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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Lorenzo Tondo in Palermo and Angela Giuffrida in Rome

Matteo Messina Denaro, ‘last godfather’ of Sicilian mafia, dies after long illness

A mugshot of Matteo Messina Denaro after his arrest in Palermo on 16 January.
Matteo Messina Denaro after his arrest in Palermo on 16 January. Photograph: EPA

Matteo Messina Denaro, the “last godfather” of the Sicilian mafia who was accused of orchestrating some of the most heinous crimes perpetrated by the Cosa Nostra, has died after a long illness.

The national news agency Ansa announced his death overnight on Sunday. The mayor of the central Italian city of L’Aquila, Pierluigi Biondi, confirmed Denaro’s death in hospital “following a worsening of his illness”.

His death “puts the end to a story of violence and blood”, Biondi said, thanking prison and hospital staff for their “professionalism and humanity”. It was “the epilogue of an existence lived without remorse or repentance, a painful chapter of the recent history of our nation”.

In January, Denaro, 61, who had been in hiding since 1993, was apprehended in a private clinic in Palermo, where he had been periodically receiving treatment for a tumour under the false name of Andrea Bonafede.

On 8 August, he was moved from the maximum-security prison in L’Aquila and admitted to the city’s San Salvatore hospital, as his health had deteriorated and was “not compatible” with the tough jail regime he was being held under, his lawyer, Alessandro Cerella, said.

A police composite of a young Denaro and a computer-generated image of the older man
A police composite of a young Denaro and a computer-generated image of the older man. Photograph: AP

Since Friday night, Denaro had been reported to have been in an “irreversible coma”. Over the past days his daughter, whom he met for the first time while in prison in April, was by his bedside, Ansa reported.

Preparations were already under way for his burial in the family tomb in the town, alongside his father, Don Ciccio, who was also head of the local clan, according to the Corriere della Sera newspaper.

Nicknamed Diabolik or U Siccu (the skinny one), Denaro was born in Castelvetrano, Sicily, in 1962. He thrived in the family business, building an illicit multibillion-euro empire in the waste, wind energy and retail sectors.

In 2002, he was convicted and sentenced in absentia to life in jail for having personally killed or ordered the murder of dozens of people.

While at large, the mobster, who once infamously claimed: “I filled a cemetery, all by myself,” had apparently kept up his luxurious lifestyle, thanks to several bankrollers who, according to prosecutors, included politicians and businessmen. He was known for wearing expensive suits, a Rolex and Ray-Ban sunglasses.

The quest to locate Denaro was complicated by the near-complete absence of recent photographs. With only a few identity pictures taken in the late 1980s and early 90s, the Italian authorities reconstructed his appearance digitally, using the latest computer technology and information provided by mafia turncoats.

Over the years, dozens of people have been arrested in his place in cases of mistaken identity. In 2019, the carabinieri military police raided a Sicilian hospital to arrest a man from Castelvetrano who was recovering in the neurology unit.

For 30 years, every time investigators seemed to get closer to their target, Denaro would disappear only to reappear elsewhere.

Police say he spent much of 2022 hiding in Campobello di Mazara, a town of about 11,000 people a short drive from his mother’s house in western Sicily. He communicated with other mafiosi via “pizzini”, small pieces of paper sometimes written in code distributed by messengers, some of which were intercepted by police.

The Friday before the arrest, the carabinieri received a decisive tipoff: on 16 January, at about 8am, the suspect would return to the clinic to undergo treatment.

After the arrest, Denaro was moved to a maximum-security prison in L’Aquila, where his cancer treatment continued.

“You arrested me only because of my illness,” Denaro told the magistrates who interrogated him after his capture.

Like other Sicilian mafia bosses, Denaro had always refused to cooperate with the authorities and expose the crimes of the Cosa Nostra. According to mafia informers and prosecutors, he held the key to some of the most atrocious murders perpetrated by the Sicilian mafia, including the bomb attacks that killed the anti-mafia magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino.

Investigators now fear that the last godfather of the Sicilian mafia has taken those secrets to his grave.

“What he said has materialised – he surrendered only to the illness. If he didn’t have cancer it would have been difficult for him to have been arrested,” said Paolo Borsellino’s brother Salvatore.

Enzo Alfano, the mayor of Castelvetrano, said: “A man who has done so much harm to his land has died. It will be decades more before we culturally put an end to a mentality, a culture – sometimes rampant – of illegality, of impunity, which he, his acolytes and others before have been cultivating for too long.”

Italy’s deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, wrote on Instagram: “Prayer is not denied to anyone, but I can’t say I’m sorry.”

The anti-mafia author Roberto Saviano wrote on X: “Matteo Messina Denaro (1962-2023), murderer. The boss is dead, Italy continues to be a country with a mafia vocation.”

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