The capture of mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro raises questions about why he was free for so long

(CNN) — The arrest of Cosa Nostra mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro at a private health clinic in Palermo on Monday shocked the world due to the extraordinary amount of time he had been on the run. But for those who know the mafia closely, the surprise was not so big.

Rumors about his deteriorating health had been circulating in Sicily for months, with hints of a “deal” for him to return to public life for better cancer care. When officers asked his name, he chose not to use his alias, Andrea Bonafede, according to Palermo prosecutor Maurizio de Lucia.

“I’m Matteo Messina Denaro,” he said instead, probably the first time he’d uttered those words in public in the 30 years he’s been on the run.

Messina Denaro, who is being held at a maximum security prison in L’Aquila in central Italy, did not appear via video link for a trial hearing on Thursday; instead, his attorney attended on his behalf. He is accused of the murders, in 1992, of anti-mafia prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino.

Messina Denaro, nicknamed “Diabolik,” went into hiding in 1993, barely a year after Falcone and Borsellino were killed in twin bombings. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia in May 2002 for his role in the killings, but following his arrest the case will now go to higher courts.

That year he was also convicted of the murder of 12-year-old Giuseppe Di Matteo, the son of a traitor, and of the murder of Antonella Bonanno, the pregnant couple of a rival boss. Both cases will also go 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 believed to have lived in recent months. CNN affiliate SkyTG24 reported that one of the houses where he was hiding was in the heart of the city, and that police had found fancy clothes and expensive perfumes there. The other was a fortified bunker behind a hidden door, Reuters reported citing local officials.

Matteo Messina Denaro did not appear at the hearing after his arrest.

Matteo Messina Denaro did not appear at the hearing after his arrest.

Police have yet to release any further details. However, they confirmed that Italy’s most wanted man did his own grocery shopping regularly, and that neighbors described him as a “friendly” person.

On Thursday, Giovanni Luppino, an olive oil producer who allegedly took him to the Palermo clinic where he was arrested, told a court he had “no idea” that the man who had become his friend was really the boss. from the fugitive mafia. Messina Denaro remains in jail awaiting trial for alleged collusion with the mob. The police also placed the doctors treating him under investigation.

‘Final link’ to the previous generation of Cosa Nostra

The murders of Falcone and Borsellino were ordered by then-boss of bosses, Salvatore “Toto” Riina, who was arrested in 1993 and had led Messina Denaro into the Cosa Nostra mafia organization years before. Riina was caught on wiretaps expressing his admiration for the then young criminal. In particular praising how this one had no problem killing innocent bystanders instead of just focusing on vendettas.

Riina died in the prison wing of a Parma hospital in 2017 due to an unspecified health problem, ending her reign definitively. He was in a medically induced coma at the time. Mario Francese, a police journalist who first exposed Riina for the Giornale di Sicilia newspaper, was assassinated in 1979. In 2001, Cosa Nostra was found guilty of his murder, and both Riina and his successor, Bernardo Provenzano, were convicted. to life in prison for his role in the episode.

During her time in hiding, Messina Denaro worked closely with Provenzano, who took over Riina’s role as top boss abroad until her own capture in 2006 at a hideout near Corleone. Provenzano died of bladder cancer in the prison wing of a Milan hospital in 2016, paving the way for Messina Denaro to be considered 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 mob bosses.

“It represents the final link between the public, belligerent Cosa Nostra of the early 1990s and the silent, corporate mafia of the 21st century,” he said. He also stressed 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, and if he doesn’t cooperate,” he said.

Police stand guard near Matteo Messina Denaro's hideout in the Sicilian town of Campobello di Mazara, on January 17, 2023, one day after his arrest.

Police stand guard near Matteo Messina Denaro’s hideout in the Sicilian town of Campobello di Mazara, on January 17, 2023, one day after his arrest.

It is worth considering the rumors of an agreement, or a “pact”, between the State and Cosa Nostra to bring Messina Denaro out of hiding, according to Roberto Saviano, author of the best-selling book “Gomorra”, about the Neapolitan criminal group. Quarrel.

