Italian police on Monday arrested Matteo Messina Denaro, the country’s most wanted Mafia boss, who had spent 30 years on the run.
Who is Matteo Messina Denaro?
Messina Denaro is accused of being a ruthless assassin whose violence fuelled the bloody reputation of the Cosa Nostra Mafia.
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“With the people I have killed myself, I could fill a cemetery,” he is said to have boasted.
The phrase is impossible to confirm but speaks to the legend that surrounds him.
Known as “Diabolik” after an Italian comic character, he was the undisputed leader of the Cosa Nostra in the western Sicilian province of Trapani.
But his power extended farther, including to Sicily’s capital, Palermo, where he was arrested.
Messina Denaro is a fan of Rolex watches, designer clothes, comic books and video games and has a reputation as a playboy. He was once featured on an Italian magazine cover in dark glasses, looking like a rock star, but his list of victims is long and the crimes he is accused of are horrific.
What is he accused of?
Born on April 26, 1962, in Castelvetrano in southwest Sicily, Messina Denaro grew up in the heart of organised crime.
His father, Don Ciccio, was the head of the local clan, and his godfather, who attended his baptism, was also a member of the mob. His first run-ins with the law began in 1989 when he took part in a bloody struggle between two clans.
He was accused that year of murdering Nicola Consales, a hotel owner who complained to an employee of always having “these little mafiosos under our feet”. Unfortunately, the employee was Messina Denaro’s mistress.
In 1992, he was part of a mob group sent to Rome to try to kill anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone.
The group was eventually recalled by Toto Riina, the Corleone boss known as “the Beast”, who decided on another approach. Falcone was murdered in a car bombing near Palermo on May 23, 1992.
Messina Denaro himself was ruthless throughout his career.
In July 1992, after allegedly taking part in the murder of Vincenzo Milazzo, the head of the rival Alcamo clan, he is accused of strangling his partner, who was three months’ pregnant.
The two bodies were buried in the countryside.
As head of the Castelvetrano clan, he was allied with the Corleonesi clan, which was immortalised in the The Godfather films.
After Riina was arrested in January 1993, investigators say Messina Denaro continued his strategy of all-out brutality, providing logistical support for bombings in Florence, Milan and Rome that year that killed 10 people and wounded about 100.
A court found that in November 1993, he was one of the organisers of the kidnapping of Giuseppe Di Matteo, then 12, whose father had given testimony about the murder of Falcone.
In one of the most notorious Cosa Nostra incidents, the boy was held for 779 days before being strangled and his body dissolved in acid.
How did he evade capture for so long?
Messina Denaro disappeared from public view in the middle of 1993, beginning what would be 30 years on the run from accusations including Mafia association, murder, theft and possession of explosives.
In 1994 and 1996, statements from mobsters who later acted as state witnesses shed some light on his role within the Cosa Nostra.
In 2000 after what is known as the Maxi Trial against the Sicilian Mafia in Trapani, which convicted hundreds of defendants, he was sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment.
As a wanted man, Messina Denaro managed his affairs by communicating under the pseudonym “Alessio” through the pizzini system, in which messages were left on tiny bits of paper.
His whereabouts and activities during that time were the subject of intense rumours, including that he had had plastic surgery to change his appearance.
He had many sources of revenue, from drug trafficking to gambling, both in Italy and abroad.
In 2015, an Italian prosecutor on his trail, Teresa Principato, said he had likely eluded capture for so long because he was protected “at a very high level”. She did not say whether this meant Cosa Nostra, politicians or institutions.
“We have confirmation of his presence in Brasil, Spain, Britain, Austria,” she told Il Fatto Quotidiano daily at the time. “He travels for extremely high-level business, and his return to Sicily is irregular and increasingly infrequent.”
In 2020, several of Messina Denaro’s collaborators were arrested, tightening the net around the boss.
And in October that year, he was again sentenced in absentia for his role in Falcone’s murder.
How was he captured?
Carabinieri General Pasquale Angelosanto, who heads the police force’s special operations squad, said Messina Denaro’s health helped investigators zero in on him. The fugitive was taken into custody while at a medical centre.
“It all led to today’s date (when) he would have come for some tests and treatment” at the clinic, Angelosanto said on Monday.
Authorities did not say what he was being treated for, but he was captured at La Maddalena clinic in Palermo, an upscale medical facility with a reputation for treating cancer patients, and Italian media said he has been undergoing treatment for a year.
During an evening news conference, authorities said Messina Denaro’s treatment could continue at a hospital prison ward.
Investigators said he was unarmed and dressed like a typical patient at the clinic although wearing a watch worth at least 30,000 euros (about $33,000).
“He didn’t resist at all,” Carabinieri Colonel Lucio Arcidiacono told reporters.