Italy’s most wanted Mafia boss arrested after 30 years on the run


ROME — Italian authorities on Monday arrested their most wanted fugitive, Mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro, who was detained at a private clinic in the Sicilian city of Palermo after 30 years on the run.

Denaro had been on Italy’s most wanted list since the early 1990s and is alleged to be the head of the Cosa Nostra crime syndicate. He had been convicted of dozens of murders in absentia and faces multiple life sentences.

His arrest is a landmark moment in the decades-long battle by authorities against organized crime. Video on social media showed people cheering in the streets of Palermo, honking horns in celebration and clapping for the Carabinieri police.

“A great victory for the state,” Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said in a statement. She thanked the national anti-Mafia unit as well as prosecutors in Palermo for their work.

The Cosa Nostra is one of Italy’s three major crime groups, along with the Camorra, which operates in Naples and the surrounding region, and the Calabrian ’Ndrangheta. Europol says the groups are involved in many activities, including drug trafficking, waste management and tourism. During the coronavirus pandemic, they even made inroads in mask production.

The Cosa Nostra is perhaps the most well-known Mafia internationally, given Sicily’s depiction in the Godfather movies and the island’s central — and bloody — role in the “Mafia war” of the 1970s and ’80s.

With a reported penchant for fast cars, Rolexes and women, Denaro had built a reputation as the “boss of bosses.” But he had also become near mythic for dodging authorities. Some informants reportedly spoke of facial surgeries. There were so few photos of him that Italian authorities had to rely on computer-generated images that approximated what he might look like as an older man.

The notion that Denaro could have remained hidden for so long in a relatively small part of Sicily led to theories that he was receiving protection from certain members of the state.

The owner and director of that clinic, Stefania Filosto, told the Corriere della Sera newspaper that Denaro had been using a fake name — “Bonafede” — and that “nobody could have imagined” the patient was one of the world’s most wanted figures.

He had been lining up for a coronavirus test when “suddenly armed men appeared,” Filosto told the paper.

Denaro had been undergoing chemotherapy at the clinic for more than a year, authorities said during a news conference Monday evening. They became certain of his identity three days earlier and then gave the green light for the blitz.

When the first police officer approached him Monday morning, authorities said, he acknowledged who he was immediately: “My name is Massimo Messina Denaro,” he said.

“It’s a beautiful day,” said Paolo Guido, a deputy prosecutor in Palermo. “The mafia was there before Matteo Messina Denaro, and is still there now. But we hope it’ll be there no longer.”

Italian authorities said Denaro had a hand in two of the most notorious crimes in the country’s modern history: the bomb murders of anti-Mafia magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, both of which occurred in Sicily in 1992. Prosecutors say he also helped organize the operation to kidnap the 11-year-old son of a Mafia turncoat. The child was eventually tortured and killed, his body dissolved in acid.

Marco Bova, the author of an investigative book on the hunt for Denaro, said Denaro had been born into a Mafia family, and came of age in the late 1980s by traveling on a red motorbike and “butchering” rival clans, a killing rampage that enabled the rise of boss Salvatore “Totò” Riina.

Riina was then arrested in 1993, the same year that Denaro — generally seen as his heir apparent — went into hiding.

Bova said Denaro helped Cosa Nostra branch out, and studiously invested the Mafia’s money in business interests such as hotels, supermarkets and wind farms.

He said that in the past several years Denaro did not appear to have a hand in day-to-day orders. In the Sicilian city of Trapani, near Denaro’s hometown, “families that had fled in the 1990s because Denaro had called for their deaths had come back.”

Salvatore Borsellino, brother of the slain magistrate, said on Italy’s RAI News that it was “terrible” that Denaro had been able to evade justice for 30 years.

“Let’s hope we don’t need to wait another 30 years before the next Mafia boss is brought to justice,” he said.

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