A trigger man who once reportedly boasted he could “fill a cemetery” with his victims, 60-year-old Messina Denaro was a leading figure in Sicily’s Cosa Nostra, and is believed to have become the “boss of bosses” following the death of Salvatore “The Beast” Riina in 2017.
The mobster was arrested “inside a health facility in Palermo, where he had gone for therapeutic treatment”, special operations commander Pasquale Angelosanto said in a statement released by the police.
Italian newspaper Corriere reported Messina Denaro had been in line for a Covid test at a clinic when he was picked up by police.
He had reportedly been in the clinic for a year, undergoing periodic treatment for colon cancer under a false name – ‘Bonafede’ – and did not resist arrest.
Una grande vittoria dello Stato che dimostra di non arrendersi di fronte alla mafia. All'indomani dell'anniversario dell'arresto di Totò Riina, un altro capo della criminalità organizzata, Matteo Messina Denaro, viene assicurato alla giustizia. pic.twitter.com/8d6sHaDloK
— Giorgia Meloni (@GiorgiaMeloni) January 16, 2023
Criminology expert Anna Sergi at the University of Essex said Messina Denaro was “the last one, the most resilient one, the ‘purest’ Sicilian mafioso remaining”.
“The secrets he is said to keep fuel conspiracies around mafia-state agreements in the 1990s,” she told AFP.
“He is the essence of the great historical power of Cosa Nostra. The myths around his period on the run are part of the reason why the Mafia myth endures.”
Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said Messina Denaro was the “most significant” mafia boss and his arrest in his native Sicily was a “great victory” for the state in its war against organised crime.
Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani tweeted triumphantly that “The State wins over the Mafia”.
With the arrest of #MatteoMessinaDenaro, Italy strikes a major blow to the Mafia. Thank you to the @_Carabinieri_ who carried out this extraordinary operation. Thank you, we are proud of you. The State wins over the Mafia.
— Antonio Tajani (@Antonio_Tajani) January 16, 2023
A photograph released by police showed Messina Denaro in the back seat of a vehicle, wearing a cream hat, sunglasses and a brown leather jacket with a cream sheepskin lining.
La notizia che stavamo aspettando: dopo Riina e Provenzano, l'ultimo boss delle stragi, Matteo Messina Denaro, è in manette. pic.twitter.com/HrZWTf0Z0t
— Pietro Grasso (@PietroGrasso) January 16, 2023
Before that, the only known photo of him dated back to the early 1990s. He had been on the run since 1993.
Messina Denaro was arrested a day after the 30th anniversary of the arrest of Salvatore “The Beast” Riina, the Cosa Nostra boss who died in 2017.
He had been number one on Italy’s most-wanted list, accused of mafia association, multiple murders and use of explosives.
Messina Denaro is suspected to have been behind the 1993 bombings in Rome, Milan and Florence that killed 10 people, just months after Cosa Nostra murdered anti-mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in similar attacks.
The arrest of “an extremely dangerous fugitive” was “an extraordinary day for the state”, Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi said.
In 2015, police discovered Messina Denaro was communicating with his closest collaborators via the pizzini system, where tiny, folded paper notes were left under a rock at a farm in Sicily.
Investigators spent decades searching the homes and businesses of the boss’s known allies on the island.
They looked in particular for hiding places in grottoes, caverns or even bunkers inside buildings where the man nicknamed “Diabolik” could be concealed.
Federico Varese, a criminology professor at Oxford University, said the fact that Sicilian mob families are weaker these days than their counterparts in Calabria or Campania may have helped in Messina Denaro’s capture.
He said it was “amazing that he was still in Palermo”.
“But it makes sense. If you want to continue to exercise a degree of power, you must be in the territory,” he said.