Outside a private Palermo clinic at 8.20am on a Monday in January, dozens of plainclothes carabinieri are waiting in the driving rain. No one moves. The tension is high. A radio crackles. The target is on the move. It’s now or never. When the colonel gives the word, two carabinieri officers apprehend a well-dressed man sporting a sheepskin coat, a white wool hat and dark glasses.
“What’s your name?” asks the colonel, rushing in front of the suspect and blocking him at the exit of the clinic.
“You know who I am,” the man replied. It was true: Lt Lucio Arcidiacono, commander of the investigative unit of the carabinieri’s Special Operations Group, knew very well that the person he had in custody was Matteo Messina Denaro, the last godfather of the Sicilian mafia and one of the world’s most wanted criminals. He was convicted and sentenced in absentia to life in jail in 2002 for having personally killed or ordered the murder of dozens of people.
Every cop has his prey, just as every mob boss has his hunter. For eight long years Arcidiacono had hunted Denaro, and for eight years Denaro had eluded him like a ghost. Until 16 January, when the news of his capture went around the world: Denaro, perhaps the last living symbol of Cosa Nostra, was placed under arrest after 30 years on the run.
“The hunt for a fugitive boss is like being on a rollercoaster,” Arcidiacono says in an interview with the Guardian. “There are moments when you think you’re close to the finish line. Then there are moments when you fly very low, and months later you realise the trail went cold.’’
The destinies of Denaro and Arcidiacono, both born and raised in Sicily, had nearly intersected 30 years ago. In the same days in which Denaro went on the run in June 1993, starting what would become his long absence, Arcidiacono sent his application to the Carabinieri Academy. Those were the years of mafia terror, in which the bosses had launched a bombing campaign and for which Denaro was ultimately held responsible.
“In 1993 I was 20 years old,” says Arcidiacono. “The murders of the anti-mafia magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino the previous year had deeply affected me and had given me the decisive push to become an officer in the carabinieri.”
In 2003, Arcidiacono was sent to Naples, where in those years the bloody “Secondigliano feud” was raging in the streets between Camorra gangs.
“A very difficult period, but also very formative from a professional standpoint,” says Arcidiacono.
If there is one thing that Arcidiacono does well, it’s tracking down mafiosi. In 2005, he assisted in the arrest of Paolo Di Lauro, nicknamed “Ciruzzo the millionaire”, one of the most powerful drug traffickers in the world. That same year, in Spain, his team arrested Raffaele Amato, head of the Amato-Pagano clan from Naples.
The turning point came in 2015, when Arcidiacono was transferred to Palermo, Sicily. There he would face his most complicated mission: to hunt down the super-fugitive Denaro. Nicknamed Diabolik, Denaro – who once claimed: “I filled a cemetery, all by myself’’ – holds the key to some of the most heinous crimes perpetrated by the mafia, including the killing in 1996 of Giuseppe Di Matteo, the 12-year-old son of a mobster turncoat who was kidnapped, strangled and dissolved in acid. Year after year, Italian investigators relentlessly seized his businesses and arrested more than 100 of his confederates. But every time authorities seemed to get closer to their target, Denaro would fade away.
“We scorched the earth around him,” says Arcidiacono. “We had arrested his relatives and many of his protectors. But over time we had also followed some leads that were wrong.
“But you see, the search for a fugitive is nerve-racking. You even have to interpret the silence of the bosses under wiretap. It happened that two people got into a car and didn’t say a single word for fear of being intercepted. But you know that there are two people in that car, because you hear two doors close. Then one day we had an intuition and all the pieces we had collected in the previous eight years all fell into place.”
In early 2022, some telephone conversations between mobsters seemed to contain a distinctive clue: the boss had colon cancer and needed immediate treatment. The carabinieri asked the Ministry of Health to access the medical records of colon cancer patients corresponding to the boss’s history. The investigators scoured the information of thousands of patients, until they found one: Andrea Bonafede.
“He was a man with a clean record, who nonetheless had relatives linked to the clans and above all who lived in Campobello di Mazara, 7km from Denaro’s home town,” Arcidiacono explained.
For at least a year, Denaro had been periodically receiving treatment in a private clinic in Palermo under the name of Andrea Bonafede. The Friday before the arrest, the carabinieri received a decisive tipoff: on 16 January, around 8am, the suspect would return to the clinic to undergo treatment.
“The night before the arrest, I didn’t sleep a wink,” says Arcidiacono. “As bizarre as it may seem, I’ve thought about Messina Denaro every day for the last few years. I asked him what his name was, but the truth is that when I had him there in front of me, I knew exactly who he was.”
After the arrest, Denaro was moved to a maximum-security prison in the central Italian city of L’Aquila, where his cancer treatment will continue.
As for Arcidiacono, his name will go down in history alongside Elliot Ness, who brought down Al Capone; Captain “Ultimo”, who captured the bloodthirsty boss Totò Riina; and police chief Renato Cortese, who locked up the godfather of the Corleonesi clan, Bernardo Provenzano. But Arcidiacono will tell you that his work has just begun.
“We have a duty to find out who protected him all these years. Our work isn’t over. We have a long way to go.”
• This article was amended on 2 February 2023 to remove an image which showed protesters but was incorrectly captioned as residents of Palermo thanking the police.