The arrest of Cosa Nostra mob boss Matteo Messina Denaro at a private health clinic in Palermo on Monday stunned many around the world due to the extraordinary length of time he’d been on the run – but came as little surprise for some who watched the Mafia more closely.
Whispers of his failing health had been circulating in Sicily for months, with hints of a “deal” to bring him back to the surface to get better cancer care. When officers asked him his name, he chose not to use his alias, Andrea Bonafede, Palermo prosecutor Maurizio de Lucia told reporters.
“I am Matteo Messina Denaro,” he said instead – likely the first time he had uttered those words in public in the 30 years he was on the run.
Messina Denaro, who is being held in a maximum-security prison in L’Aquila in central Italy, did not appear via video link for a trial hearing Thursday – over the 1992 killings of anti-Mafia prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino – leaving his lawyer to attend on his behalf.
Messina Denaro, nicknamed “Diabolik,” went into hiding in 1993, just a year after Falcone and Borsellino died in twin bombings. He was given life sentences in absentia in May 2002 for his involvement in their deaths but, following his arrest, the case will now be heard in higher courts.
That year he was also convicted of the murder of 12-year-old Giuseppe Di Matteo, the son of a turncoat, and the murder of Antonella Bonanno, the pregnant partner of a rival boss. Both of those cases will also be brought before higher courts now that he has been captured.
After his arrest, police found at least two hideouts in the Sicilian town of Campobello di Mazara where he is thought to have lived in recent months. CNN affiliate SkyTG24 reported that a house where he was hiding was in the heart of the town, and that police had found luxury clothing and expensive perfumes there. The other was a fortified bunker behind a hidden door, according to Reuters quoting local officials.
Further details have yet to be released by police. They did confirm, however, that the most wanted man in Italy regularly did his own grocery shopping, and neighbors described him as a “friendly” person.
On Thursday, Giovanni Luppino, an olive oil producer who allegedly drove him to the Palermo clinic where he was arrested, told a court that he had “no idea” the man who had become his friend was really the fugitive mob boss. Messina Denaro remains in jail pending a trial for alleged Mafia collusion. Police also placed the doctors treating him under investigation.
The assassinations of Falcone and Borsellino were ordered by the-then boss of bosses, Salvatore “Toto” Riina, who was arrested in 1993 and had brought Messina Denaro into the Cosa Nostra Mafia organization years earlier. Riina was caught on wiretaps expressing his admiration for the then-young criminal, in particular how he had no problem killing innocent bystanders rather than just focusing on vendettas.
Riina died in the prison wing of a hospital in Parma in 2017 of an unspecified health issue, ending his reign definitively. He was in a medically induced coma at the time. Mario Francese, a crime journalist who first exposed Riina in his writing for the newspaper Giornale di Sicilia, was murdered in 1979. In 2001, the Cosa Nostra was found guilty of his murder, with both Riina and his successor Bernardo Provenzano sentenced to life in prison for their role.
During his time in hiding, Messina Denaro worked closely under Provenzano, who took over Riina’s role as the top boss on the outside until his own capture in 2006 in a hideout near Corleone. Provenzano died of bladder cancer in the prison wing of a Milan hospital in 2016, leading the way for Messina Denaro to be considered the top boss.
Felia Allum, professor of comparative organized crime and corruption at the UK’s University of Bath, said Messina Denaro – who was born in 1962 – was the last of an old generation of Mafia bosses.
“He represents the final link between the belligerent and overt Cosa Nostra of the early 1990s and the silent, business-like Mafia of the 21st century,” she said. She also underscores that the arrest of Messina Denaro is not the end of the Mafia. “I don’t see a sense of closure, if we don’t know who protected him, if he doesn’t cooperate,” she said.
Rumors of a deal, or “pact,” between the state and the Cosa Nostra to bring Messina Denaro out of hiding are worth consideration, according to Roberto Saviano, author of the best-selling book “Gomorrah,” about the Neapolitan Camorra crime group.
