- The last mafia godfather enjoyed an unusually strong loyalty
- Omerta’s law of silence also helped the president stay in hiding
- The last “godfather” Messina Denaro lived near his mother
PALERMO, Italy (January 25) (Reuters) – When Salvatore Catalano discovered that Mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro was living a short distance from his home in Campobello di Mazara in western Sicily, he fell ill.
Catalano’s brother, Agostino, was a policeman who died in a bomb blast in 1992 that killed anti-mob judge Paolo Borsellino — an attack prosecutors say Messina Denaro helped orchestrate.
“There is anger in my heart and soul now that I know he was here and I didn’t recognize him,” Catalano told Reuters.
Messina Denaro, 60, was arrested on January 16, 30 years after she fled. Police believe he has spent most of the past year hiding in plain sight in Campobello de Mazara, a town of about 11,000, a short drive from his mother’s house.
“We celebrated the arrest with my family. He is in prison and will now be subject to strict detention rules,” Catalano said.
The last confirmed sighting of Messina Denaro was in 1993, which made it difficult for the police to identify Italy’s most wanted man. Authorities said he appeared to lead an open life in the town, shopping for himself at the local supermarket.
Prosecutors say their hunt was further complicated by the unusually strong loyalty he received from members of his clan in western Sicily.
Reuters interviewed dozens of residents on the streets of Campobello and from his nearby hometown of Castelvetrano, as well as prosecutors and police who helped track him down.
They reveal the struggles faced by the investigators trying to break through the mafia wall of “omerta”, or code of silence, which has broken down in other parts of Sicily but still holds up around Messina Denaro, whom the Italian press dubbed “the last godfather”.
“I have arrested at least 200 people in connection with him. Only one of them decided to cooperate with justice,” said Roberto Piscitello, the prosecutor who tried to arrest Messina Denaro from 1996 to 2008.
“In the neighboring provinces of Palermo and Agrigento, five out of 10 of those arrested have become apostates,” he told Reuters, speaking from his home in Marsala on the western tip of Sicily.
In the end, it was not the gangsters of Messina Denaro who betrayed him, but his failing body.
Police said they managed to arrest Messina Denaro after learning from a wiretap of his relatives that he had cancer.
They had long suspected that he lived in his native Sicily, and a thorough examination of cancer patients in the area revealed that a man named Andrea Bonafede had undergone surgery in the western city of Mazara del Vallo at the same time his cellphone was active in the area. Another part of the island.
Court documents seen by Reuters showed that investigators considered this the “first significant confirmation” that Messina Denaro could have been hidden under that false identity, because they indicated that the man who performed the operation was not the real Andrea Bonafede, who was supposed to have been with him. Telephone.
They receive the patient and learn that he is scheduled to receive routine chemotherapy in the island’s capital, Palermo, on January 16.
The police surrounded the clinic and swooped in after the patient arrived for his appointment. He immediately admitted his true identity, but seemed to squander any hopes that he would end his life of crime.
“I have my own code of honor,” a law enforcement source quoted him as telling the judges when they first met him, referring to the Sicilian Mafia’s rule, which has deteriorated greatly over the past 30 years, not to talk about the organization to anyone on the outside.
His silence means that investigators must try to piece together the best possible way to avoid detection over the years.
The initial focus of the investigation is on the real Andrea Bonafide, a trained surveyor with no criminal record.
Prosecutors said that Bonafide confirmed knowing Messina Denaro from a young age and confessed to buying the gangster an apartment in Campobello de Mazara. He himself is under arrest and has not commented publicly on the case.
The police are also investigating his driver, Giovanni Luppino, an olive grower who also has no police record. He was carrying a key and turned off both phones, in what judges said was an attempt to prevent him from being tracked.
He denied knowing the true identity of his passenger.
Palermo prosecutor Maurizio de Lucia told Reuters that men like Bonafede represent the “first link” in the fugitive matrix – those who provided for his basic needs.
But he believes his support network is deeply rooted.
“His lands have helped him for many years. It is reasonable to believe that he has been protected by professionals and businessmen,” he said.
Among those already under investigation for aiding and abetting his boss is his doctor, Alfonso Tombarello. His lawyer said he was confident his client could prove his innocence.
The judges said they found evidence that Messina Denaro visited Spain, Greece and Austria over the years. But the main focus of his business activities remained in western Sicily, which means that he probably spent most of his time on the island.
Dozens of lower-level mafiosi have been arrested in the area over the years — a thinning from Messina Denaro’s inner circle who judges said repeatedly interrupted promising leads they hoped would one day take them to his boss.
“(But) we cannot sacrifice justice. We cannot leave the gangs on the streets,” prosecutor Paulo Guido, who has led the long hunt for his boss in past years, told Reuters.
Prosecutors said the mob boss cultivated a broad range of financial interests that went beyond traditional Mafia concerns, helping him create a loyal network of white-collar professionals.
A secret recording made in prison in 2013 revealed that the former boss of bosses, Salvatore “The Beast” Reyna, had complained that his one-time proteges were investing in renewable energy projects rather than focusing on the militant mafia’s activities.
“In the context of Sicily, those who are believed to create jobs and the possibility of doing business are given consensus and protection,” said Col. Antonello Paraceletti Mollica, who heads the Special Forces Anti-Crime Unit in Palermo.
Writing by Angelo Amanti; Editing by Crispian Palmer and Ross Colvin
Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.