After thirty years of international pursuit, Italian mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro has been caught in Sicily by the Carabinieri, the country’s military police force. Denaro was arrested at 09:35 on the morning of January 16th.
He had been receiving treatment for cancer in a private clinic in Palermo under the fake name of Andrea Bonafede. Close monitoring of patients who matched his description enabled the authorities to anticipate his arrival. He was taken from the clinic to the San Lorenzo barracks in the Sicilian capital. According to reports, he had tried to flee but did not resist once he realized he was surrounded, admitting to being the man who was being searched for. He was in a well-groomed physical state, wore expensive clothing and a watch worth 35 thousand euros.
The Carabinieri have denied receiving tips on Denaro’s location. They emphasized the importance of investigators who tracked the 60-year-old. The process was made more difficult by the lack of recent photographs, with only a few identity photos from the late 1980s and early 1990s being available. According to some reports, it is believed that Denaro had also undergone plastic surgery on his face and perhaps even removed his fingerprints.
The 1992 killing of two anti-mafia prosecutors (which caused further clamp down on the mafia), and the 1993 bomb attacks in Milan, Florence and Rome are among the events that led to the 30-year chase of Denaro by the Italian government. As the head of the infamous Cosa Nostra mafia, Denaro has taken part in many high-profile crimes, and was sentenced to life in prison in 2002. Apart from these violent incidents, he also oversaw racketeering, money laundering and drug trafficking for the Cosa Nostra.
Denaro was born in Castelvetrano, Sicily in 1962 to a family involved in crime. His father was a powerful Cosa Nostra boss, exposing him to the mafia lifestyle from an early age. Following in his father’s footsteps, he thrived in the family business, building an illegal empire in waste, wind energy and retail industries. Later, he was allegedly adopted as a protege by Salvatore “Toto” Riina, head of the Corleone clan, who was arrested in 1993 after 23 years on the run.
Despite being on the run since 1993, Denaro is thought to have been in touch with members of the Cosa Nostra, issuing orders to his subordinates. However, as Denaro’s associates were arrested over the years, his connections with the mafia shrunk, isolating him further. In 2013, his sister Patrizia was arrested along with other associates, and businesses in his possession were seized by the police. Many believe he still holds key information about all members and their respective roles in the crimes committed by Cosa Nostra.
During the time he spent evading the authorities, he had a series of lovers. He was often cruel to the women he spent time with, once strangling a pregnant woman according to Italian media. One of Denaro’s girlfriends was arrested for hiding him while he was a fugitive. According to ANSA, he wrote a letter to his then-girlfriend after going into hiding, saying that she would “hear talk about him”, that he would be “painted as the devil”, and insisted accusations were “falsehoods”
Dozens of people have been arrested over the years in Denaro’s place due to cases of mistaken identity. In 2019, the Carabinieri rushed into a Sicilian hospital to arrest a man from Castelvetrano who was recovering in the neurology unit, thinking they had caught the mafia boss. Similarly, a 54-year-old man from Liverpool was arrested in the Hague, Netherlands because he resembled the criminal.
Italy’s government and police force celebrated catching the long wanted mafioso. The prime minister, Giorgia Meloni wrote on Twitter that Denaro’s arrest is a “great victory of the state, which shows that it doesn’t surrender in the face of the mafia.” However, the country recognizes that the threat is not completely neutralized. Palermo’s chief prosecutor, Maurizio de Lucia, warned that even if Denaro had been apprehended, the Cosa Nostra remains alive.