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Messina Denaro: How Italy caught ‘most wanted’ mafia boss after 30 years

Italian police revealed how the Sicilian mobster who boasted "I filled a cemetery by myself" was able to stay hidden close to home for three decades - until he was forced to seek cancer treatment.

Messina Denaro: How Italy caught 'most wanted' mafia boss after 30 years
Italian ROS anti-mafia police officers at the clinic where Matteo Messina Denaro was arrested in Palermo on January 16th. (Photo by Alessandro FUCARINI / AFP)

On Monday, police caught Italy’s most wanted fugitive, Sicilian mobster Matteo Messina Denaro, after 30 years on the run.

Investigators have in the past claimed Messina Denaro was based in Sicily but travelled widely, to mainland Italy and overseas.

But the 60-year-old mafia boss, known for particularly brutal crimes, was found to be living in a modest apartment just a few kilometres from his small Sicilian home town – and was nabbed as he sought treatment for cancer at a Palermo clinic.

Experts said he needed to stay close to home to maintain his power and protection, like former boss Toto Riina, who was arrested in Palermo in 1993 after two decades on the run. Messina Denaro is believed to have taken Riina’s place after he died in 2017.

Here are the details revealed so far about how the mafia hunters tightened the net.

Wiretaps

Investigators looking for mass murderer Messina Denaro had been combing the Sicilian countryside for possible hideouts for years, arresting those believed to be protecting him and slowly reducing the circle of people he could trust.

Members of his family and his friends were then heard on wiretapped conversations discussing the medical problems of an unnamed person who suffered from cancer, as well as eye problems.

PROFILE: Ruthless Sicilian mafia boss Messina Denaro’s reign of terror

Detectives were sure they were talking about Messina Denaro, 60, who was believed to have undergone an eye operation in the 1990s.

“We had unequivocal information that the fugitive had health problems… that he was attending a health facility in order to treat his illness,” special operations commander Pasquale Angelosanto told a press conference on Monday.

“So we worked to identify… those who had access to treatment for the suspected pathologies,” he said.

National database

Investigators knew Messina Denaro would be going under a false identity,but they used a national health system database to search for male patients of the right age and medical history.

“We were narrowing down the list, ticking people off, until we had only a few individuals left,” Angelosanto said.

“A few days ago we identified someone who had booked a specialist visit for Monday” at the Maddalena health facility in Palermo.

Italian prosecutors and police chiefs give a press conference in Palermo on January 16th following the arrest of mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro. (Photo by Alessandro FUCARINI / AFP)

The man had booked in as Andrea Bonafede, the nephew of a close friend of Messina Denaro’s father, Italian media reported.

Bonafede’s medical record showed he had been to an ophthalmologist for problems with his left eye, the Open online newspaper said.

He had also undergone two operations for colon cancer, one in 2020 and another in 2022, it said.

But when detectives dug further, they found Bonafede appeared to have been in two places at once.

Council surveillance footage from his hometown of Campobello di Mazara on the date in question in 2022 showed the real Bonafede out walking the dog at the moment he was supposedly under the knife.

Special ops

When the man going by the name of Bonafede booked an appointment for Monday at the upscale Palermo clinic, police readied a task force of 150 special ops to capture him.

Footage released by police later showed him arriving with his face barely visible underneath a hat, Covid-19 mask and tinted glasses.

Once he had checked in at the clinic they locked down the surrounding area and began checking the identity of everyone present.

Unaware of the closing net, the so-called Bonafede, dressed in his brown leather jacket with a fleece lining, lined up for the centre’s obligatory Covid-19 nasal swab, before heading back outside, perhaps to get a coffee, the Corriere della Sera said.

He likely realised then what was going on.

When asked “who are you?” by a law enforcement officer, the Cosa Nostra boss replied: “You know who I am. Matteo Messina Denaro”.

Officers from Italy’s ROS (Special Operations Group) Carabinieri outside the Maddalena clinic in Palermo, where mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro was captured. (Photo by Alessandro FUCARINI / AFP)

Palermo’s chief prosecutor Paolo Guido said Messina Denaro may have been undergoing treatment for serious illnesses, but he “appeared to be in good health. He didn’t look fragile or in difficulty to us”.

He was well-dressed and sported an expensive watch when he was arrested. He was then transported by military helicopter to the central eastern region of Abruzzo, where officials said he would be jailed in the high-security prison in L’Aquila.

‘High level protection’

While on the run he “enjoyed high-level protection, and the investigations are now focused on that protection”, Palermo prosecutor Maurizio De Lucia said on Monday, without going into further details.

There is widespread speculation that Messina Denaro “negotiated” the timing of his arrest with authorities, but Italian criminologists have said these ideas “have no substance”.

Among those now being investigated is his doctor, Alfonso Tumbarello, who had been treating Messina Denaro as Bonafede despite having been the real Bonafede’s doctor for years, according to newspaper Il Messaggero.

Police are also questioning others at the clinic, from those who shared chemotherapy sessions with Messina Denaro to a nurse who snapped a selfie with him, media reported.

Guido said the clinic was not itself under suspicion, adding that it was the mobster’s health that was his undoing.

“It was what forced him to come out into the open,” the prosecutor said.

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CRIME

New York returns 214 stolen artworks to Italy in seven months

Authorities in New York announced on Thursday the return to Italy of 14 more antiquities, worth an estimated €2.3 million, as part of an investigation into smuggling of stolen artifacts.

New York returns 214 stolen artworks to Italy in seven months

The Manhattan District Attorney’s office has been conducting an extensive investigation over the past two years into looted antiquities that have ended up in New York museums and galleries — including the prestigious Metropolitan Museum of Art.

During a ceremony on Thursday with the Italian consul general and Italian police representatives, 14 more artifacts – some 2,600 years old – were officially returned to Italy, bringing the total number of repatriated pieces to that country over the past seven months to 214, District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office said.

READ ALSO: Italian ‘art squad’ police recover 800 illegally-excavated archaeological finds

More than 700 pieces worth more than $100 million have been returned in the past year to 17 countries, including Italy as well as Cambodia, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Iraq, and Greece, the statement added.

New York, a hub of stolen antiquities trafficking for decades, set up a task force in 2017 to investigate the illicit trade.

According to the statement by District Attorney Bragg, who took office in January 2022, Thursday’s repatriation included the silver “Sicily Naxos Coin,” minted around 430 BCE and currently valued at half a million dollars.

Other notable items included ancient pottery dating to 510 BCE, and amarble head of Roman Emperor Hadrian, dating to 200 CE.

Among the culprits behind the 14 returned pieces, the statement said, were well-known art traffickers Giacomo Medici and Giovanni Franco Becchina, as well as Robert Hecht, the Paris-based American art dealer who died in 2012.

The traffickers had “relied on gangs of tombaroli (tomb raiders) to loot carefully chosen and insufficiently guarded archaeological sites throughout the Mediterranean,” it added.

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