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Hiding in Plain Plain: How Sicily's Mafia Godfather Eluded Capture for 30 Years | Mafia

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ANAt 8:20 am last Monday, Andrea Bonafede was in the check-in line at a private medical clinic in Palermo, Sicily. Suffering from colon cancer and reportedly 59 years old, he had already undergone two operations and chemotherapy at the clinic, often bringing olive oil to staff and exchanging phone numbers and text messages with his fellow patients. He was known for dressing in flashy clothes: that morning he was wearing a sheepskin coat, a white hat, Ray-Ban sunglasses and an expensive Franck Muller watch.

Awaiting the Covid test, he got out and walked towards the Fiat Brava and the driver who had brought him there. The undercover officers watching him feared that he had realized he was under surveillance and might be about to flee. A colonel from the Carabinieri, Italy’s militarized police, decided to enter: “Are you Matteo Messina Denaro?”

“You know who I am,” came the weary reply.

A police composite photo of mob boss Matteo Messina Denaro, left;  and, right, how he is today, right.
A police composite photo of mob boss Matteo Messina Denaro, left; and, sure, how he is today. Photography: AP

The 150 police and Carabinieri who were stationed inside and outside the clinic suddenly sprang into action. Totò Schillaci, a former Palermo international, was caught up in the blitz, later comparing it to “a madhouse, a wild west”. Armed forces in balaclavas got out of unmarked vehicles and blocked exit routes and streets. After 30 years on the run, Italy’s most wanted man – nicknamed U sicuor “Skinny” – has finally been captured.

Realizing what was happening, the audience began to applaud. Some greeted the men in balaclavas. In less than an hour, Messina Denaro’s arrest was front-page news around the world. Italian President Sergio Mattarella (whose brother Piersanti was murdered by the mafia in 1980 when he was governor of Sicily) has thanked the police and prosecutors. Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni immediately flew to Palermo to congratulate special forces on capturing the man who helped plan a terrorist-style bombing campaign across Italy in 1992 and 1993.

In those years, when the certainties of the First Republic disintegrated, the stalemate between the Italian State and Cosa Nostra turned into a violent confrontation. Two dogged investigators, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, persuaded a former mobster, Tommaso Buscetta, to become a state witness. The mafia’s secret organization and political connections were, for the first time, clearly revealed. In mass trials, 338 mobster were convicted.

When those sentences were upheld on appeal, the mafia exacted brutal revenge: their political protector, Salvo Lima, was executed in March 1992, and later that year the two investigators were killed in very public bombings on the island. Falcone, his wife and three bodyguards were killed on the road between the airport and Palermo in May; Borsellino was murdered in Palermo in July, along with five bodyguards, while visiting his sister and mother. Messina Denaro was involved in the operational planning of both attacks.

The following year, the terror campaign turned to the continent. At 1:04 am on the 27th In May 1993, a bomb exploded outside the Uffizi gallery on Via dei Georgofili in Florence, destroying several works of art and killing five people, including a nine-year-old girl, Nadia, and her two-month-old sister. Two months later, on 27 July, a bomb outside a contemporary art gallery in Milan killed five; the next day there were two more bombs in Rome, this time without casualties. Messina Denaro was convicted, in absentia, of having also ordered and planned the bombing campaign on the mainland.

The scene outside the Uffizi art gallery after the 1993 bombing
The scene outside the Uffizi art gallery after the 1993 bombing in which five people were killed. Photography: Sipa/REX/Shutterstock

Born in 1962 in the province of Trapani, Matteo Messina Denaro is the son of a convicted mobster who worked for the wealthy D’Alì family. He became the protégé of Totò Riina, the boss of bosses, and was known to be a party-going womanizer and a ruthless killer. He fell in love with an Austrian woman who worked at a hotel in Selinunte and when her manager, Nicola Consales, was overheard complaining about the “small mobster” who were resting in the hotel, he was – in Palermo in 1991 – shot dead.

A year later, another mobster complained about Riina’s strategy of a frontal attack on the Italian state. Messina Denaro invited Vincenzo Milazzo to a meeting, shot him and strangled his pregnant partner, Antonella Bonomo. Later that year, he was part of the group that tried to assassinate a police officer, Calogero Germanà. When one mobster state witness, Messina Denaro was part of the dome – the group of mafia bosses – who ordered the kidnapping of his 12-year-old son, Giuseppe di Matteo. The boy was held captive for 779 days before he was strangled and dissolved in acid. Messina Denaro once boasted that he had killed enough people to fill a cemetery.

