How a Sicilian Mafia Don used his reputation for violence to evade justice for 30 years
Matteo Messina Denaro will be held in high-security prison while he awaits trial
On January 16, 2023, the head of the Cosa Nostra was arrested by the Carabinieri as he was leaving a cancer clinic in Palermo.
Matteo Messina Denaro, who is terminally ill with cancer, was attending a chemotherapy session using the false name of Andre Bonafede.
But Andre Bonafede is not just any name; it’s the name of a deceased nephew of mafia boss Leonardo Bonafede.
A mistake which would lead to Denaro’s downfall.
When whispers made their way to the Carabinieri’s special operations group that Denaro may have been in poor health, they searched a list of male cancer patients born in Trapini in 1962, and the name of Bonafede stuck out to them.
When a chemotherapy session was booked under the name at La Maddalena clinic, police swooped in.
They asked their target what his name was, to which they received a chilling reply: “You know who I am. I am Matteo Messina Denaro.”
But how did the man, who has been wanted for 30 years for a spate of murders, evade capture only to be found living in his hometown in Sicily?
Anna Sergi, a lecturer in organised crime at University of Essex told Nicola Tallant on an upcoming episode of Crime World that the answer was simple: fear.
“The mythology of him became so much that even if someone at a bar thought ‘he looks like Matteo Messina Denaro,’ they probably told themself ‘no, that can’t be.’”
“On the other hand it might have been fear,” she said. “The reason he was in Trappani and the reason he was protected is because he was the boss, and a very, very violent one.”
Sergi says that fear-induced silence is not too dissimilar to the mafia’s own code of Omertá.
When it came to rumours about the whereabouts of Denaro, Sergi, who has penned numerous books on the mafia, said that she heard many murmurs about what became of him.
“No one ever believed he had disappeared. There were many speculations on whether he had plastic surgery, whether his voice sounded the same.”
The downfall of his mafia, the Cosa Nostra came in 1992, leading Denaro to vanish in 1993.
“The breaking point of Cosa Nostra was the Maxi Trial,” Sergi said.
The trial, which was held in a bunker-style courthouse specially constructed for this purpose, was a criminal trial against the Sicilian Mafia in which prosecutors indicted 475 Mafiosi for a multitude of crimes.
“The Maxi Trial was the brainchild of Giovanni Falcone in a bid to penetrate the mafia which had been so embedded in Sicily,” Sergi said.
As convictions of the maxi trial were upheld, the head of the Cosa Nostra at the time, Salvatore Riina, aka Toto u Curtu was confident he could corrupt enough people so that the trial would not be found lawful in the Supreme Court.
“He [Toto u Curtu] was wrong.
"The moment in which it was clear that the sentences were going to stick, including his own, he lost it.”
“He lost it and began to do what he did best, he began killing people. He started a war against the state.”
Denaro was implicated in his mentor’s bomb plots which included the 1992 Capaci bombing in which Giovanni Falcone, his wife Francesca Morvillo, and three of their police escorts died.
Further bomb attacks were conducted across Italy in Florence, Milan, Laterano and Rome.
They left 10 dead and 93 injured. In May 2002, Denaro was sentenced in absentia to life in prison for his role in the bombings.
“He disappeared in the autumn of 1993, only to reappear a few days ago.”Sergi said that Denaro’s ability to disappear for thirty years is something that perpetuated the idea that Cosa Nostra were impenetrable.
“The meaning of this, it’s not just because he’s the last one standing, but its really the fact that with him in jail, a period of Italy, gets closed after 30 years.”
But what does the near future hold for Matteo Messina Denaro?
Apart from his certain death, the mafiso will live out the end of his life in exile. “His future is mapped out and so is his past.
Very soon he will move to the 41 bis which is the Italian prison regime for mafia bosses.”
“It’s pretty much permanent isolation with only one visit per month and only national television.
There is no regional television to avoid messages being sent to them,” Sergi explained.
While it is sure Italian authorities will try to quiz him, for information during his incarceration, it is unlikely that Denaro will break the code of Omertà which has kept him protected for the last three decades.
Crime World with Nicola Tallant is available to listen to now wherever you get your podcasts.
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