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'Heads in the Sand': Code of Silence in Sicilian Town That Was Home to Mafia Boss | Mafia

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IIt’s hard to believe that in the small Sicilian town of Campobello di Mazara, where everyone knows each other and their secrets, no one thought to ask the identity of the man who appeared out of nowhere, with no known family or friends, over a year ago.

The street outside the apartment in Campobello where an apparent secret bunker was found.
The street outside the apartment in Campobello where an apparent secret bunker was found. Photography: Alessio Mamo for the Guardian

Impeccably dressed in designer clothes, he could be seen sipping an espresso at the local cafe most mornings, dining at a pizzeria, strolling the streets, shopping and greeting his neighbors cordially.

That is until Monday, when he was arrested leaving a clinic in Palermo and revealed to be Matteo Messina Denaro, the last godfather of the Sicilian mafia and the most wanted mafia boss in the world.

Denaro being arrested in Palermo
Denaro being taken out of the clinic in Palermo on Monday. Photography: Italian carabinieri press office

There is a Sicilian proverb that roughly translates as: “He who speaks little will live a hundred years”. It refers to the code of silence, the first mob rule, which for three decades protected Denaro and dozens of other mob bosses before him.

“I can’t help but feel a great deal of bitterness and a lot of disbelief when I learn that Matteo Messina Denaro used to live well in Campobello,” said the city’s mayor, Giuseppe Castiglione. “Sadly, there are citizens here who have chosen to put their heads in the sand.”

According to mafia informants and prosecutors, Denaro, nicknamed diabolik or U sicu (the skinny one), holds the key to some of the most heinous crimes perpetrated by the Sicilian Mafia, including the 1992 bomb attacks that killed anti-Mafia magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino and the 1996 murder of Giuseppe Di Matteo, their 12-year-old son. years of a mobster turned state witness who was strangled and dissolved in acid. In 2002, he was convicted and sentenced in absentia to life in prison for personally killing or ordering the murder of dozens of people.

A bartender watches news of the arrest in the hometown of mafia boss Castelvetrano
A bartender watches the news of the arrest in the hometown of the mob boss, Castelvetrano. Photography: Alessio Mamo for the Guardian

Before being arrested as he left a well-known private clinic in the Sicilian capital, where he was being treated for a tumor, Denaro – who once claimed “I filled a cemetery, by myself” – had been in hiding since 1993 Year after year, Italian investigators ruthlessly seized his business and arrested more than 100 of his accomplices, including cousins, nephews and his sister, burning the land around them.

But every time the investigators seemed to close in on their target, Denaro would again disappear, disappearing and reappearing around the world. Former mobsters claimed to have seen him in Spain, England, Germany and South America. It is still unknown what he did in those 30 years and which countries he visited. However, it is certain that at the beginning of 2021 he decided to move to his Sicilian stronghold in the province of Trapani, hiding in Campobello, five minutes from his hometown of Castelvetrano and 11 minutes by car from his mother’s house. .

Local people gather on the street in Castelvetrano
The local population gathers on the street in Castelvetrano. Photography: Alessio Mamo for the Guardian

He bought a modest apartment not far from the city center, about two miles from the sea on Sicily’s southwest coast, where Carabinieri police said on Thursday they had found a poster for Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. , with the face of Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone.

The deed to the apartment was in the name of Andrea Bonafede, whose identity was taken by Denaro while he was on the run.

A poster of Marlon Brando in The Godfather, found in Denaro's apartment
A poster of Marlon Brando in The Godfather, found in Denaro’s apartment. Photography: Carabinieri

“I would see him at the bar every now and then in the morning,” said Piero Indelicato, a neighbor. “He seemed like a friendly person. But I never imagined he could be the boss, Denaro.

Another neighbor said, “I didn’t know who he was. Why should I have suspected anything? To me he was a gentleman who said ‘good morning and good night’.

With police around the world trying to track him down, Denaro lived as a free man in Campobello – a Sicilian echo of Osama bin Laden’s final years in Abbottabad, Pakistan, his home for five years before he was killed in a US strike. . forces in 2011.

“I didn’t know who he was,” said the owner of a cosmetics shop around the corner from Denaro’s apartment. “I don’t remember seeing you here. Maybe I saw him somewhere in town.

Maurizio De Lucia, chief prosecutor of Palermo, has his suspicions.

“There are many questions about the fact that someone like Denaro went unnoticed in Campobello,” he said. “But we knew that people would not rush to give us information…”

A newspaper report about the arrest inside a bar near Denaro's home in Campobello
A newspaper report of the arrest inside a bar near Denaro’s home in Campobello. Photography: Alessio Mamo for the Guardian

Investigators say Denaro was protected by politicians and businessmen during his 30 years on the run. But he was also protected by omertáthe code of behavior in southern Italian communities that places importance on silence in the face of questions from authorities or outsiders, often reflecting a lack of trust in state institutions.

Anti-mafia posters hanging from a gate in Castelvetrano
Anti-mafia posters hang from a gate in Castelvetrano. Photography: Alessio Mamo for the Guardian

For 14 years, Giacomo Di Girolamo, Sicilian journalist and author of a biography on Denaro called The Invisible, started his daily radio show on Rmc 101 by asking the question: “Matteo, where are you?”

Di Girolamo, born and raised in the same land as Denaro, knows what it means to live in places under the mafia’s shadow.

“People are resigned,” he said. “The mafia in these parts has operated like a welfare state. When the bosses were arrested, the state did not fill this void and people lost faith in the authorities. In a place like Campobello – 10,000 inhabitants – around 50 people celebrate Denaro’s arrest. Dozens more people fear arrest for protecting him. And then there are the remaining 9,000 inhabitants who have simply resigned themselves to living in an area abandoned by the Italian state”.

Denaro apparently maintained his luxurious lifestyle. Police found Yves Saint Laurent’s designer clothes, expensive shoes, perfume and ties at his home on Monday night.

The Carabinieri police stand guard near Denaro's apartment.
The Carabinieri police stand guard near Denaro’s apartment. Photography: Alessio Mamo for the Guardian

On Wednesday, police also discovered a possible secret bunker suspected of being used by the mobster in another apartment, not far from the first. The entrance to the bunker was hidden by a closet full of clothes. Investigators said they found emeralds, diamonds and other gemstones there.

On Tuesday, Denaro was transferred to a maximum security prison in the central Italian city of L’Aquila, where his cancer treatment will continue. Prosecutors placed at least four people under investigation after his arrest, including two doctors.

The maximum security prison in L'Aquila, where Denaro was transferred
The maximum security prison in L’Aquila where Denaro was transferred. Photography: Lorenzo Di Cola/NurPhoto/Rex/Shutterstock

During the first few hours in prison, the chief was calm and smiling, some witnesses said. Denaro had 30 years to name his successor, hide his money and make evidence of his illicit dealings disappear. For two days now, investigators have been combing every inch of their Campobello hideouts in search of confidential documents.

The police hope to find the “secret file” of the “boss of bosses” of the Sicilian mafia Totò Riina, who died in 2017. According to some mafia informants, the file was stolen by Denaro and supposedly contains the secrets of the last 40 years of mafia murders .

The search for Denaro may be over, but the quest to uncover secrets has just begun.