But during his three decades in hiding, Messina Denaro also took the mafia in a new direction. Car executions and semtex bombings only guaranteed crackdowns and bad headlines, and U sicu had seen how the Calabrian mafia, the ‘Ndrangheta, had grown rich by quietly infiltrating and investing in legitimate businesses. Messina Denaro invested his dirty money in clean energy, using an unknown electrician as a front to build a wind energy empire worth €1.5 billion. He created a €700m network of 83 stores through another leader.

Investigators became suspicious of various builders and salami makers who were suddenly making millions from slot machines, stolen archaeological treasures, transport hubs, construction companies and tourist resorts and began arresting those they suspected were fronts for the Sicilian “Scarlet Pimpernel” . In 2011 alone, they arrested 140 alleged helpers and frontmen, some of whom flipped out and gave investigators information about Messina Denaro’s business empire.

But the man himself remained elusive. Investigators didn’t even know what he looked like. There was only one photograph from 1993 that had been artificially aged. The operation to find it was called tramonto (“sunset”), name of a poem written by nine-year-old Nadia, who died in Florence. The breakthrough came when wiretaps from her relatives revealed that Messina Denaro had colon cancer. The investigators obtained lists of all patients over 55 years of age undergoing oncological treatment for the disease in the provinces of Agrigento, Palermo and Trapani.

Giuseppe di Matteo
Giuseppe di Matteo, who was assassinated under Messina Denaro.

Of the possible combinations, one stood out: Andrea Bonafede was the name of a man on the fringes of the mafia and it turned out that, when he should have been on the operating table in Palermo, his phone actually revealed his presence in Campobello di Mazara, near Trapani . The obvious conclusion was that Bonafede had lent his identity to someone who could not reveal his. at 29 December, “Bonafede” made an appointment at the clinic in Palermo for 16 January and when, on the morning of last Monday, the real Bonafede remained at home, the authorities decided to act.

But despite initial euphoria over the capture of the famous fugitive, details of his life on the run have shocked the country over the past week. Looking startlingly similar to the artificially aged photograph, Messina Denaro openly lived in Campobello di Mazara, close to his hometown in Castelvetrano. He used to go regularly to the local bar, pizzeria and even, according to reports, to the Palermo football stadium. Viagra found in his apartment suggests he had company. A doctor who was treating him took selfies as if he knew he was in the presence of a star. In a town of just over 11,000 people, Messina Denaro was referred for treatment by a general practitioner (known to be a member of a local Masonic lodge) who presumably knew the real Bonafede.

“He was hiding in plain sight,” says Federico Varese, professor of criminology at the University of Oxford and author of mob life. “It is extraordinary and baffling that it took 30 years to arrest this man and it speaks to one fact: there was no help from local informants because of a deep distrust of people in this part of Italy towards state institutions.” Another former fugitive, mob boss Bernardo Provenzano, managed to evade capture for 43 years.

But more than just the passive omertá, or silence, from the local community, many investigators spoke last week about active collusion. Pasquale Angelosanto, commander of the elite troops behind Operation Tramonto, lamented how the long hunt was “marked by politicians, police and state officials being arrested or investigated for warning the chief that the circle was closing”. Time and again, authorities thought an arrest was imminent, only to be thwarted at the last minute: on one occasion, police raided the alleged meeting place in Bagheria, where Messina Denaro is said to have met one of his mistresses, Maria Masi. They found only fresh caviar, a scarf, a bracelet, Merit cigarettes and a puzzle, all hastily abandoned.

The suspicion of an overlap between institutional figures and organized crime has deepened in recent months: in December last year, Antonio D’Alì – former undersecretary at the Ministry of the Interior during the 2001-06 government of Silvio Berlusconi – was convicted of “ external complicity with the mafia”. Both Messina Denaro and her father worked for the D’Alì family. In September 2022, Totò Cuffaro, the former governor of the island who spent almost five years in prison for “aid and complicity” of Cosa Nostra and breach of investigative secrecy, ran for re-election. His party or “list” won five seats in the regional assembly. In an ongoing trial, many other politicians are accused of dealing with the mafia in those 1992-93 crisis years.

The faint hope that the captured man could collaborate with the authorities and reveal some of the secrets of that dark period also faded. The decision to nominate the niece, a notorious defender of mobster, as his lawyer suggests, he will not make any revelations or confessions. There is also not much hope that the organization will be significantly weakened. “Mafias are not reducible to their ‘bosses,’” Luigi Ciotti, a longtime anti-mafia activist, wrote last week: “[they have] developed into a network of organizations capable of compensating for the disappearance of an individual through the force of the system”.

“The longevity of this criminal organization is extraordinary,” says Varese. “It’s been around since the 1830s, much longer than most companies have. We need to ask what is being done to get rid of not just the head but the root causes of the mafia.”

Tobias Jones lives in Parma. Your most recent book is The Po: An Elegy for Italy’s Longest River