Hiding in plain sight: how the godfather of Sicily’s mafia eluded capture for 30 years | Mafia

An last Monday, at 8:20 a.m., Andrea Bonafede was queuing at check-in at a private medical clinic in Palermo, Sicily. Suffering from colon cancer and believed to be 59, he had already undergone two operations and chemotherapy at the clinic, often bringing the staff gifts of olive oil and exchanging phone numbers and text messages with fellow patients. . He was known to wear flashy clothing: this morning he was wearing a shearling coat, a white hat, Ray-Ban sunglasses and an expensive Franck Muller watch.

Waiting for his Covid test, he got out and walked towards the Fiat Brava, and the driver, who had taken him there. The undercover agents watching him were concerned that he had realized that he was under surveillance and that he might be about to go on the run. A colonel of the Carabinieri, Italy’s militarized police, decided to move: “Are you Matteo Messina Denaro?”

“You know who I am”, was the tired reply.

A police composite photo of mob boss Matteo Messina Denaro, left;  and, correct, as it looks today, correct.
A police composite photo of mob boss Matteo Messina Denaro, left; and, on the right, as it looks today. Photographer: AP

The 150 police and carabinieri who had been in position inside and outside the clinic suddenly went into action. Totò Schillaci, the former Palermo international footballer, was caught up in the bombing, later comparing it to “a madhouse, a wild west.” Armed forces in ski masks got out of unmarked vehicles and blocked exit routes and streets. After 30 years on the run, the most wanted man in Italy, nicknamed u siccuor “Skinny” – had finally been captured.

Realizing what was happening, members of the public began to applaud. Some high-fived with ski masks. In less than an hour, the arrest of Messina Denaro made front-page news around the world. Italian President Sergio Mattarella (whose brother, Piersanti, was assassinated by the mafia in 1980 when he was governor of Sicily) thanked the police and the prosecution. Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni immediately flew to Palermo to congratulate special forces on capturing the man she had helped plan a terror-style bombing campaign across Italy in 1992 and 1993.

In those years, while the certainties of the First Republic were disintegrating, the confrontation between the Italian State and Cosa Nostra had turned into a violent confrontation. Two tenacious investigators, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, had 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 mobsters they were convinced.

When those sentences were upheld on appeal, the mafia took its brutal revenge: his political patron, Salvo Lima, was executed in March 1992, and that same year both investigators were killed in highly 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 killed in Palermo in July, along with five bodyguards, when he was visiting his sister and his mother. Messina Denaro participated in the operational planning of both attacks.

The following year, the campaign of terror turned to the mainland. At 01:04 on the 27th In May 1993, a bomb exploded in front of 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 the 27th July, a bomb outside a contemporary art gallery in Milan killed five; the next day, there were two more bombs in Rome, this time with no casualties. Messina Denaro was sentenced, in absentia, for having also ordered and planned the bombing campaign on the continent.

The scene outside the Uffizi art gallery after the 1993 attack
The scene outside the Uffizi art gallery after the 1993 bombing, which killed five people. Photographer: Sipa/REX/Shutterstock

Born in 1962 in the province of Trapani, Matteo Messina Denaro is the son of a proven mafioso who had worked for the wealthy D’Alì family. He became the protégé of Toto Riina, the boss of bosses, and was known for being a party-loving womanizer and 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 “little mobsters” who was lounging in the hotel, was shot dead in Palermo in 1991.

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

But during her three decades in hiding, Messina Denaro also led the mob in a new direction. Drive-through executions and semtex bombings only guaranteed crackdowns and bad headlines, and u siccu I 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 €1.5 billion wind power empire. He created a 700 million euro chain of 83 stores through another leader.

Investigators became suspicious of various builders and salami makers suddenly making millions through slot machines, stolen archaeological treasures, transportation hubs, construction companies, and resorts, so they began arresting those they suspected were fronts for the Sicilian “Scarlet Pimpernel”. In 2011 alone, they arrested 140 suspected cronies and front men, some of whom turned and gave investigators information about the Messina Denaro 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 locate him was called tramonto (“sunset”), named after a poem written by nine-year-old Nadia, who had been murdered in Florence. The breakthrough came when wiretaps from her relatives revealed that Messina Denaro had colon cancer. The researchers obtained lists of all patients older than 55 years undergoing cancer treatment for the disease in the provinces of Agrigento, Palermo and Trapani.

Giuseppe di Matteo
Giuseppe di Matteo, who was killed on the Messina Denaro watch.

Of the possible coincidences, one stood out: Andrea Bonafede was the name of a man on the fringes of the mafia and it emerged that when he was supposed to be 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 couldn’t reveal his. the 29th December, “Bonafede” booked an appointment at the Palermo clinic for the 16th January and when, last Monday morning, the real Bonafede stayed at home, the authorities decided to act.

But despite the initial euphoria over the famed fugitive’s capture, details of his life on the run have shocked the country in the past week. Looking strikingly similar to the artificially aged photograph, Messina Denaro lived openly in Campobello di Mazara, next to his birthplace in Castelvetrano. He used to go regularly to the local bar, to the pizzeria and even, according to reports, to the football stadium in Palermo. The Viagra found in his apartment suggests that 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, Messina Denaro was referred for treatment by a GP (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, a criminology professor at Oxford University and author of mafia life. “It is extraordinary and disconcerting that it took 30 years to arrest this man and that speaks to a fact: there was no help from local informants due to the deep mistrust of the people in this part of Italy towards state institutions.” another former fugitive, mob boss Bernardo Provenzanohe was able to elude capture for 43 years.

But more than the passive omerta, or silence, from the local community, many researchers spoke last week about active collusion. Pasquale Angelosanto, the commander of the elite troops behind the Tramonto operation, lamented how the long hunt had been “marked by politicians, law enforcement and state officials arrested or investigated for warning the boss that the circle was closing.” Authorities repeatedly thought an arrest was imminent but foiled it at the last minute: On one occasion, police stormed the suspected Bagheria meeting place where Messina Denaro was thought to meet 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 of the Ministry of the Interior during the 2001-06 Silvio Berlusconi government, was convicted of ” external complicity with the mafia Both Messina Denaro and her father had worked for the D’Alì family In September 2022, Totò Cuffaro, a former island governor who spent nearly five years in prison for “aiding and abetting” the Thing Nostra and violating the secrecy of the investigation, he ran for reelection. His party or “list” won five seats in the regional assembly. In an ongoing trial, many other politicians are accused of negotiating with the mafia in those years of crisis of 1992-1993.

The faint hope that the captive could collaborate with the authorities and reveal some of the secrets of that dark period has also faded. The decision to appoint his niece, a notorious defender of mobsters, as suggested by his lawyer, he will not make any disclosure or confession. Nor is there much hope that the organization will be significantly weakened. “Mafias are not reduced to their ‘bosses,’” wrote Luigi Ciotti, a lifelong anti-mafia activist, last week: “[they have] it became 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. We need to ask ourselves what is being done to get rid of us not just at the head, but at the root causes of the mafia.”

Tobias Jones lives in Parma. His most recent book is The Po: an elegy for the longest river in Italy

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