A notorious Italian mafia boss has died while receiving medical treatment for cancer after being arrested early this year, according to media reports.
Matteo Messina Denaro was known as the last “godfather” of the Cosa Nostra or the Sicilian mafia. He was arrested in January after being on the run since 1993 and was suffering from colon cancer at the time of his arrest. He is believed to have ordered dozens of Mafia-related murders for the Cosa Nostra.
Messina Denaro’s condition worsened in recent weeks and he was transferred to the San Salvatore hospital in L’Aquila from a maximum-security prison in central Italy.
He had requested no aggressive medical treatment, Italian news agency ANSA reported on Monday. The medics had stopped feeding him after he was declared to be in an irreversible coma.
A fugitive for the past 30 years, Messina Denaro was arrested at a private hospital in the Sicilian capital of Palermo, where he had been receiving treatment for cancer under a false name.
He was sentenced in absentia to a life term for his role in the 1992 murders of anti-mafia prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. He also faced a life sentence for his role in bomb attacks in Florence, Rome and Milan which killed 10 people the following year.
Messina Denaro was accused of helping organise the kidnapping of a 12-year-old, Giuseppe Di Matteo, to try to dissuade the boy’s father from giving evidence against the mafia as well. The boy was held for two years, then murdered.
Nicknamed “Diabolik”, he was once considered a candidate to be the Sicilian mafia’s “boss of bosses”, after the deaths of Bernardo Provenzano in 2016 and Salvatore “Toto” Riina in 2017.
According to medical records leaked to the Italian media, he underwent surgery for colon cancer in 2020 and 2022 under the false name “Andrea Buonafede”. A doctor at the Palermo clinic told the La Repubblica newspaper that Messina Denaro’s health had worsened significantly in the months leading up to his capture.
Messina Denaro, who had a power base in the Sicilian port city of Trapani, in western Sicily, was considered Sicily’s Cosa Nostra top boss even while he was a fugitive.
Police said in September 2022 that he was still able to issue commands relating to the way the mafia was run in the area around Trapani, his regional stronghold, despite his long disappearance.
The son of a mafioso, Messina Denaro was born in the southwestern Sicilian town of Castelvetrano in 1962. He followed his father into the mob and was already carrying a gun at 15 years of age. Police said he carried out his first killing when he was 18.
The Castelvetrano clan was allied to the Corleonesi, led by Salvatore “The Beast” Riina, who became the undisputed “boss of bosses” of the Sicilian mob, thanks to his ruthless pursuit of power.
Nicknamed “U Siccu” (The Skinny One), Messina Denaro became his protege and showed he could be just as pitiless as his master, picking up 20 life prison terms in trials held in absentia for his role in an array of mob murders.
He himself once claimed to have murdered enough people to fill a cemetery.
He went into hiding in 1993 as a growing number of turncoats started providing details of his role in the mob, but investigators believe he rarely wandered far from Sicily.
Police said he spent much of 2022 hiding in Campobello di Mazara, a town of about 11,000, 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 and distributed by messengers, some of which were intercepted by police.
He never married, but was known to have had a number of lovers. He wrote he had a daughter, but had never met her.
Despite his notoriety, prosecutors have always doubted Messina Denaro became the Mafia “boss of bosses”, saying it was more likely that he was simply the head of Cosa Nostra in western Sicily.
Additional reporting by agencies