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ABC News
ABC News
Lucia Stein and Rebecca Armitage

How a culture of fear and a Sicilian Mafia whisper network helped Italian mob boss Matteo Messina Denaro elude capture

Using the alias Andrea Bonafede, Mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro checked himself into a private medical clinic in Palermo on the morning of January 16. 

Clutching the results of his negative COVID test inside the small waiting area, he looked just like everyone else in the room, patiently waiting to see a doctor.

Dressed in a brown sheepskin jacket, with a matching skull cap and his trademark tinted shades, the 60-year-old was adept at hiding in plain sight.

But as he made his way out of the front doors to a side street, a small army of militarised police lurked nearby, carefully tracking his movements.

The colon cancer that had posed a risk to his life and brought him to the clinic that day had forced him out of hiding and into the open.

After 30 years on the run, a period that featured countless sightings and a few close calls, "Bonafede's" time was up.

His chosen alias, the name of a deceased Mafia boss's nephew, was the smoking gun authorities needed to zero in on his location.

Fearful they would miss their chance to bag the mysterious fugitive, but with only a computerised image to go off, Italy's militarised police swiftly moved in:

"Are you Matteo Messina Denaro?" a Carabinieri officer asked.

"You know who I am," came the weary reply.

The man who once boasted he could fill a cemetery with his victims "did not resist" as officers grabbed each arm and walked him down the front steps of the clinic in the pouring rain.

Grim-faced, he stared at the ground as passers-by cheered and applauded on the footpath.

His arrest coincided with the 30th anniversary of his disappearance in 1993.

Messina Denaro was the product of one of the darkest periods of Sicilian history, when large swathes of the island were at the mercy of two powerful crime syndicates embroiled in a bitter war with each other and the state.

A brutal crackdown followed, with hundreds of high-ranking Mafia bosses put on trial and thrown behind bars.

Instead of getting caught in the chaos, Messina Denaro vanished just as swiftly as he had risen to power.

His fugitive status inspired a mythology around the Mafia's resistance that continues to this day.

Now, his capture represents a moment of closure for Italians who hope to one day lay to rest the memory of cities under siege and bombings in the streets.

The playboy Mafioso with a brutal streak

The Cosa Nostra — or Sicilian Mafia — has long been governed by an honour code that values loyalty, obedience and family above all else.

But Messina Denaro, who rose to the rank of capo mandamento — or regional chief — when his father died in 1998, was a very different Mafioso.

The young capo drove a Porsche, wore a Rolex watch and flashy Versace outfits, and wined and dined women across Sicily.

Ignoring the Mafia's code of silence, he bragged that his father taught him to shoot a gun at age 14.

As well as being branded a playboy, Messina Denaro swiftly gained a reputation as a ruthless operator.

He is accused of ordering the hit on Vincenzo Milazzo, the head of a rival clan, as well as his partner, Antonella Bonanno, who was three months' pregnant when she was murdered.

The two bodies were found buried in the Sicilian countryside.

Messina Denaro was also convicted in absentia of ordering the kidnap, torture and murder of a 12-year-old boy in 1996.

Giuseppe Di Matteo was snatched off the streets after his father agreed to testify against his former associates in court.

The kidnappers kept the boy for nearly 800 days before finally killing him and dissolving his body in a vat of acid so the family would have nothing to bury.

But it was a series of bombings that made Messina Denaro a feared household name in Italy.

In the early 1990s, as authorities tried to crack down on organised crime, the Mafia declared all-out war against the Italian state.

In 1992, he ordered the murder of Sicilian judge Giovanni Falcone, who had spent his entire career trying to topple the Cosa Nostra.

Mobsters tunnelled underneath a highway in Sicily and used a skateboard to wheel a 500-kilogram bomb inside it.

When the judge drove over the road with his wife and police escort, a mobster nicknamed "The Pig" pressed a remote detonator, unleashing an explosion so powerful it was registered by scientists monitoring volcanic tremors on the other side of the island.

The following year, Messina Denaro directed his subordinates to carry out a series of bombings in Milan, Florence and Rome, which left 10 people dead and more than 90 injured.

With the war between authorities and Mafia families spilling onto the streets, Messina Denaro went into hiding, commanding from secret locations about 900 men in what Italian media dubbed the "massacre wing" of the Cosa Nostra.

He was sentenced to a life term in absentia in 2020 for his crimes.

It would take nearly three decades for police to chase him down in an extensive investigation that would involve billions of dollars, hundreds of investigators and countless false leads.

Secret messages, an old photo and the elusive 'Andrea Bonafede'

As the years passed, there were sightings of Messina Denaro all over Europe.

At one point, he was spotted vacationing with a girlfriend in the Greek Islands, but still, he eluded capture.

Italian prosecutor Teresa Principato said the Mafia boss was clearly being protected at a "very high level" to avoid arrest while traipsing around the world.

"We have confirmation of his presence in Brazil, Spain, Britain, Austria," she told Il Fatto Quotidiano in 2015.

"He travels for extremely high-level business, and his return to Sicily is irregular and increasingly infrequent."

Messina Denaro was largely confined to the island of his birth, but he seemed impossible to catch.

"The reason why he wasn't caught is because he probably was smarter and he trusted the right people," says Anna Sergi, an Italian criminologist and professor at the University of Essex.

He also relied on a centuries-old secret messaging system known as "pizzini" to communicate with his men.

Instructions were written on tiny pieces of paper that some Mafia bosses expected to be hidden between the toes of their messengers.

Messina Denaro would place his pizzini under a rock at a Sicilian sheep farm, giving his men coded orders such as "I've put the ricotta cheese aside for you" or "the sheep need shearing".