“It is always said that the Mafia is the anti-state, that is a mistake. The Mafia is allied with one part of the state, while another part is fighting it,” he said, speaking on his YouTube channel. “In this play of forces, Matteo Messina Denaro, was arrested.”
Saviano added in an exchange of text messages with CNN that there was another reason Messina Denaro took 30 years to find. “They only started looking for him after 20 years,” he said.
John Dickie, professor of Italian Studies at Britain’s University College London and author of “Cosa Nostra,” takes a different view, telling CNN there was instead a lot to suggest no pact was made, but that instead Messina Denaro no longer held the power he once did, making him a less valuable person to protect.
Over the past decade, billions of assets worth billions of euros had been seized from his closest allies and family members had been seized, weakening his power and his ability to be protected, he said.
“His network has been pruned over the years and the Mafia has been weakened by arrests,” Dickie said. “The Mafia was different 30 years ago, it was much stronger.”
By arresting most of Messina Denaro’s family and keeping the rest under surveillance, it was likely they did home in on him, he said. “His importance is symbolic,” Dickie told CNN. “When he was hiding, he was a living advertisement for the power of the Cosa Nostra, but he didn’t have that power now.”
Whether it was the result of a pact or truly the fruit of three decades of investigation, the arrest was applauded by those hurt most by the Mafia’s deadly hand.
Maria Falcone, the sister of the slain prosecutor, applauded the arrest of Messina Denaro. “Oh, how I wish Giovanni and Paolo could see the applause and raised hands of the people of Palermo after the arrest,” she told Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera. “It is a big step towards a complete democracy.”
Giancarlo Caselli, a former anti-Mafia prosecutor in Palermo and colleague of the slain prosecutors, said in an interview on Radio Popolare that the main reason Messina Denaro escaped capture for so long was the complicity of those who protected him.
“Mafiosi do not operate in a vacuum. They are inside, intertwined with a system of relationships, of complicities, without which they could not carry out their criminal activities, without which they could not remain fugitives,” he said.
“They are in relationships that involve professionals, entrepreneurs, public administrators, politicians, individuals who flank their organization and form the so-called Mafia bourgeoisie, or gray zone.” He said it is that gray zone, “the backbone of Mafia power,” without which the Mafia would not survive as long.
The Sicilian Cosa Nostra Mafia is the only one of Italy’s criminal organizations that rules through a pyramid structure, meaning that when the top boss dies or is imprisoned, a new top boss rises to power – although Riina and Provenzano maintained some sway from behind bars.
The Neapolitan Camorra, factions of which founded the Cosa Nostra in the 1800s, along with the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria, rule on a horizontal hierarchy with groups tied to families or territories, meaning if a top boss is captured or killed, the wider organization is not weakened.
Sicilian Cosa Nostra mafiosi who emigrated to the United States in the late 1800s built the US Mafia primarily in New York and New Orleans at different moments of history, including the early 1900s, the mid-1960s and the early 1970s when the American groups were strongest. While today all of Italy’s major crime groups have expanded internationally, the Cosa Nostra remains the original exporter of the so-called “malavita” underworld.
Messina Denaro will now face a series of criminal trials. Though he was tried in absentia on a number of charges, Italian criminal cases all pass through three levels, ending with the high court signing off. Criminals can only be tried in absentia in the first degree, meaning his cases will now pass through appellate and high court trials.
He will be represented by his niece Lorenza Guttadauro, the daughter of his sister Rosalia, who passed the Italian equivalent of the bar exam in 2011. The next hearing in the anti-Mafia prosecutors case is scheduled for March 9.
And who is the new boss of bosses? Police have not named any suspected successor.
But in Saviano’s opinion, Messina Denaro will still rule until he dies, like Riina and Provenzano before him.
“Unless he decides to repent, Matteo Messina Denaro, even locked up, will continue to be the king of the Cosa Nostra because no one is ready to sit on the throne that he left only half-empty,” he said.
Barbie Latza Nadeau reported and wrote from Rome and Sharon Braithwaite from London