Italian police have arrested the country’s most-wanted Sicilian mafia boss, ending a 30-year hunt for a gangster convicted in absentia of the 1992 murders of Italy’s two most famous anti-mafia prosecutors, and of other crimes.
Matteo Messina Denaro, 60, was the last of the generation of powerful bosses of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, the criminal organisation that terrorised Sicily in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The gang also showed its reach and power across Italy with deadly terror bombings in Rome, Florence and Milan in 1993 — for which Messina Denaro was also convicted in absentia and sentenced to life in prison.
The mafioso — who was widely speculated to have fled abroad, undergone plastic surgery to have changed his face, or even died in secrecy — was captured on Monday morning at a private medical clinic in the Sicilian city of Palermo, a longtime mafia stronghold, and centre of the criminal group’s business activities.
Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who rushed to Palermo after the arrest to meet the police officers involved, hailed the capture of the longtime Sicilian fugitive as “a great victory for the state that does not give up in the face of the mafia”.
Police said Messina Denaro, whose ability to evade arrest made him a symbol of the resilience of the Cosa Nostra even as its actual power and clout faded, did not resist arrest. Residents of Palermo gathered on the streets and clapped to hail his capture.
“I didn’t think I would ever wake up to this news,” said Anna Sergi, a University of Essex sociologist, who grew up in Calabria — the stronghold of the ‘Ndrangheta mafia — and is now an expert on organised crime in Italy.
“Messina Denaro is such a mythological figure,” she said. “As long as the boss is unattainable, and no one can catch him, it means that the Costra Nostra spark is still alive. This feels like closure to most people in Italy.”
Messina Denaro was a disciple and deputy of the Cosa Nostra’s most powerful 20th century boss, Salvatore “Totò” Riina, who was arrested 30 years ago, and died in prison in 2017.
Messina Denaro, head of the Trapani clan, was a member of Cosa Nostra’s “Cupola” ruling council and, along with fellow mafioso Bernardo Provenanzo — who was captured in 2006, took over day-to-day running of the Cosa Nostra after Riina’s arrest.
The arrested fugitive has been convicted — and received life sentences for — multiple homicides, including the car bombings that killed Italy’s most prominent anti-mafia prosecuting judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in 1992, which devastated Italians and symbolised the power and reach of the mafia.
Messina Denaro was also convicted — and sentenced to life in prison — in connection with the kidnapping of Giuseppe Di Matteo, the 12-year-old son of a mafioso who began co-operating with the police after his arrest.
Mafia members held the boy captive for more than two years in an attempt to silence his father, then finally killed him and dissolved his body in acid, according to prosecutors when they charged people in connection with the crime.
Additional reporting by Giuliana Ricozzi in Rome