Hiding in plain sight: how the Sicilian mafia godfather eluded capture for 30 years | Mafia

aAt 8.20am last Monday, Andrea Bonafede was standing in line at a check-in at a private medical clinic in Palermo, Sicily. He suffers from colon cancer and is believed to be 59. He has already undergone two operations and chemotherapy at the clinic, often bringing staff gifts of olive oil and exchanging phone numbers and text messages with fellow patients. He was known to dress glamorously: that morning he was wearing a sheepskin coat, a white hat, Ray-Ban shades, and an expensive Franck Muller watch.

Waiting for his Covid test, he went outside and walked over to the Fiat Brava and the driver who brought him there. The undercover officers watching him were concerned that he had realized he was being watched and might be about to run away. A colonel of the Carabinieri, the Italian military police, decided to move: “Are you Matteo Messina Denarau? “

“You know who I am,” came the weary response.

Police composite photo of Mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro, left;  And, as it seems today, it is true.
Police composite photo of Mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro, left; And, right, as it appears today. Photo: AP

The 150 Policemen and Carabinieri who were in position suddenly scurried in and out of the clinic. Toto Schillacci, the former international soccer player from Palermo, was caught in the blitz, later likening it to a “crazy house, wild west”. Masked armed forces exited unmarked vehicles and blocked exit roads and streets. After 30 years on the run, he’s the most wanted man in Italy – aka Yo Sekoor “thin” – caught last.

Realizing what was happening, the audience members started to applaud. Some men wear masks. In less than an hour, Messina Denaro’s arrest was making news around the world. The Italian president, Sergio Mattarella (whose brother Piersanti was murdered by the Mafia in 1980 when he was governor of Sicily), has thanked the police and prosecutors. The Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, immediately traveled to Palermo to congratulate the Special Forces on the capture of the man who helped plan a terror-style bombing campaign across Italy in 1992 and 1993.

In those years, with the disintegration of certainties in the First Republic, the confrontation between the Italian state and Cosa Nostra turned violent. Two tenacious detectives, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, convince a former gangster, Tommaso Buscetta, to convert state witness. The mafia’s secret organization and political connections are clearly revealed for the first time. In group trials 338 Mafia Convicted.

When those verdicts were upheld on appeal, the Mafia exacted a brutal retaliation: its political protector, Salvo Lima, was executed in March 1992, and later that year both detectives were murdered in very public bombings on the island. Falcone, his wife and three bodyguards were killed on the road between the airport and Palermo in May; Borsellino was murdered in Palermo in July, along with five of his bodyguards, while visiting his sister and mother. Messina Denarau was involved in the operational planning of both bombings.

The following year, the terror campaign turned to the mainland. At 1.04 am on the 27th In May 1993, a bomb exploded outside the Uffizi Gallery, on the Via dei Giorgioville in Florence, destroying several works of art and killing five people, including a nine-year-old girl, Nadia, and her two-month-old sister. Two months later, on the 27th July A bomb explodes outside a contemporary art gallery in Milan, killing five. The next day, there were two more bombs in Rome, but this time without casualties. Messina Denaro was convicted, in absentia, of ordering and planning a bombing campaign on the mainland.

The scene outside the Uffizi Gallery after the 1993 bombing
The scene outside the Uffizi Art Gallery after the 1993 bombing in which five people were killed. Photo: Siba/REX/Shutterstock

Matteo Messina Denaro was born in 1962 in the province of Trapani, the son of a convicted gangster who worked for the wealthy Dali family. became protected to Toto Riina, Chief of ChiefsHe was famous as a party-loving womanizer and ruthless killer. He had fallen in love with an Austrian woman working in a hotel in Selinunte and when her manager, Nicola Consalis, was heard complaining of “a little MafiaWho were loitering around the hotel, he was – in Palermo in 1991 – shot dead.

A year later, another mobster complained about Reina’s strategy of direct attack on the Italian state. Messina Denaro called Vincenzo Milazzo to a meeting, shot him, and strangled his pregnant partner, Antonella Bonomo. Later that year, he was part of the group that attempted to kill policeman Calogero Germana. at one Mafia She became a state witness, Messina Denarau was part of dome – a group of high-ranking mafia bosses – who ordered the kidnapping of his 12-year-old son, Giuseppe Di Matteo. The boy was held for 779 days before he was strangled and dissolved in acid. Messina Denarau once bragged that he had killed enough people to fill a cemetery.

But during his three decades in hiding, Messina Denaro took the Mafia in a new direction. Executions of runaway cars and semtex explosions only guarantee crackdowns, bad headlines, and Yo Seko They saw how the Calabrian mafia, the ‘Ndrangheta, has enriched itself by quietly infiltrating and investing in legitimate businesses. Messina Denaro has put his dirty money into clean energy, using a little-known electrician as a front to build a €1.5 billion wind power empire. He created a €700m chain of 83 stores through another front man.

