It sounds like a cliche, but it is true. In the apartment in Sicily where mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro lived until his arrest last Monday morning, pride of place on the living room wall went to a poster of the ageing Marlon Brando in the title role of the Francis Ford Coppola-directed classic film from 1972, The Godfather.
When police began searching his hideaway last Monday night, they found a trove of documents, phone numbers and carefully catalogued files that could yet prove useful for further investigations. They also found the film poster, plus designer clothes, expensive shoes, restaurant receipts and a large supply of Viagra and condoms. Some commentators also pointed out that, at the time of his arrest, Messina Denaro was wearing a watch that would have cost €40,000.
It would seem the latest mafia monster — a man who allegedly once said he had killed enough people “to fill a cemetery, all by myself” — had notions. He certainly appears in sharp contrast to Sicilian godfather predecessors such as Toto Riina and Bernardo Provenzano — arrested in 1993 and 2006 respectively.
When picked up, Riina gave his profession as contadino (peasant farmer) and looked the part. His one-time number two, Provenzano, was found in a shepherd’s hut near his native town of Corleone, living like a monk in an enclosed order, eating cheese, fennel and chicory and reading the Bible.
They were both just as chillingly violent as Messina Denaro, but their modest lifestyles bore little comparison to his — he liked to shop in the fanciest clothes stores in Palermo and eat out at good (but obviously ‘safe’) restaurants in his home province of Trapani.
By this stage, half the world knows Messina Denaro’s arrest last Monday at a cancer clinic in Palermo came after 30 years on the run. It was greeted in Italy with nationwide applause — not dissimilar to the celebrations that had marked the arrests of Riina and Provenzano.
Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni was among the first to go to Palermo on Monday to personally congratulate public prosecutor Maurizio de Lucia, his magistrate colleagues and the frontline men and women of the ROS, the special investigative branch of the carabinieri.
Meloni even proposed that January 16 become a national holiday to recall victims of the mafia and all those in the security forces who “work 365 days a year” to fight organised crime.
After all the fanfare and media fuss, huge questions now present themselves.
First, did Messina Denaro hand himself in after 30 years when he had seemed untouchable? Or was he finally outwitted by some stunning police work?
Second, will this apparently seriously ill man now co-operate with investigators and spill the beans about the last 40 years of organised crime in Sicily? If last Thursday is anything to go by, the answer may well be no.
He was due to appear in the Appeals Court in Caltanissetta, Sicily, charged with involvement in the 1992 assassinations of mafia investigators Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino.
He was supposed to appear via a TV link-up from the high-security prison in L’Aquila, where he is now incarcerated.
All eyes in the aula bunker (fortified courtroom) were on the big screen — but Denaro did not show.
After an hour of looking at live footage of an empty chair, Judge Maria Carmela Giannazzo pronounced cryptically: “The defendant, Messina Denaro Matteo, who is also in detention for this case, is a renunciate.”
In plain language, that meant he would not be attending.
His lawyer, Lorenza Guttadauro, had made the (admittedly not unreasonable) request for more time to prepare the defence. Guttadauro is not just Messina Denaro’s defence lawyer — she is his niece.
In the past, she has put her legal skills to good use, defending her husband, Luca Bellomo, from the charge of having aided and abetted Denaro when he was on the run. She has also defended other members of the family charged with working for the mafia boss.
The image of the empty chair on the screen reminded me of one morning spent at another fortified courtroom in Sicily, the Ucciardone prison in Palermo, in 1987. That courtroom, now named after Falcone and Borsellino, had been purpose-built for the impressive 1986-1992 maxi processo, or mass mafia trial, largely prepared by Falcone.
At that trial, 460 defendants were charged with a wide range of mafia-related crime, including murder and drugs trafficking. Sentences totalling 2,665 years were handed down, with 19 mafioso receiving life terms.
The maxi processo did not pass without huge difficulty, though — including the killing by Cosa Nostra in 1988 of Judge Antonino Saetta, the man who was supposed to preside over the first appeal trial. In the end, however, the final level of judgment in the Court of Cassation confirmed most of the original findings, delivering a huge blow to the mobsters.
The empty chair in the Appeals Court last Thursday reminded me of that morning in the Ucciardone.
Young and not-so-young men, many utterly bored by the tedious legal formalities of the hearing, lounged behind bars in a cage — like sleepy animals in the zoo. However they seemed to have a palpable sense of rejection and disrespect for the whole complex legal process.
Rather than attend the Appeals Court hearing, Denaro had been having treatment in the L’Aquila prison for his cancer. It is currently believed that the mobster, who had an operation for colon cancer three years ago, is suffering from complications that may have affected his liver.
Vittorio Gebbia, the director of oncology at La Maddalena, the clinic where Denaro was arrested, told Italian newspaper La Repubblica that the mafia boss’s illness had grown worse “in recent months”.
Falcone used to declare the fundamental principle of anti-mafia police work was “follow the money”. After all, the crime syndicates handle millions of euro on a daily basis. In the case of Messina Denaro, however, the guiding methodology seems to have been “follow the tumour”.
Knowing that Denaro was not well, the ROS investigators used medical data banks to prepare a medical identikit of the godfather, which led all the way to La Maddalena clinic last Monday.
The other question — arguably the biggest — to emerge from his arrest concerns the level of collusion needed to ensure he could move about, seemingly little impeded, for 30 years.
Most of his time was spent in his native province of Trapani, Sicily. Not for nothing, his three hideaways discovered last week were all in the village of Campobello di Mazara, just 8km up the road from his home town of Castelvetrano.
Campobello di Mazara is also the home town of two key figures in his life on the run — Andrea Bonafede, the man who appears to have ‘sold’ his identity to the boss, and his driver, Giovanni Luppino.
When asked about the passenger who had accompanied him to La Maddalena clinic, Luppino reportedly said he did not know him. Luppino is currently in pre-trial detention, while Bonafede is helping police with their inquiries.
Someone like Messina Denaro, with his investments in wind farms and the refuse industry and his consistent infiltration of important public contracts, was always going to have the funds to pay off the ‘bourgeois’ mafia — the bankers, lawyers, notaries, builders, businessmen and so on, all required to keep him ‘operative’ but out of sight. In addition, he had a well-documented “masonic” network of contacts.
What is interesting, however, is the extent to which a silent public opinion — at least at street and village level — felt intimidated.
When the former leftist Euro MP and anti-mafia campaigner Claudio Fava turned up at Messina Denaro’s home town of Castelvetrano for a campaign rally during last September’s general election, the piazza was deserted.
People seemed frightened to attend the rally of an anti-mafia figure, whose father had been assassinated by the mob in 1984.
The most-supported candidate in Castelvetrano, with 37.8pc of the vote, had been Marta Antonia Fascina — the partner of media tycoon and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, elected to the Chamber of Deputies in the ranks of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party.
When national media descended on Castelvetrano last week, many locals did not want to talk about Messina Denaro, who was described by one man who said he knew him well as “una brava persona” (a good person).
The point about Castelvetrano, like much of the Calabrian and Sicilian hinterlands, is that it is a relatively poor village, the product of an underdeveloped and often ignored region. In terms of wealth and consumption, the province of Trapani ranks 102nd out of 107 Italian provinces.
Mafiosi like Messina Denaro tend to function as a double-edged sword, which lives off poverty and at the same time provides the only income around.
The final thought after all the fanfare is that Messina Denaro may be the last of his kind — yesterday’s man — given that Cosa Nostra’s influence and economic power have for a decade now been outstripped by the drug-running Calabrian gangsters of the ‘Ndrangheta.