As one of Sicily’s most ruthless crime bosses in the 1990s, Matteo Messina Denaro played a key role in orchestrating the most devastating attacks of the Cosa Nostra’s war against the Italian state.
But after 30 years on the run, Italy’s most-wanted mafia fugitive was undone by his own failing health.
Italian investigators captured the 60-year-old gangster this week at a clinic in Sicily’s capital Palermo, the syndicate’s traditional centre, where he had been undergoing cancer treatment under a fake name. He had been living in recent weeks in a modest apartment in the remote village of Campobello di Mazara, in western Sicily’s isolated Trapani region, his stronghold.
“We have partially paid our debt to the victims of the massacres of those years,” said Maurizio De Lucia, Palermo’s chief prosecutor, although authorities are still hunting for people who enabled the convicted killer to evade arrest. “It is clear there is a section of the ‘mafia bourgeoisie’ that has helped this fugitive.”
The arrest of Messina Denaro – the last living “godfather” of what Italy’s media had dubbed the Cosa Nostra’s “massacre wing” – is a serious symbolic blow to the already weakened Sicilian mafia, whose influence in international drug-trafficking networks has long been overshadowed by the ‘Ndrangheta, the organised crime gang based in Calabria, the mainland region nearest Sicily.
“His absconding highlighted the extraordinary power of Cosa Nostra,” said Federico Cafiero De Raho, Italy’s national anti-mafia and anti-terrorism prosecutor from 2017 to 2022. “His arrest has broken this strength.”
Experts on organised crime in Italy said the capture also reflected the strides Italian authorities had made in their long battle to loosen the Cosa Nostra’s grip on Sicily, part of a wider campaign against organised crime.
“The fight against Cosa Nostra hasn’t been headline grabbing, but it’s been very successful over recent years,” said John Dickie, author of Mafia Republic, and several other books on Italian criminal organisations.
“Thirty years ago, the Sicilian mafia controlled territory and the state was an alien force. Slowly, slowly, that has changed,” said Dickie, an Italian studies professor at University College London. “They have been grinding down Cosa Nostra’s grip on Sicilian territory. It’s a fight for sovereignty. It’s an ongoing fight, but one that is slowly being won.”
Prosecutors said the capture of Messina Denaro, who was wearing a €35,000 watch when arrested at the clinic, followed painstaking forensic detective work: from electronic surveillance to combing through government health records, after authorities learnt he was seriously ill.
“This shows their ability to patiently weave a net around the subject of the investigation,” said Anna Sergi, a University of Essex criminology professor and Mafia expert.
However, Federico Varese, an Oxford university criminology professor, said the mafioso’s arrest would not be “the end of the story” for Cosa Nostra, which remains influential in parts of Sicily and could still regenerate itself.
“Italy is quite good at the military strategy,” said Varese, author of Love, Death and Making Money at the Heart of Organised Crime. “But once you arrest these people, you have to ask yourself, ‘will there be another boss coming along?’”
“If you want to get rid of the Sicilian mafia, we have to go to the roots, the deep economic, political and social reasons for the mafia,” he said. “The Italian state is quite good at attacking these people but it and the Italian political class doesn’t do much beyond that.”
Messina Denaro – who was convicted and sentenced to multiple life terms in absentia for many of his crimes – was a protege of the ruthless Cosa Nostra “boss of bosses” Salvatore “Toto” Riina, who declared all-out war on the Italian state, as prosecutors tightened the noose on the Mafia’s criminal activities in the early 1990s.
As one of the Mafia’s “cupola”, or ruling commission alongside Riina, Messina Denaro helped orchestrate the devastating 1992 car bombings in Palermo that killed prominent anti-mafia prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino.
After Riina’s arrest in 1993, Messina Denaro was among those who planned five car bomb attacks on cultural sites on the Italian mainland, including Florence’s Uffizi Gallery and two of Rome’s most venerable churches.
During his years as a fugitive, Messina Denaro helped direct the modernisation of the Mafia’s business operations – involving it more deeply in legitimate economic sectors including through overseas companies – while always managing to stay a step ahead of the authorities and elude repeated arrest attempts, Cafiero de Raho said.
“A chief is safer in the territory he controls than anywhere else in the world,” he said. “He was able to get information that allowed him to be on the run for 30 years. When investigators were about to catch up with him ... he disappeared.”
Yet in recent years, prosecutors had unravelled much of his logistics network and economic base, arresting members of his inner circle, including his sister and other family members and at least two police officers since convicted of assisting him. Authorities also confiscated assets worth some €150 million.
“The net was closing in on him – the cost of being on the run was going up and up,” said Varese.
But he was ultimately betrayed by his own deteriorating health. “He needed the treatment and that made him more vulnerable,” Varese said. “There is also possibility that he was losing some of his protection. He was a man of the past, and not a man of the future.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023