“It is always said that the mafia is the anti-State, that is a mistake. The mafia is allied with a part of the State, while another part fights it, ”he said on his YouTube channel. “In this game of forces, Matteo Messina Denaro was arrested.”

Saviano added in a text message exchange with CNN that there was another reason Messina Denaro took 30 years to get caught. “They started looking for it after 20 years,” he said.

waning power

John Dickie, Professor of Italian Studies at the UK’s University College London and author of “Cosa Nostra,” takes a different view, telling CNN that instead there are many elements that suggest no deal was made. According to him, Messina Denaro no longer had the power he once had, making him a less valuable person to protect.

Over the past decade, billions of billions of euros worth of assets have been seized from his closest allies and family members, weakening his power and ability to be protected, he said.

“Their network has been pruned over the years and the mob has been weakened by the 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, they were likely to track him down, he said. “Their importance of him is symbolic,” Dickie told CNN. “When he was in hiding, he was a living announcement of the power of the Cosa Nostra, but now he didn’t have that power.”

Whether the result of a pact or truly the result of three decades of investigation, the arrest was applauded by those most harmed by the deadly hand of the mafia.

Maria Falcone, sister of the murdered 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 the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. “It is a big step towards a complete democracy.”

Giancarlo Caselli, a former anti-mafia prosecutor in Palermo and a colleague of the murdered prosecutors, said in an interview on Radio Popolare that the main reason Messina Denaro escaped capture for so long was the complicity of those protecting him.

Police outside the hospital in Palermo, Sicily, where Italy's most wanted mafia boss was arrested on January 16, 2023.

Police outside the hospital in Palermo, Sicily, where Italy’s most wanted mafia boss was arrested on January 16, 2023.

“Mobsters don’t operate in a vacuum. They are inside, intertwined with a system of relationships, of complicity without which they could not carry out their criminal activities, without which they could not continue on the run,” he said.

“They are in relationships that involve professionals, businessmen, public administrators, politicians, individuals who flank their organization and form the so-called mafia bourgeoisie, or gray zone.” He said it is that gray area, “the backbone of mafia power,” without which the mafia would not survive as long.

half empty throne

The Sicilian Mafia Cosa Nostra is the only one of Italy’s criminal organizations to rule through a pyramid structure, meaning that when the main boss dies or is imprisoned, a new boss rises to power, although Riina and Provenzano retained some influence. Behind bars.

The Neapolitan Camorra, whose factions founded Cosa Nostra in the 19th century, along with the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria, rule in a horizontal hierarchy with groups tied to families or territories, which means that if a top boss is captured or killed, the broader organization is not weakened.

Sicilian Cosa Nostra mobsters who immigrated to the United States in the late 19th century created the American Mafia primarily in New York and New Orleans at different times in history, including the early 20th century, mid-1960s, and early 1970s. , when the American groups were stronger. While today all of Italy’s major criminal groups have expanded internationally, Cosa Nostra remains the original exporter of the underworld known as “malavita.”

Matteo Messina Denaro, 60, in a police file photo after his arrest.

Matteo Messina Denaro, 60, in a police file photo after his arrest.

Messina Denaro will now face a series of criminal trials. Although he was tried in absentia on a number of charges, all Italian criminal cases go through three levels and end with the signature of the High Court. Offenders can only be tried in absentia in the first degree, meaning their cases will now go through appeals and trials in higher courts.

He will be represented by his niece Lorenza Guttadauro, 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 presumed successor.

But in Saviano’s opinion, Messina Denaro will continue to rule until he dies, as Riina and Provenzano did before him.

“Unless he decides to repent, Matteo Messina Denaro, even locked up, will remain the king of Cosa Nostra because no one is ready to sit on the throne he left half empty,” he said.

Barbie Latza Nadeau reported and wrote from Rome and Sharon Braithwaite from London

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