Matteo Messina Denaro: the most-wanted Mafia boss finally behind bars

The Cosa Nostra killer was arrested in Sicily after 30 years on the run

Matteo Messina Denaro arrested by Italian security forces on 16 January, 2023
Matteo Messina Denaro with police in Carabinieri van after being detained yesterday at a private clinic in Sicilian capital Palermo
(Image credit: Italian Gendarmerie (Carabinieri) Press Service / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The last “godfather” of the Sicily’s Cosa Nostra Mafia is facing life in prison after being captured following more than three decades on the run.

Matteo Messina Denaro has been linked to more than 50 murders and went into hiding following a series of bombings in 1993 that left ten people dead and 93 injured. The 60-year-old was Italy's most-wanted Mafia killer before finally being arrested on Monday, after police discovered that he was attending a private medical clinic in Palermo under a false name for cancer treatment.

Messina Denaro – who once boasted that he had “filled a cemetery all by myself” – “calmly admitted his true identity” when confronted by police, The Times's Rome-based correspondent Tom Kington reported.

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Who is Matteo Messina Denaro?

Messina Denaro was born into a “very powerful and well-respected” Mafia family on 26 April 1962 in Castelvetrano in western Sicily, said The Sun. Nicknamed Diabolik, after an uncatchable criminal in an Italian comic book, he is “alleged to have learned to use a gun at 14, and committed his first murder at 18”.

The Times's Kington said he also gained “a reputation as a serial seducer of women while “rising through the ranks” of Cosa Nostra, the criminal organisation that terrorised Sicily in the late 1980s and early 1990s, to become head of the Trapani clan and a member of the ruling “Cupola” council.

In 1993, Messina Denaro took part in the kidnapping of Giuseppe di Matteo, the 12-year-old son of a turncoat. The boy was held prisoner and tortured for more than two years in a bid to prevent his father from giving evidence, before finally being strangled to death and his body dissolved in acid.

Months before the kidnapping, the ambitious mafioso had taken over day-to-day running of the Cosa Nostra after his mentor, Salvatore “Totò” Riina, was arrested. But Messina Denaro was forced into hiding later that year following a deadly wave of bombings against Cosa Nostra targets in Rome, Florence and Milan.

The Mafia boss was convicted in absentia and sentenced to life in prison for the bomb attacks, the victims of which included leading prosecuting judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino.

Where had he been for hiding for 30 years?

Messina Denaro “was widely speculated to have fled abroad, undergone plastic surgery to have changed his face, or even died in secrecy”, said the Financial Times (FT)..

But investigators finally tracked him after “wiretapped relatives” let slip that he was suffering from liver cancer, The Times's Kington reported, “which led to a search through health records for a sufferer that matched his profile”.

The fugative gangster’s ability to stay one step ahead of the authorities “had been a continuing embarrassment for magistrates and police”, added Kington. Investigators believe he moved between secret addresses in western Sicily, maintaining a luxurious lifestyle and fathering a daughter, “while enjoying the protection of a huge network of supporters and profiting from his cut from corrupt wind farm deals” in the region.

The Mafia “may fight among themselves in bloody turf wars”, said The Sun, “but they always band together when against the state”. And “when a fellow member is on the run, it is customary to help them evade capture”.

What does his arrest mean for Italy?

Messina Denaro was “the last of the generation of powerful bosses” that “symbolised the power and reach of the Mafia” in its heyday, said the FT. His “ability to evade arrest made him a symbol of the resilience of the Cosa Nostra even as its actual power and clout faded”.

Following his detainment on Monday morning, Italy’s new prime minister Giorgia Meloni immediately flew to Palermo to hail the “great victory for the state that does not give up in the face of the Mafia”.

University of Essex criminology professor Anna Sergi told the FT that Denaro had become “a mythological figure”.

“As long as the boss is unattainable, and no one can catch him, it means that the Costra Nostra spark is still alive. This feels like closure to most people in Italy,” Sergi said.

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