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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Sicilian mafia boss Messina Denaro ‘in a coma’

Notorious Sicilian Mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro, captured in January after three decades on the run, is in a coma in hospital and no longer being fed, media reports said Saturday.

Sicilian mafia boss Messina Denaro 'in a coma'

The 61-year-old has been suffering from colon cancer for several years. It was his decision to seek treatment that led to his arrest following a visit to a clinic in the Sicilian capital Palermo.

Facing numerous life sentences, he was detained in a high-security jail in L’Aquila, where he continued treatment in his cell, according to reports.

But in early August, Messina Denaro was moved to the inmates ward of the local hospital, where his condition has declined in recent days.

He is now in an “irreversible coma”, according to media reports. Medics have stopped feeding him and he has asked not to be resuscitated.

Messina Denaro was for many years a leading figure in Cosa Nostra, the real-life Sicilian crime syndicate depicted in the Godfather movies.

This handout photo taken and released by the Italian Carabinieri Press Office on January 16th, 2023, shows the last picture of Italy’s top wanted mafia boss, Matteo Messina Denaro in Palermo, following his arrest. Handout / ITALIAN CARABINIERI PRESS OFFICE / AFP

He was also one of its most ruthless bosses and was handed six life sentences over the years, including for his role in the murder of anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone in 1992.

He was also found guilty of involvement in a string of deadly bombings in Rome, Florence and Milan in 1993, and the kidnapping and subsequent murder of the 12-year-old son of a witness in the Falcone case.

Messina Denaro disappeared in the summer of 1993, and became the top name on Italy’s most-wanted list.

READ ALSO: More than 100 suspected Italian mafia members arrested in Europe-wide raids

There was intense speculation in the years that followed about where he had gone. In the end, he was found to have been staying near his hometown of Castelvetrano in western Sicily.

Investigators had been combing the Sicilian countryside for possible hideouts for years, wiretapping members of his family and his friends.

They were heard discussing the medical problems of an unnamed person who suffered from cancer, as well as eye problems – a person who detectives became sure was Messina Denaro.

They used a national health system database to search for male patients of the right age and medical history, and eventually closed in.

But while his arrest brought some relief for his victims, the mob boss always maintained his silence.

In interviews in custody since being arrested, Messina Denaro even denied he was a member of the Cosa Nostra.