With Godfather finally arrested, is the mafia finished?
The traditional structure of the Sicilian mafia might have been damaged, but the milieu remains: A Sicily of mysterious relationships, timeless traditions, isolation from centers of conventional power and clans loyal to themselves
A video screengrab shows Matteo Messina Denaro, the country's most wanted mafia boss, being escorted out of a Carabinieri police station after his arrest. Photo: Retuers
By Mariella Radaelli and Jon Van Housen
Published: Sun 29 Jan 2023, 9:35 PM
Last updated: Mon 30 Jan 2023, 3:41 PM
For three decades, one of the very few actual photographs of Italy’s most wanted mafioso in circulation seemed like a cliché – tinted aviator-style glasses, swarthy complexion, an inscrutable expression on his face.
Among a host of other egregious crimes, Matteo Messina Denaro had been convicted in absentia for helping organise high-profile 1992 bombings that killed magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in separate attacks. After former boss of bosses Toto 'The Beast' Riina served out a life sentence for his role in ordering those murders and more, and successor Bernardo Provenzano was arrested in 2006, Messina Denaro was the highest-ranking member of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra still on the loose.
As one of the world’s most-wanted criminals, speculation was rife about his location and appearance. Did he have plastic surgery as he took on a new identity? Is he living in another country, perhaps Spain or possibly Venezuela as some informants suggest?
When he was finally arrested on Jan. 16 the truth proved far more prosaic. Looking similar to the age-progressed images that experts made to show what his appearance might be today, the outwardly placid dandy was found at a cancer treatment clinic in Palermo. He has been living not in a fortress surrounded by heavily armed mafia soldiers, but in a modest 60 sqm apartment under a false identity near his ancestral home in southwestern Sicily.
Two other hideouts near the first have also been discovered. When swarms of carabinieri raided the three sites they found the items of a nondescript lifestyle: A poster from the Godfather movie, one of Batman’s Joker, kitschy refrigerator magnets of wild animals and a depiction reminiscent of Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in a dark tuxedo. A copy of Charles Baudelaire’s masterpiece of modernity, The Flowers of Evil, was in his room, those poems that deal with themes relating to alchemy, decadence and eroticism.
Once a self-styled playboy, Messina Denaro was living the life of a socially active bachelor. Police also found Viagra, cologne and designer clothes. Women’s garments were among the items found in a closet. Today a cashier at the local supermarket can tell us what he bought for groceries in the days before his arrest.
Paolo Borrometi, a journalist expert on the mafia, says that “to stay in the territory (while wanted) for a mafia boss is to show power”.
Experts, law enforcement officials and journalists in Italy are now engaged in lively discussions on whether the arrest of Messina Denaro spells the end of the Sicilian mafia. They also emphasise there are other organized crime syndicates in Italy, most notably the ‘Ndrangheta from Calabria and the Camorra in Naples.
Sometimes dubbed Diabolik after the Italian comic books of the same name, Messina Denaro also played an important role in a series of 1993 bomb attacks in Florence, Milan and Rome that left 10 people dead and 93 injured.
Commentators say the bombings were an effort by the mafia to pressure the government into easing a crackdown then underway. One of the most important questions Messina Denaro can answer is whether the Italian state engaged in negotiations with the Sicilian mafia to stop the bombings – and whether such talks bore fruit.
In his criminal career Messina Denaro has racked up dozens of life sentences including for the brutal murder of a child, Giuseppe Di Matteo, son of a mafioso turned state witness. Little Giuseppe was strangled and dissolved in acid. Between 1989 and 1992, prosecutors say the provincial godfather committed a series of other mafia murders in the cities of Alcamo, Marsala and Castellammare del Golfo.
“With the people I've killed, I could make a cemetery," Messina Denaro confided to a friend.
So can Italy now declare victory?
“Now we want the truth,” says Claudio Fava, a politician, writer and son of the journalist Pippo Fava who was killed by the Sicilian mafia. “The institutions must tell us the second part of the story, the most interesting: the names of those who helped Messina Denaro inside the institutions, of those who sidetracked the investigations into the massacres and why.”
The journalist Borrometi notes that many in law enforcement have earnestly tried to bring the mobster to justice. “It's not that nothing has been done in these thirty years: investigators have seized economic activities attributable to the boss, arrested supporters, relatives and even people mistaken for him.”
He also quotes former Palermo prosecutor Teresa Principato, who for many years hunted Matteo Messina Denaro. “She says that every time they were about to catch him something happened that magically drove him away and made him flee. For this reason it is probable that he also had support in the secret services. Certainly he had support among some ‘infidels’ in the police and local politics.”
Elena Ciccarello, director of Lavialibera, a magazine by the anti-mafia association Libera, says Messina Denaro “was always able to count on a dense network of protection in Sicily and Northern Italy made up not only of followers, but also of people who count”.
“His hiding was supported by a network of entrepreneurs from every sector, as if Messina Denaro were the head of a holding company,” she says. “He is a man of the old and new mafia, one that has abandoned the open struggle with the state to return to seek relationships and collaboration with political and economic-financial power.”
His arrest was a big enough development that Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni immediately flew to Palermo to congratulate the police, but many wonder if the environment has changed much over the past 30 years.
Locals will still keep their heads down and maintain the tradition of omertà – or silence – while others are ready to participate with the criminals due to fear or greed. The traditional structure of the Sicilian mafia might have been damaged, but the milieu remains: A Sicily of mysterious relationships, timeless traditions, isolation from centers of conventional power and clans loyal to themselves.
The top might be weakened, but the grassroots is likely alive and well.
- Mariella Radaelli and Jon Van Housen are international veteran journalists based in Italy.