Today’s arrest of mafia boss Mateo Messina Denaro took 30 years.
“The Last Godfather” was one of the most wanted fugitives in Italy. Despite his bloody past, his arrest took place without violence on a wet January morning in Palermo, Sicily – although more than 100 members of the armed forces were involved in the operation.
Messina Denaro was being treated for cancer at the La Madalena private hospital in Palermo under the pseudonym Andrea Bonafede when the police intervened and took him into custody. He was wearing a €35,000 (£31,000) watch at the time.
Locals applauded and shook hands with officers as the 60-year-old convicted murderer was taken away in a black van.
His arrest comes 30 years and a day after the manhunt for “boss of bosses” Salvatore “The Beast” Riino ended after 23 years on the run. Riina, who died in 2017, reportedly mentored Messina Denaro.
Organized crime experts now doubt the power of the mafia.
One says there are “no more big chiefs” to step up and replace Riina and Messina Denaro.
‘He represented all the secrets’
Movie series like The Godfather made mafia groups like the Sicilian Cosa Nostra infamous.
But competition between gangs has made life difficult for clans operating in Italy’s traditional mafia heartland.
Although Cosa Nostra retains control of its Sicilian territory and the ability to infiltrate the wider economy, it has been replaced by groups such as the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta in the drug trade.
Federico Varese, a professor of criminology at Oxford University, said the fact that Messina Denaro – a native of a town in western Sicily – was arrested in the island’s capital Palermo spoke volumes about how Cosa Nostra was still operating.
“Mafia are really not global,” he said. “On the contrary, they are very entrenched in their territory and fugitives who want to maintain some kind of control and role in the organization hang around where they operate.”
Ana Sergi, an expert on organized crime at the University of Essex, believes Messina Denaro could be the last of its kind.
“Messina Denaro was the last godfather, he represented all the secrets of Cosa Nostra. It is the end of the myth and the organization will have to deal with this,” she said.
Ms. Sergi said it was not clear who would step in to replace Messina Denara in the now more factionalized mafia.
“If Cosa Nostra wants to restore the leadership it had in the past, it needs directives, but there are no more big chiefs,” Ms Sergi said.
She added that she expected the group to try to rebuild ties with clans in the United States.
The Bloody History of the Messina Denarius
Whatever the future holds, Messina Denaro’s violent past is a matter of record.
Also known as “Diabolik” after the elusive comic strip thief, he was born in Castelvetrano, Sicily in April 1962; his father Francesco, known as Don Ciccio, was the boss of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra mafia in the Trapani region.
From a young age, he was immersed in the mafia lifestyle. It is said that he was trained to use a gun at the age of 14 and that he allegedly committed his first murder when he was 18.
But Messina Denaro is a convicted murderer. Despite years on the run, he was convicted of horrific crimes in his absence.
These include the 1992 murders of anti-mafia prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borcelli, the deadly 1993 bombings in Milan, Florence and Rome, as well as the kidnapping, torture and murder of the mobster’s 11-year-old son-turned-state witness.
Moreover, it is widely believed that Messina Denaro bragged about his violent deeds. He is said to have once said, “I have completely filled the cemetery.”
In 2002, he was sentenced to life in prison for his involvement in the 1993 bombings.
How a crime boss disappeared and evaded arrest
When Salvatore Riina was arrested in 1993, Messina Denaro disappeared that summer after vacationing in Tuscany.
During his years on the run from place to place, the mob boss had a relatively comfortable lifestyle. He apparently played video games and entertained many girls, according to the Washington Post.
But he was active enough to prove a slippery fugitive for many years, as fellow mobsters would warn him of any police raids and move him from hideout to hideout.
No one would give up his whereabouts, given the strict code of silence – known as “omerta” – observed by his followers.
There were close calls and false dawns for the police. In 2021, a Formula One fan from Liverpool arrested by the police in the Netherlands. The officers mistook him for Messina Denaro.
He was even featured in the Netflix documentary series World’s Most Wanted. But he was finally arrested on Monday.
He was caught after investigators confirmed his illness and the need for treatment at a clinic in Palermo, ending his reign as perhaps the last mafia “keeper of the secret”.