The detectives became suspicious about the many builders and salami makers who were suddenly making millions with slot machines, stolen antique treasures, transportation hubs, construction companies, and tourist resorts, so they began arresting those they suspected of being fronts for the Sicilian “Crimson Vermilion”. In 2011 alone, they nabbed 140 suspected burglar suspects and frontmen, a few of whom turned upside down and gave investigators an insight into the Messina Denaro business empire.

But the man himself remained elusive. The investigators didn’t even know what he looked like. There was only a photograph from 1993 that was artificially aged. An operation to locate him was called Tramonto (“Sunset”), named after a poem written by nine-year-old Nadia who was murdered in Florence. The breakthrough came when wiretaps of his relatives revealed that Messina Denaro had colon cancer. The investigators obtained lists of all patients over 55 years of age undergoing oncological treatment for this disease in the provinces of Agrigento, Palermo and Trapani.

Giuseppe Di Matteo
Giuseppe Di Matteo, who was killed on the watch of Messina Denaro.

Among the possible matches, one stood out: Andrea Bonafede was the name of a man on the fringes of the Mafia and it turned out that when he was supposed to be on the operating table in Palermo, his phone had already revealed his presence in Campobello di Mazara near Trapani. The obvious conclusion was that Bonafide had lent his identity to someone whose identity he could not reveal. Day 29 December, “Bonafede” booked an appointment at the Palermo clinic for the 16th January And when the real Bonafide stayed home last Monday morning, the authorities decided to act.

But despite the initial euphoria at the notorious fugitive’s capture, details of his life as a fugitive shocked the country last week. Looking surprisingly similar to the artificially aged photo, Messina Denaro lives out in the open in Campobello di Mazara, next to his hometown of Castelvetrano. He used to go regularly to the local pub, pizzeria and even, according to reports, to the Palermo football stadium. Viagra found in his apartment suggests he has company. One of the doctors who was treating him took selfies as if he knew he was in the presence of a star. In a city of just over 11,000 people, Messina Denaro was referred for treatment by a general practitioner (reputed to be a member of a local Masonic lodge) who supposedly knew the real Bonafede.

says Federico Varese, professor of criminology at the University of Oxford and author of Mafia life. “It is extraordinary and disturbing that it took 30 years to catch this man and this speaks to one truth: there was no help from local informants because of the deep mistrust of the people in this part of Italy towards state institutions.” another former fugitive, Mafia boss Bernardo Provenzanowas able to elude capture for 43 years.

But more than just passive Omerta, or the silence of the local community, several investigators spoke last week of active complicity. Pascual Angelosanto, the commander of the elite forces behind Operation Tramonto, lamented that the long manhunt was “marked by politicians, law enforcement officers, and state officials arrested or investigated for warning their boss that the circle was closing in.” Time and time again the authorities thought an arrest was imminent, but it was thwarted at the last moment: on one occasion, the police stormed the suspected meeting place in Bagheria where Messina Denaro was believed to be meeting one of his lovers, Maria Massi. They found only fresh caviar, a scarf, a bracelet, Merit cigarettes, and a jigsaw, all of which had been hastily abandoned.

Suspicions of an overlap between institutional figures and organized crime have deepened in recent months: in December last year, Antonio Dali – former Undersecretary of the Interior Ministry during the 2001-2006 government of Silvio Berlusconi – was found guilty of “external collusion with the mafia”. Both Messina Denaro and his father worked for the Dali family. In September 2022, Toto Covaro, the former governor of the island who spent nearly five years in prison for “aiding and abetting” Cosa Nostra and breaching the confidentiality of the investigations, is running for re-election. His party, or “list,” won five seats in the regional council. In an ongoing trial, several other politicians are accused of negotiating with the mafia in those crisis years 1992-1993.

The faint hope that the captive man would cooperate with the authorities and reveal some of the secrets of that dark period was also dashed. The decision to appoint his niece, a notorious advocate for MafiaHis lawyer also suggests that he will not make any disclosures or confessions. Nor is there much hope of significantly weakening the organization. The mafia cannot be reduced to its ‘bosses’:[they have] It has evolved into a network of organizations capable of compensating for the disappearance of a single individual through the power of the system.”

“The longevity of this criminal organization is extraordinary,” Varese says. “It’s been around since the 1830s, much longer than most corporations. We need to ask what is being done to rid us not just of the head, but of the root causes of the Mafia.”

Tobias Jones lives in Parma. His latest book is The Po: Elegy for the Longest River in Italy

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