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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Chris Stevenson

Matteo Messina Denaro: The last ‘godfather’ of the Cosa Nostra arrested after 30 years on the run


The capture of Italy's most wanted mafia boss on Monday after almost three decades on the run was hailed as “a great victory for the state” by the country's prime minister, Giorgia Meloni. Locals clapped and shook hands with police as Matteo Messina Denaro was led away from a private clinic in Palermo that proved to be his final stop as a free man.

Known as “Diabolik” – a nickname taken from a comic book series based around an uncatchable thief – and “U Siccu” [skinny one], Messina Denaro is thought by many to be the last “secret-keeper” of the Cosa Nostra – someone who holds all the information around some of the Sicilian Mafia's most heinous crimes.

There is no doubt that Messina Denaro, now 60, is the last of the three “nobility” of the clan. His arrest comes almost 30 years to the day since that of another boss, Salvatore “Toto” Riina, in a Palermo apartment after 23 years on the run (Riina would die in 2017). Meanwhile, Bernardo Provenzano set the record for the longest time eluding police, having been captured in a farmhouse near Corleone, Sicily, in 2006 after 38 years as a fugitive. He died in 2016.

Criminology professor Anna Sergi, of the University of Essex, told the BBC that Messina Denaro's arrest was “symbolic not just because he was the boss of Cosa Nostra, but because he represents the last fugitive the Italian state really wanted to get its hands on. That's why we saw people clap in Palermo and why the state is triumphant – because the news feels like closure.”

The chief prosecutor of Palermo, Maurizio de Lucia, said at a press conference following the arrest that Messina Denaro was "never" the sole leader of the Sicilian Mafia, but that he hidden out in many parts of Italy since disappearing in 1993, most recently in Sicily.

In August 2021, the Italian public TV broadcaster Rai released a recording dating back to March of that year in which the voice of Messina Denaro was identified for the first time during a trial in which he was called to testify. He disappeared a few weeks later. Prosecutors have said he was involved in the Sicilian mafia’s bombing campaign in the early 1990s, which killed magistrates and bystanders in Sicily, Rome and Florence. He has been tried in absentia and convicted of dozens of murders, and now faces multiple life sentences.

One of those terms is for what prosecutors have laid out as his role in the 1992 murders of anti-mafia prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, which shocked Italy and led to a fierce crackdown on the Cosa Nostra. Maria Falcone, sister of the murdered prosecutor, said of Messina Denaro's arrest: "It proves that mafiosi, despite their delusions of omnipotence, are ultimately doomed to defeat in the conflict with the democratic state".

In 1993, Messina Denaro is also said to have helped organise the kidnapping of an 11-year-old boy, Giuseppe Di Matteo, in an attempt to dissuade his father from giving evidence against the mafia, according to prosecutors. The boy was held in captivity for two years before he was strangled and his body dissolved in acid.

Messina Denaro is said to see himself as a philosopher, folk hero and serial seducer. He once claimed: “I filled a cemetery all by myself.” He was born in Castelvetrano, Sicily, in 1962. His father was a powerful Cosa Nostra boss, and Messina Denaro is said to have thrived in the business, with prosecutors saying that he built an empire in the waste, wind energy and retail sectors, potentially worth billions of euros. Extortion and intimidation were also said to be part of his repertoire. “Messina Denaro is not living in the country eating chicory. His is a golden lifestyle,” state prosecutor Teresa Principato said in 2014. “He is a greedy, ruthless, money-maker who will get involved in any business that makes a profit – and his methods work.”

Matteo Messina Denaro’s arrest in Palermo, Sicily (EPA)

Before going into hiding, Messina Denaro was known for driving expensive cars and wearing tailored suits and Rolex watches. General Pasquale Angelosanto of the special force unit of the Carabinieri police said that Messina Denaro was wearing a watch worth €35,000 (£31,000) when officers arrested him.

He is said to have become increasingly more isolated over the years, as prosecutors such as Ms Principato relentlessly went after businesses believed to have connections to him. More than 100 alleged associates were arrested, including cousins, nephews and his sister.

However, the search was complicated by a lack of recent photographs. Police resorted to digitally-ageing images from the 1980s and 1990s and adding new details – although some mafia turncoats suggested that Messina Denaro had undergone facial surgery to change his appearance.

There have been numerous cases of mistaken identity over the years, including a Formula 1 fan from Liverpool being arrested at gunpoint in the Netherlands in 2021. The man, named as Mark L, had been eating at a restaurant with his son when police burst in, carrying a European arrest warrant issued by the Italian authorities. His lawyer Leon van Kleef said it was “like a bad movie, a nightmare that”.

A file photograph of Matteo Messina Denaro (ANSA/AFP)

Messina Denaro's arrest did not live up to the tales that had built up around him. He was taken away at about 9.35am local time from the private clinic in Palermo. According to police sources, the elusive suspect tried to escape when he saw police arriving but did not put up resistance once surrounded. Italian media reported that he had been receiving treatment for about a year, including cancer treatment, under the false name “Andrea Bonafede” and that a tip-off about the date of his latest appointment had allowed police to prepare for the arrest.

Italian authorities will now seek to extract any information they can from their captive about Cosa Nostra’s activities. Police believed as recently as September that he was still able to issue commands relating to the way the mafia was run in the area around the western Sicilian city of Trapani, his regional stronghold.

However, Cosa Nostra is not the group it once was. While it retains control of its Sicilian territory and a capacity to infiltrate the broader economy, it has been supplanted in the drugs trade by groups such as the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta.

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