An influential member of Montreal's Mafia is reportedly dead and the leaderless Rizzuto clan is reeling again in the wake of a bloody internal turf war for power, crime observers say.
While police have not officially confirmed the identities of two people shot and killed on Tuesday, widespread reports say Agostino Cuntrera was one of those killed.
Experts say the slayings are a signal that someone is trying to move in on the ruling clan in a strategic, systemic assault targeting the most important people in the organization.
One possible source was the Calabrian families based in Ontario.
"It's clear to see that it's an internal conflict within the Mafia, but it's not clear where the orders are coming from," organized crime expert Andre Cedilot said in an interview.
"The Sicilian clans are completely disorganized, and organized crime in general is in complete disarray in Montreal."
Police are examining several theories, including one involving a Montreal-versus-Toronto Mafia rivalry. They have also looked at the role played by street gangs, particularly in a recent rash of firebombings of mostly Italian cafes.
Mr. Cuntrera has long had connections to the Rizzuto family and was known to police.
Court records show Mr. Cuntrera, 66, was sentenced in 1978 to five years in prison for his role in a conspiracy to murder reputed Mafia don Paolo Violi.
It was Mr. Cuntrera's only conviction and he spent more than a quarter-century since then operating a business. But the slaying was an important turning point in the city's underworld history.
"The murder of Paolo Violi allowed the Sicilian clan, led by the Rizzuto family, to wrest control of the Montreal Mafia from Calabrians led by the Cotroni family," Antonio Nicaso, a crime author and journalist, said in an interview.
Since last year, the Rizzuto family and its associates have been targeted in a series of slayings that crime analysts say are an attempt to destabilize its hold on power.
"What we can see from outside is that someone is trying to rewrite the (map) of power within the Mafia in Montreal," Mr. Nicaso said.
While who is behind the moves is unclear, the motivation seems more and more apparent, experts say.
Last August, Federico del Peschio, 59, a Rizzuto family friend, was shot to death behind a restaurant in north-end Montreal.
In December, Nicolo Rizzuto Jr., the son of Vito Rizzuto, was gunned down during lunch in a gritty west-end neighbourhood. No arrests have been made in his slaying, considered by some to be a symbolic swipe at the family patriarch.
In May, Paolo Renda, 70, a top lieutenant and a member of the Rizzuto family by marriage, mysteriously vanished not far from his Montreal home.
Mr. Renda was considered the No. 3 in the operation - the "consigliere" or councillor - and is married to Nicolo Rizzuto Sr.'s daughter, Maria.
That makes Mr. Renda the brother-in-law of Vito Rizzuto, the presumed head of the Montreal Mafia, who is currently serving a sentence in a U.S. prison until 2012.
Following Project Colisee in 2006, a police investigation that swept up much of the Montreal Mafia's main active players, Mr. Cuntrera appeared to have taken on a more important leadership role and it might have made him a target, Mr. Nicaso said.
But he also pointed to another possibility.
"It could also be revenge for the Paolo Violi murder," Mr. Nicaso said.
"I know it has taken a lot of years, but you have to consider revenge in the Mafia doesn't have a statute of limitations."
Police had no new leads Wednesday on the deaths.
Two people arrested overnight Tuesday night were later released as police found they had no connection to the case.
Police were looking for a black Chevrolet Impala that witnesses saw leaving the area.
Police say one of the men was shot in the head in front of Distribution John & Dino, a food-distribution business that records show is wholly owned by Mr. Cuntrera.
Reports say the other victim was a bodyguard and driver for Mr. Cuntrera.
That man, who was in his 40s, died in hospital from his wounds.