mob boss matteo arrest
Mob boss walked out of hospital in custody after 30 years on the run
01:24 - Source: CNN
Rome CNN  — 

The arrest of Cosa Nostra mob boss Matteo Messina Denaro at a private health clinic in Palermo on Monday stunned many around the world due to the extraordinary length of time he’d been on the run – but came as little surprise for some who watched the Mafia more closely.

Whispers of his failing health had been circulating in Sicily for months, with hints of a “deal” to bring him back to the surface to get better cancer care. When officers asked him his name, he chose not to use his alias, Andrea Bonafede, Palermo prosecutor Maurizio de Lucia told reporters.

“I am Matteo Messina Denaro,” he said instead – likely the first time he had uttered those words in public in the 30 years he was on the run.

Messina Denaro, who is being held in a maximum-security prison in L’Aquila in central Italy, did not appear via video link for a trial hearing Thursday – over the 1992 killings of anti-Mafia prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino – leaving his lawyer to attend on his behalf.

Messina Denaro, nicknamed “Diabolik,” went into hiding in 1993, just a year after Falcone and Borsellino died in twin bombings. He was given life sentences in absentia in May 2002 for his involvement in their deaths but, following his arrest, the case will now be heard in higher courts.

That year he was also convicted of the murder of 12-year-old Giuseppe Di Matteo, the son of a turncoat, and the murder of Antonella Bonanno, the pregnant partner of a rival boss. Both of those cases will also be brought before higher courts now that he has been captured.

A television screen in a special bunker court in Caltanissetta, Sicily, on January 19, 2023, shows an empty chair where Matteo Messina Denaro was expected to appear via videolink from prison.

After his arrest, police found at least two hideouts in the Sicilian town of Campobello di Mazara where he is thought to have lived in recent months. CNN affiliate SkyTG24 reported that a house where he was hiding was in the heart of the town, and that police had found luxury clothing and expensive perfumes there. The other was a fortified bunker behind a hidden door, according to Reuters quoting local officials.

Further details have yet to be released by police. They did confirm, however, that the most wanted man in Italy regularly did his own grocery shopping, and neighbors described him as a “friendly” person.

On Thursday, Giovanni Luppino, an olive oil producer who allegedly drove him to the Palermo clinic where he was arrested, told a court that he had “no idea” the man who had become his friend was really the fugitive mob boss. Messina Denaro remains in jail pending a trial for alleged Mafia collusion. Police also placed the doctors treating him under investigation.

Police stand guard near the hideout of Matteo Messina Denaro in the Sicilian town of Campobello di Mazara, on January 17, 2023, a day after his arrest.

The assassinations of Falcone and Borsellino were ordered by the-then boss of bosses, Salvatore “Toto” Riina, who was arrested in 1993 and had brought Messina Denaro into the Cosa Nostra Mafia organization years earlier. Riina was caught on wiretaps expressing his admiration for the then-young criminal, in particular how he had no problem killing innocent bystanders rather than just focusing on vendettas.

Riina died in the prison wing of a hospital in Parma in 2017 of an unspecified health issue, ending his reign definitively. He was in a medically induced coma at the time. Mario Francese, a crime journalist who first exposed Riina in his writing for the newspaper Giornale di Sicilia, was murdered in 1979. In 2001, the Cosa Nostra was found guilty of his murder, with both Riina and his successor Bernardo Provenzano sentenced to life in prison for their role.

Police stand outside the hospital in Palermo, Sicily, where Italy's most wanted Mafia boss was arrested on January 16, 2023.

During his time in hiding, Messina Denaro worked closely under Provenzano, who took over Riina’s role as the top boss on the outside until his own capture in 2006 in a hideout near Corleone. Provenzano died of bladder cancer in the prison wing of a Milan hospital in 2016, leading the way for Messina Denaro to be considered the top boss.

Felia Allum, professor of comparative organized crime and corruption at the UK’s University of Bath, said Messina Denaro – who was born in 1962 – was the last of an old generation of Mafia bosses.

“He represents the final link between the belligerent and overt Cosa Nostra of the early 1990s and the silent, business-like Mafia of the 21st century,” she said. She also underscores that the arrest of Messina Denaro is not the end of the Mafia. “I don’t see a sense of closure, if we don’t know who protected him, if he doesn’t cooperate,” she said.

Matteo Messina Denaro, 60, is seen in a police booking photo after his arrest.

Rumors of a deal, or “pact,” between the state and the Cosa Nostra to bring Messina Denaro out of hiding are worth consideration, according to Roberto Saviano, author of the best-selling book “Gomorrah,” about the Neapolitan Camorra crime group.

“It is always said that the Mafia is the anti-state, that is a mistake. The Mafia is allied with one part of the state, while another part is fighting it,” he said, speaking on his YouTube channel. “In this play of forces, Matteo Messina Denaro, was arrested.”

Saviano added in an exchange of text messages with CNN that there was another reason Messina Denaro took 30 years to find. “They only started looking for him after 20 years,” he said.

Waning power

John Dickie, professor of Italian Studies at Britain’s University College London and author of “Cosa Nostra,” takes a different view, telling CNN there was instead a lot to suggest no pact was made, but that instead Messina Denaro no longer held the power he once did, making him a less valuable person to protect.

Over the past decade, billions of assets worth billions of euros had been seized from his closest allies and family members had been seized, weakening his power and his ability to be protected, he said.

“His network has been pruned over the years and the Mafia has been weakened by arrests,” Dickie said. “The Mafia was different 30 years ago, it was much stronger.”

By arresting most of Messina Denaro’s family and keeping the rest under surveillance, it was likely they did home in on him, he said. “His importance is symbolic,” Dickie told CNN. “When he was hiding, he was a living advertisement for the power of the Cosa Nostra, but he didn’t have that power now.”