Italy arrests ‘most wanted’ mafia boss after 30 years on the run

Italian anti-mafia police caught Sicilian godfather Matteo Messina Denaro on Monday, ending a 30-year manhunt for Italy's most-wanted fugitive.

Italy arrests 'most wanted' mafia boss after 30 years on the run
Officers from Italy’s ROS (Special Operations Group) Carabinieri outside the Maddalena clinic in Palermo, where mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro was captured. (Photo by Alessandro FUCARINI / AFP)

A trigger man who once reportedly boasted he could “fill a cemetery” with his victims, 60-year-old Messina Denaro was a leading figure in Sicily’s Cosa Nostra, and is believed to have become the “boss of bosses” following the death of Salvatore “The Beast” Riina in 2017.

The mobster was arrested “inside a health facility in Palermo, where he had gone for therapeutic treatment”, special operations commander Pasquale Angelosanto said in a statement released by the police.

READ ALSO: Ruthless Sicilian mafia boss Messina Denaro’s reign of terror

Italian newspaper Corriere reported Messina Denaro had been in line for a Covid test at a clinic when he was picked up by police.

He had reportedly been in the clinic for a year, undergoing periodic treatment for colon cancer under a false name – ‘Bonafede’ – and did not resist arrest.

Criminology expert Anna Sergi at the University of Essex said Messina Denaro was “the last one, the most resilient one, the ‘purest’ Sicilian mafioso remaining”.

READ MORE: How the brutal murder of an anti-mafia hero altered Sicily

“The secrets he is said to keep fuel conspiracies around mafia-state agreements in the 1990s,” she told AFP.

“He is the essence of the great historical power of Cosa Nostra. The myths around his period on the run are part of the reason why the Mafia myth endures.”

‘Extremely dangerous’

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said Messina Denaro was the “most significant” mafia boss and his arrest in his native Sicily was a “great victory” for the state in its war against organised crime.

Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani tweeted triumphantly that “The State wins over the Mafia”.

A photograph released by police showed Messina Denaro in the back seat of a vehicle, wearing a cream hat, sunglasses and a brown leather jacket with a cream sheepskin lining.

Before that, the only known photo of him dated back to the early 1990s. He had been on the run since 1993.

Messina Denaro was arrested a day after the 30th anniversary of the arrest of Salvatore “The Beast” Riina, the Cosa Nostra boss who died in 2017.

READ ALSO: How the mafia uses violence to influence Italian politics

He had been number one on Italy’s most-wanted list, accused of mafia association, multiple murders and use of explosives.

Messina Denaro is suspected to have been behind the 1993 bombings in Rome, Milan and Florence that killed 10 people, just months after Cosa Nostra murdered anti-mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in similar attacks.

The arrest of “an extremely dangerous fugitive” was “an extraordinary day for the state”, Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi said.

In 2015, police discovered Messina Denaro was communicating with his closest collaborators via the pizzini system, where tiny, folded paper notes were left under a rock at a farm in Sicily.

Investigators spent decades searching the homes and businesses of the boss’s known allies on the island.

They looked in particular for hiding places in grottoes, caverns or even bunkers inside buildings where the man nicknamed “Diabolik” could be concealed.

Federico Varese, a criminology professor at Oxford University, said the fact that Sicilian mob families are weaker these days than their counterparts in Calabria or Campania may have helped in Messina Denaro’s capture.

He said it was “amazing that he was still in Palermo”.

“But it makes sense. If you want to continue to exercise a degree of power, you must be in the territory,” he said.

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American convicted of killing Italian police officer granted house arrest

An Italian appeals court on Monday granted house arrest to one of two American men convicted of killing an Italian police officer in Rome while on a teenage summer holiday in 2019.

American convicted of killing Italian police officer granted house arrest

Gabriel Natale-Hjorth will serve the remainder of his recently reduced 11-year sentence at his grandparents’ home in Fregene, outside Rome, after the appeals court agreed to the defence’s request, his lawyer Fabio Alonzi said.

Natale-Hjorth, now 23, was found guilty in May 2021 along with his friend Finnegan Elder for the fatal stabbing of policeman Mario Cerciello Rega during a late-night encounter in Rome.

Both Elder, who was 19 at the time of the killing, and Natale-Hjorth, then 18, were sentenced to life in prison, a punishment their lawyers denounced as harsher than those given for premeditated mafia killings.

In 2022, the defendants saw their sentences reduced to 24 years for Elder, who wielded the knife during the attack, and 22 years for Natale-Hjorth, who helped his friend hide the weapon afterwards.

From the beginning, the case offered up two very different versions about what happened in the moments just before Elder stabbed Cerciello with an 11-inch (28-centimetre) camping knife on a dark Rome street.

While the prosecution’s star witness, Cerciello’s partner Andrea Varriale, testified that the officers were suddenly attacked, the teens said the two men in plain clothes jumped them from behind and did not identify themselves as police or show their badges.

The Americans claimed self-defence, saying they thought the men were drug dealers, following their botched attempt to buy drugs earlier in the evening.

Italy’s highest court ordered a retrial in 2023.

Earlier this month, the appeals court re-examining the case re-sentenced Elder to 15 years in prison and Natale-Hjorth to 11 years.

READ ALSO: Italian court cuts sentences of Americans convicted of killing police officer

Under Italian law, the court has up to 90 days to publish its reasoning for the resentencing.

“Remember [Natale-Hjorth] has already served five years in prison,” Alonzi told AFP.

On Monday, a lawyer for Cerciello’s widow, Massimo Ferrandino, said his client Rosamaria was “filled with a profound sense of mistrust” over the court’s decision.

The case horrified Italy and led to an outpouring of public grief for the newlywed Cerciello, who was hailed as a national hero.

But the trial also revealed multiple examples of police error, including the blindfolding of Natale-Hjorth while in custody.

The officer who blindfolded him was later handed a two-month suspended sentence.