An Italian mob boss regarded as the last godfather of the Sicilian mafia was arrested after investigators received a tipoff that one of the world’s most wanted criminals had been receiving medical treatment for a tumour at a well-known clinic in Palermo, police sources have said.
Matteo Messina Denaro, 60, who has been in hiding since 1993, was apprehended as he came out of the private La Maddalena health facility on the outskirts of the Sicilian city, where special forces had been on guard since authorities first learned of his whereabouts three days ago. He was wearing luxury clothes and a €38,000 (£33,700) watch.
The mobster, who was once considered a candidate to be the Sicilian mafia’s boss of bosses after the deaths of Bernardo Provenzano in 2016 and Salvatore Riina in 2017, had been periodically receiving treatment at the facility for about a year under the false name of Andrea Bonafede.
“Health is one of those things that, sooner or later, forces those who want to hide to expose themselves,” Gen Pasquale Angelosanto of the Carabinieri military police told a press conference in Palermo. “In the last period we have focused our investigations on his health conditions. We knew he was sick. In the last few days, we understood that on this day, a man who matched the sketches we had of the boss was going to this clinic.”
Investigators recounted that, at about 8.30am, Denaro, wearing a white wool cap, tinted eyeglasses and a brown sheepskin coat, had gone to the clinic with a sheet of paper in his hand containing the negative result of a Covid test, a mandatory requirement for those like him who have to undergo therapy and a series of blood tests.
When the police broke into the building to arrest him, Denaro allegedly tried to flee but, on realising he was surrounded, did not put up any resistance. The police had already blocked all escape routes from the clinic and the roads.
Once in handcuffs, the special forces policemen asked the man: “What’s your name?” “I am Matteo Messina Denaro,” the boss reportedly replied.
Some who witnessed the arrest, and understood that the man taken away in handcuffs was the notorious Sicilian boss, applauded the police, pumping their fists in the air.
Nicknamed Diabolik or U Siccu (the skinny one), Denaro was born in Castelvetrano, Sicily, in 1962. His father was a powerful Cosa Nostra boss and Denaro thrived in the family business, building an illicit multibillion-euro empire in the waste disposal, wind energy and retail sectors.
According to mafia informers and prosecutors, he holds the key to some of the most heinous crimes perpetrated by the Sicilian mafia, including the bomb attacks that killed the anti-mafia magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. In 2002, he was convicted and sentenced in absentia to life in prison for having personally killed or ordered the murders of dozens of people.
Denaro is believed to have been in hiding in the western Trapani area and only came to the Sicilian capital for medical treatment. “We do not currently believe that the men inside the clinic were protecting him,” said the Palermo chief prosecutor, Maurizio De Lucia.
Investigators said they had been monitoring patients in Sicily for months who were suffering from the same disease as Denaro and the same age as him.
Some photos of Denaro after his arrest show how his face is very similar to the digital reconstruction of his appearance made by the Italian authorities, using the latest computer technology and information provided by mafia informers. The quest to locate Denaro was complicated by the near-complete absence of recent photographs, with only a few identity photos taken in the late 1980s and early 90s.
The mobster, who once infamously claimed: “I filled a cemetery, all by myself,” has apparently maintained his luxurious lifestyle thanks to several bankrollers who, according to prosecutors, include politicians and businessmen. He was known for wearing expensive suits, a Rolex and Ray-Ban sunglasses.
Despite his powerful protection network, Denaro became increasingly isolated in recent years, according to mafia informants. Italian police investigators relentlessly seized his businesses and arrested more than 100 of his confederates, including cousins, nephews and his sister.
After his arrest he was taken to a military barracks and then to an airport, where he will be transferred to a secret location. Soon Denaro will be moved to a maximum-security prison outside Sicily, in common with other captured mafia bosses.
Italy’s prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, said: “This is a great victory for the Italian state, which shows we should never surrender to the mafia. My warmest thanks and those of the entire government go to the police forces … and the Palermo prosecutor’s office for the capture of the most significant figure in the mafia.”
De Lucia, however, cautioned that even if the state had won this match against the mafia today, the Cosa Nostra was not dead.
Over the years, dozens of people have been arrested in Denaro’s place in cases of mistaken identity. In 2019, the Carabinieri raided a Sicilian hospital to arrest a man from Castelvetrano who was recovering in the neurology unit.
In September 2021, a 54-year-old Briton from Liverpool was handcuffed at a restaurant in The Hague in the Netherlands by heavily armed police, who pulled a hood over his head and dragged him out in front of dozens of terrified customers. The arrest came after Italy allegedly asked the Dutch authorities for the execution of an international arrest warrant, believing the man was Denaro. He was released a few days later.