Italian police on Wednesday announced the arrest of 11 people for intentionally breaking victims' bones in order to cash in on insurance payouts.

Palermo gang members preyed on the vulnerable and showed particular cruelty in the methods they used to break their victims' limbs, such as hurling bodybuilding weights before staging fake road crashes. The gangs would target drug addicts, the homeless and people in debt. The gangs falsely promised the victims would get a sizable cut of any payout they defrauded from insurance companies.

One of those arrested was a hospital nurse who would procure painkillers to reduce the screams of agony as the victims' bones were smashed.

The perpetrators then would place their victims on the roadside beside damaged cars to make it look they had been in an accident, call the emergency services and eventually cash in on insurance payouts as high as 150,000 euros ($174,000). 

"The two criminal associations broken up as a result of police investigations demonstrated a particular cruelty in the way they hurled cast iron discs like those used in gyms at the victims' limbs," police said in a statement.

The police say the gangs rarely gave the pitiful victims, often reduced to using crutches or wheelchairs as a result of their injuries, more than 100 euros. At least one victim, a Tunisian man, died from his injuries. But this did not deter the gang who placed the corpse beside the road and claimed the insurance.

Italian police Italian Carabinieri patrol in the Sicilian town. Photo: REUTERS/Antonio Parrinello

The macabre scam follows revelations that local mafia syndicate encouraged the murder of terminally ill people to drive business to funeral homes that they owned.

Eyewitnesses alleged ambulance workers were instructed to kill terminally ill patients by injecting air in their veins and were paid a 300 Euro ($340) fee for each corpse.

The claims were first made during an by the Italian investigative TV show, Le Iene (The Hyenas), in 2017.

The alleged murders would occur in the back of an ambulance transporting patients who had been discharged from hospital to die at home.

"People were in pain and were going to die anyway, so we made them die earlier in the ambulances, so we would earn €300," a witness, whose identity has not been disclosed, claimed in an interview with Le Iene.

The witness explained that, upon arrival, paramedics informed families their loved ones had died in the ambulance and – "taking advantage of their moment of grief" - they would recommend a specific funeral agency that the local mafia controlled. The undertaker would then pay paramedics a finder's fee for every corpse.

The witness estimated that between 18 and 20 terminally ill patients had been killed every year since 2012.