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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Clare Longrigg

Matteo Messina Denaro: how fast-living mafioso evaded police for 30 years

Mugshot of Matteo Messina Denaro
Mugshot of Matteo Messina Denaro following his arrest in Palermo, Sicily, on Monday. Photograph: Carabinieri handout/EPA

When the Cosa Nostra boss Salvatore “Totò” Riina was arrested in 1993, after 23 years on the most wanted list, he was living comfortably in Palermo with his wife and four children. Thirteen years later, his sidekick, living like an ascetic, eating cheese and chicory and reading his Bible in a shepherd’s hut near his birthplace, Corleone, was run to ground.

For years, only one of Riina’s inner circle, responsible for a campaign of violence that left hundreds dead including judges, priests and politicians, remained at large. A man known for his wealth and his love of fast cars, who had numerous girlfriends and liked the finer things in life, he nonetheless managed to hide from investigators without going far from home.

The man who once boasted “I filled a cemetery by myself” evaded the police because he still commanded loyalty from the people living in his territory, the town of Castelvetrano and the wider province of Trapani. Hundreds of police had been engaged in the search over the years with no success. A series of arrests of people close to him, including his sister Patrizia, raised hopes that the net was closing, but none of them would talk.

“If you asked, where is Matteo Messina Denaro, people would say, he’s either dead, or he’s in the province of Trapani,” said Giacomo di Girolamo, author of a biography of Denaro called The Invisible. “He wasn’t one of those mafiosi who would go abroad, to Brazil, or northern Europe. He didn’t need to build himself a bunker like the heads of the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria. He was protected in his territory.”

Investigators described him as combining the qualities of the old and new mafia. “Like the old mafiosi, he sees the mafia as a superior state, involving a select few who are worthy of the honour,” Teresa Principato, a former magistrate and a member of the Direzione Nationale Antimafia (DNA) who was on his trail for decades, said in 2014. “He allows in only those who are close to him. But he is also modern … He is a greedy, ruthless, money-maker who will get involved in any business that makes a profit – and his methods work.”

Denaro’s status within the organisation has long been the subject of speculation. He was Riina’s golden boy, close to the ferocious Graviano brothers from Brancaccio, a suburb of Palermo. “If anything happens to me,” Riina reportedly said, “Matteo and Giuseppe [Graviano] know everything.” After the arrest of the big beasts, the central decision-making commission of Cosa Nostra tried to appoint a new head, but each time investigators were listening in and managed to pounce.

Although his father, Ciccio, was a capo of the old school, it was said that Denaro, known as U Siccu (“Skinny”), did not have the qualities to be a traditional boss. He was too showy, and his obsession with gaming did not impress (another nickname was Diabolik, after a comic book character).

“He became part of the Corleone group, but he was a very modern boss in some ways,” says Di Girolamo. “He was not married, but he had a child with his partner. That would have been unthinkable for an old-style mafia boss. Also, while the old bosses were attached to the rites and trappings of religion, he professed himself to be agnostic, if not atheist.”

The mafia has always been adept at changing with the times, and Denaro’s enduring strength was his connection with the “grey zone” where organised crime coexists with politics and business. As the mafia expert John Dickie puts it in his book Mafia Republic, the grey zone is “an area of society where complicity with the bosses is hard to detect, and where the partnership between the bosses and the businessmen, or between the gun and the laptop, is by no means always tilted in favour of the former”.

His immense wealth came from his investments in energy and refuse, successfully infiltrating local government to get control of important building contracts. Three years ago a windfarm entrepreneur was arrested for bankrolling Denaro. While the mafia’s business dealings are largely in the legitimate sphere, they are still backed by the threat of violence.

Cosa Nostra invited the wrath of the state by assassinating two high-profile and widely admired anti-mafia judges, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, in 1992. After the arrest of Riina, Denaro was involved in the bombing campaigns of 1993 when Cosa Nostra targeted places of cultural and touristic importance on the mainland – in Milan, Florence and Rome – to try to force the state to repeal hardline anti-mafia laws. The last confirmed sighting of Denaro before his arrest in Palermo on Monday was in Tuscany in 1993, around the time explosives in a parked Fiat were detonated outside the Uffizi gallery, killing three people, injuring more than 40 and damaging priceless works of art.

He was also involved in one of the most horrific crimes of the Corleone clan’s vicious campaign: the kidnapping and subsequent murder of 11-year-old Giuseppe di Matteo, the son of a mafioso who had turned state’s evidence. Denaro was one of a gang who kept the boy chained up in various locations in western Sicily for two years to put pressure on his father to recant, before he was strangled and his body dissolved in acid.

Although there is no doubt that the capture of a mass murderer is a triumph for law enforcement, some are reluctant to emphasise the importance of Denaro today. “He was never the boss,” says Principato. “He was a member of the commission, but that’s a different thing. He never took over Palermo, but remained the regional boss in Trapani.”

Principato spent years tracking Denaro after tipoffs that he had been treated in various clinics in the north. Riina famously continued to run the organisation from inside prison, in spite of high-security conditions that kept prisoners apart and strictly limited visits. (Riina’s sidekick, Bernardo Provenzano, too, was once almost caught after he travelled to Marseille to get treatment for prostate cancer.) Whether Denaro continues to exert any influence at all on Cosa Nostra will probably depend on his health.

Some say Denaro, after years of evading capture, meant to be caught so he could end his days in hospital. Whether or not that is true, his ring of protection finally failed. And since attempts to change the mafia’s ruling commission have been foiled, at this point, there is no one in the wings to take his place.

Nino di Matteo, a former anti-mafia prosecutor in Palermo who is currently serving on the high council of the judiciary, said: “This is great news, but the state’s success will only be complete when we are able to understand what role Matteo Messina Denaro played in the bombing campaign of 92-93. It’s also important to find out how he was able to remain a fugitive from justice for 30 years, and who was protecting him.

“Today’s arrest is an important step forward, however, it would be a mistake to think that with today’s arrest the fight against the mafia is finished. Certainly Matteo Messina Denaro was the most important mafia member still at liberty – but experience should teach us that Cosa Nostra is capable of regrouping, reorganising and relaunching itself. Making connections with business, and in some cases, politics, has always been in the DNA of Cosa Nostra. I believe Matteo Messina Denaro knows a lot about those connections, and it would be a great step forward if he decided to collaborate with justice, and tell the truth about what he knows.”

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