrote. The Naples daily Il Mattino declared it "a historic choice".
Aged 49, but known to all as o'ninno (the baby) for his youthful face and his rapid ascent of the Casalesi power structure, Iovine is thought to have effectively led the business side of the clan's activities before his arrest in 2010 and subsequent jailing for life.
All four bosses are behind bars after a big trial that concluded in 2008. But "until now, none of the core leadership of the Casalesi has ever turned state witness", said John Dickie, professor of Italian studies at University College London and the author of several books on the mafia. "It will be interesting to see if this is the start of the fissuring of this leadership group."
Reports of Iovine's decision were greeted with excitement by Roberto Saviano, a journalist whose bestselling book Gomorrah earned him repeated death threats from the Casalesi, a group known to have made huge inroads into construction, waste disposal and politics.
"This is news that risks changing for good what we know to be true about business and organised crime not only in Campania [and] not only in Italy," he wrote.
"He [Iovine] is someone who knows everything. And so now everything could change. The earth is trembling for a large part of the business and political worlds – and for entire branches of institutions.
"The companies, big and small, which … were born and prospered thanks to the flow of cash from Antonio Iovine, feel as if they're in a room whose walls are increasingly closing in."
Saviano, who lives under police protection, grew up in Casal di Principe – the fiefdom of the Casalesi – and took particular aim at the clan's activities in his book, which went on to become an award-winning film directed by Matteo Garrone.
He said that, while the phenomenon of mafia bosses turning police informers was nothing new, Iovine's move was a first for the Casalesi top brass. The only comparable pentito, he said, had hailed from a previous generation.
"Iovine is the organisation," said Saviano, predicting that his decision to talk could yield information not only about business and the criminal underworld, but also about the past two decades of politics in Italy – not least Nicola Cosentino, a key ally of the former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi in the Campania region around Naples.
Cosentino was arrested in April on suspicion of colluding with the mafia to favour his family business, allegations his lawyer has described as absurd.
Iovine was sentenced to life, in absentia, at the end of the so-called Spartacus maxi-trial in 2008, and to 21 years and six months at the end of a trial this year. So far, none of the other Casalesi bosses in prison – Francesco Schiavone (AKA Sandokan), Francesco Bidognetti or Michele Zagaria – have collaborated with investigators.
Dickie said the development could prove interesting "more for what he [Iovine] can reveal about the past", particularly regarding politics. However, testimony from mafiosi turned state witnesses was always handled with great caution and its use was "controversial, not least because of [the pentito's] motives".
The interior minister, Angelino Alfano – Berlusconi's former would-be successor – appeared to reflect this ambiguity, telling Sky TG24 television on Thursday: "Sincere repentances have helped the fight against the Cosa Nostra and the [Calabrian] 'Ndrangheta … If the same thing happens with the Camorra it could open interesting scenarios and could even lead us to its defeat."
Luigi De Magistris, the former anti-mafia prosecutor who is now mayor of Naples, was quoted as saying the news was a positive development, opening breaches within the Camorra clans, and a sign of "collaboration with justice".