Italians broke into spontaneous applause and wept for joy as a feared Mafia ‘godfather’ was arrested after 30 years on the run.
Paramilitary cops swooped on Matteo Messina Denaro while he was undergoing treatment at a private clinic in the Sicilian capital of Palermo, according to The Associated Press. Italian news agencies reported he is believed to be suffering from cancer and had been attending appointments at the clinic under a false name for some time.
The 60-year-old, nicknamed “Diabolik” after an Italian comic book villain of the 60s, was 30 when he went underground, but is said to have continued to pull the strings of the Sicilian mob while on the run.
Messina Denaro, who is from the town of Castelvetrano, is alleged to have boasted he could fill an entire cemetery with his victims, with scores of murders and deadly bomb attacks in his wake. Two separate bombings killed top anti-Mafia prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, as well as numerous bystanders, in 1992. He is also accused of strangling a rival’s pregnant girlfriend to death.
Matteo Messina Denaro is transported in a van after he was arrested by the Carabinieri on January 16, 2023 in Palermo, Italy. Inset: Denaro is seen in a police booking photo.
Messina Denaro is also alleged to have organized the murder of the child of a Mafia member who became a police informant. The 12-year-old boy, Giuseppe di Matteo, was kidnapped, held in captivity for two years, then strangled and found partially dissolved in a vat of acid. The case shocked Italy.
Footage of Messina Denaro’s arrest showed him being led down the steps of the clinic flanked by two policemen in heavy rain. He wore tinted glasses, a woolly hat, and a sheepskin coat, and was not handcuffed. He kept his head down as he walked past a small crowd towards a waiting vehicle and camera.
After he was driven away in a black van, some of the police officers—whose faces were hidden by balaclavas due to safety fears—embraced and patted each others’ shoulders. Then applause broke out and a woman called out to express her gratitude, while another shouted “grazie, grazie” (“thank you”). One man was overcome and blinked away tears as he hugged the officers. Several passersby came to shake the hands of the Carabinieri (Italian military police).
Carabinieri Gen. Pasquale Angelosanto, who heads the police force’s special operations squad, said Messina Denaro was at the clinic to receive treatment when he was arrested.
Palermo Chief Prosecutor Maurizio De Lucia told Rai state TV that he had given the clinic the false name Andrea Bonafede; the surname means “good faith” in Italian. But when approached by officers and asked if he was Messina Denaro, he admitted his true identity.
Shortly after his arrest, Messina Denaro appeared before a court in Palermo, where a judge sought to confirm his identity and ask him basic questions for the court records. When asked for his occupation, he replied “farmer.” Before he was led away, he told the judge—who has not been identified—”Thank you, good day.”
Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni tweeted that Denaro’s capture is a “great victory of the state, which shows that it doesn’t surrender in the face of the Mafia.”
Newsweek has reached out to the Carabinieri for further information about the operation.
The Sicilian Mafia sparks fear among the country as it ruthlessly runs drug trafficking operations and extorts small business owners who are forced to pay “protection money” in order to remain unharmed.
Back in 2015, the police moved a little closer to justice when they arrested 11 members of the Cosa Nostra after cracking a code used by gangsters who used sheep farming terms to discuss their business at farms in a bid to foil investigators. The men were said to be Messina Denaro’s closest aides.
Messina Denaro frequently featured on police “most wanted” lists and his details were shared with international police forces. He was also profiled in a 2020 Netflix documentary called The World’s Most Wanted.