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Capture of mob boss Matteo Messina Denaro raises questions about how he stayed free for so long

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The arrest of Cosa Nostra mob boss Matteo Messina Denaro at a private health clinic in Palermo on Monday surprised many around the world given the extraordinary length of time he has been on the run – but it came as no surprise to some who watched the Mafia. closer.

Whispers of his failing health have been circulating in Sicily for months, with hints of an “agreement” to bring him back to the surface for better cancer care. When officers asked his name, he chose not to use his pseudonym, Andrea Bonafede, Palermo prosecutor Maurizio de Lucia told reporters.

“I am Matteo Messina Denaro,” he said – probably the first time he had uttered those words in public in the 30 years he had been 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 to a trial hearing on Thursday – over the 1992 murders of anti-mafia prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino – leaving his lawyer to appear on his behalf.

Messina Denaro, nicknamed “Diabolik”, went into hiding in 1993, just a year after Falcone and Borsellino were killed in twin bombings. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia in May 2002 for his involvement in the killings, 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 cases will also be taken to higher courts now that he has been captured.

A television screen in a special court bunker in Caltanissetta, Sicily on January 19, 2023 shows an empty chair where Matteo Messina Denaro was supposed to appear via videolink from prison.

After his arrest, police found at least two hiding places in the Sicilian town of Campobello di Mazara, where he is believed to have lived in recent months. CNN affiliate SkyTG24 reported that the house where he was hiding was in the center of the city and that police had found luxury clothes and expensive perfume there. The other was a fortified bunker behind a hidden door, according to Reuters citing local officials.

Further details have not yet been released by the police. They did confirm, however, that Italy’s most wanted man regularly did his own shopping, and 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 became his friend was actually the mafia boss fugitive. Messina Denaro remains in jail pending trial for alleged mafia collusion. The police also placed the doctors who treated him under investigation.

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

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

Riina died in the prison ward of a hospital in Parma in 2017 from an unspecified health issue, ending her reign for good. He was in an induced coma at the time. Mario Francese, a crime journalist who first denounced Riina when writing for the newspaper Giornale di Sicilia, was murdered in 1979. In 2001, Cosa Nostra was found guilty of her murder, with Riina and her successor Bernardo Provenzano sentenced to life imprisonment in prison for his role.

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

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

Felia Allum, a professor of comparative organized crime and corruption at the University of Bath in the UK, said Messina Denaro – who was born in 1962 – was the last of an old generation of mob bosses.

“He represents the final link between the belligerent and ostentatious Cosa Nostra of the early 1990s and the silent and entrepreneurial mafia of the 21st century,” she said. She also points out 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.

Matteo Messina Denaro, 60, is seen in a police record photo after his arrest.

It is worth considering the rumors of an agreement, or “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 Camorra. .

“It is always said that the Mafia is the anti-State, this is a mistake. The mafia is allied with one part of the state, while another part fights it,” he said, speaking on his YouTube channel. “In this power game, 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 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 that there were many indications that 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 have been confiscated from their closest allies and family members have been seized, undermining their power and their ability to be protected, he said.

“Their 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’s likely they figured him out, he said. “Its importance is symbolic,” Dickie told CNN. “When he was in hiding, he was a living propaganda for the power of Cosa Nostra, but he doesn’t have that power now.”

An exterior view of the prison in L'Aquila, Italy, where Matteo Messina Denaro is being held following his arrest.

Whether it was the result of a pact or the real fruit of three decades of investigation, the arrest was applauded by those most wounded by the Mafia’s deadly hand.

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’s a big step towards full democracy.”

Giancarlo Caselli, a former anti-Mafia prosecutor in Palermo and a colleague of the murdered prosecutors, said in an interview with Radio Popolare that the main reason Messina Denaro eluded capture for so long was the complicity of those who protected him.

“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 remain 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’s that gray area, “the backbone of mafia power”, without which the mafia would not survive for so long.

The Sicilian mafia Cosa Nostra is the only one of Italy’s criminal organizations that governs through a pyramidal structure, meaning that when the boss dies or is arrested, a new boss rises to power – although Riina and Provenzano retain some influence behind bars. .

The Neapolitan Camorra, factions that founded Cosa Nostra in the 1800s, along with the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria, govern a horizontal hierarchy with groups linked to families or territories, meaning that if an important chief is captured or killed, the wider organization it is unweakened.

Italian Attorney General Antonino Patti, center, speaks to the media at a special bunker court in Caltanissetta, Sicily, on January 19, 2023, where a trial hearing for Matteo Messina Denaro was held.

The Sicilian Cosa Nostra mobsters who emigrated to the United States in the late 1800’s built the US Mafia primarily in New York and New Orleans at different times in history, including the early 1900’s, mid 1960’s and early 1970’s , when American groups were stronger . While today all of Italy’s major criminal groups have expanded internationally, Cosa Nostra remains the original exporter of the so-called “Malavita” underworld.

Messina Denaro will now face a series of criminal trials. Although he was tried in absentia on a range of charges, Italian criminal cases go through three tiers, ending with high court approval. Criminals can only be tried in absentia in the first degree, which means their cases will now go through appellate trials and higher courts.

He will be represented by his niece Lorenza Guttadauro, daughter of his sister Rosalia, who passed the Italian bar exam equivalent 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 successors.

But, in Saviano’s opinion, Messina Denaro will still rule until his death, like Riina and Provenzano before him.

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