Another obstacle for Italian authorities was that they weren't really sure what Messina Denaro looked like.

They had only one official photo of him from the early 1990s, and weren't sure if he'd undergone plastic surgery to alter his appearance.

Either way, by 2007, they knew they were no longer searching for the flashy young capo who ruled Sicily with an iron fist.

Using his old licence picture, Italian authorities released an image of what they thought Messina Denaro might look like as a 45-year-old man.

"Denaro is an arrogant man and that's why he has a slight smile in the photofit. And we know he has a liking for designer clothes — that's why he has an open-neck silk shirt," Palermo Police said of their illustration.

In later age-progression images, authorities added a blonde wig and pink scarf in case Messina Denaro was disguising himself as a woman.

While the man often described by Italian media as "the last godfather" remained elusive, authorities put pressure on him by arresting the associates and relatives who aided him.

They also seized some of his businesses, including olive oil companies, farms and villas, worth over $234 million.

In recent years, wire taps revealed that his relatives were discussing — in strangely vague terms — cancer and surgery. His associates also seemed to be spending a lot of time googling the disease.

Authorities narrowed down all of the male Sicilian residents born in 1962 who were seeking cancer treatment.

A list of five possible suspects emerged, but one name caught their attention: Andrea Bonafede.

The nephew of a dead Mafia boss was said to have undergone surgery twice in Palermo, but his phone records suggested he was nowhere near Sicily on the days he should have been in hospital.

When "Andrea Bonafede" booked in for a chemo session last week, police believed this may have been their man.

Sicily's code of silence

The world's most wanted mob boss had been quietly living in Sicily's Campobello di Mazara, a mere 5-minute drive from his hometown in Castelvetrano and 1.5 hours from where he was found.

He reportedly moved to the area a year ago and spent his days operating as if he were a free man, visiting the town's supermarkets, frequenting its local cafes and pizzerias and greeting other locals.

With his ageing face and tinted shades, the Mafia boss had fooled residents into thinking he was just another harmless local.

"I saw him at the bar, every now and then, in the morning," Piero Indelicato, a neighbour, told the Guardian.

"He seemed like a friendly person. But I never imagined he could be the boss, Denaro."

He may have also been aided by the omertà, which roughly translates to code of silence, a pattern of behaviour in which locals refuse to talk about criminal activities with outsiders or authorities.

In voicing his disappointment over Messina Denaro living right under his nose, Campobello mayor Giuseppe Castiglione noted "there are citizens who have chosen to put their heads in the sand".

Part of the Mafia's power is its ability to inspire terror, subjugating the community around it by ensuring locals are too afraid to speak out for fear of risking retribution on their families if they are right or harming a person's reputation if they are wrong.

Professor Sergi said if a man like Messina Denaro was seated next to someone at a cafe and they recognised him, they would likely continue "minding their own business".

"You [do it] out of fear because if he's really Messina Denaro … we're still talking about someone who is supposedly very well known for being fearful. So that's the subjugation the Mafia brings," she said.

While questions swirl over the Mafia boss's ability to stay hidden in plain sight, Professor Sergi says the more pressing issue is those who actively helped him.

Messina Denaro was likely aided by a network of professionals, entrepreneurs and politicians known as the "Mafioso bourgeoisie", according to Palermo prosecutor Maurizio de Lucia.

"The problem with him being home is that he had ways to use his money — Matteo Messina Denaro has money — in a way that was untraceable and yet it protected him," Professor Sergi said.

The flow of cash also allowed Messina Denaro to maintain a life of luxury despite being a wanted fugitive.

After his quiet arrest outside the La Maddalena clinic, in the town's busy epicentre, authorities used the keys they found inside his pocket to track down his hideout.

The modest apartment was free of weapons but filled with designer clothes, high-end perfumes and sex pills.

Authorities have since discovered at least two other different hideouts, including a secret bunker hidden behind a closet with emeralds and diamonds, as well as a car and fake identification documents.

They are also reportedly searching for a "secret archive," which was stolen by Messina Denaro and once belonged to the Mafia's boss of bosses, Totò Riina.

Is this the beginning of the end for the Sicilian Mafia?

At the time of his arrest, Messina Denaro was the undisputed "boss of the province," according to Paolo Guido, the prosecutor who led the investigation in Palermo.

His downfall sends a message to Cosa Nostra and its affiliates, who had built a recruitment drive around a mythical boss who couldn't be caught, that no-one is safe.

"I'm not even sure how dangerous he is now, but it was a matter of national pride — apart from justice, obviously — that he had been convicted, that he was supposed to go to jail [and now] he's in jail. But it's mostly about closure," Professor Sergi said.

Messina Denaro represented the "last bridge between the old Mafia of the 90s" and the modern Mafia, she says, and now that bridge is broken.

But his arrest is unlikely to bring about the demise of the Sicilian Mafia or Italy's other organised crime syndicates like the 'Ndrangheta syndicate of Calabria, and the Camorra gangs.

"The Mafia fight is not over for the simple reason, it's a human phenomenon. So it's going to exist," Professor Sergi said.

Though weakened because of the state's investigations, there are still some parts of Italy haunted by the Mafia's actions.

In an effort to resolve the past and equip younger generations with the tools to recognise and fight the Mafia's control, Italy has devoted more resources to educating students about organised crime.

"Little by little, things are changing," Professor Sergi said.

As footage of Messina Denaro being frogmarched to a police car played out on television sets around the country, many Italians likely sighed in relief.

The world's most hunted Mafia boss is set to rot in a jail cell in a maximum security prison for the rest of his life.

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