Italian Police Arrest Most-Wanted Mafia Boss

From a Wall Street Journal story by Margherita Stancati headlined “Italian Police Arrest Most-Wanted Sicilian Mafia Boss”:

ROME—Italy’s Carabinieri military police have detained the country’s most notorious fugitive mafia boss, who had been on the run for 30 years, dealing a blow to one of the world’s most storied crime syndicates.

Matteo Messina Denaro was in a private hospital on the outskirts of the Sicilian city of Palermo when Carabinieri swarmed the area and captured him on Monday morning, the Carabinieri said.

Mr. Messina Denaro was sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia after being convicted in 2020 of involvement in the murders of two top anti-mafia prosecutors in 1992, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. Courts have also found him guilty of involvement in a wave of bombings in Italian cities that killed and injured dozens of civilians in 1993.

Mr. Messina Denaro, who according to Italian authorities was regional head of Cosa Nostra, as the Sicilian mafia is known in Italy, in the western Sicilian city of Trapani, has been a fugitive since the summer of 1993.

The mobster was directly involved in a string of other murders, including one that particularly shocked Italy: the kidnapping and brutal killing of 12-year-old Giuseppe Di Matteo, who was targeted to punish his father, a mafia turncoat. The boy was strangled and his body was dissolved in acid.

The son of a mafia boss and a loyal lieutenant of Cosa Nostra’s late “boss of bosses,” Salvatore Riina, Mr. Messina Denaro was a leading figure in the crime syndicate during the 1980s and early 1990s, one of the most violent periods of the Sicilian mafia’s history.

Following a bloody internal war between rival factions of Cosa Nostra, mafia turncoats helped Italian prosecutors crack down on the crime syndicate in the late 1980s. The mafia responded with a terrorist campaign against the Italian state and civilians.

The judicial crackdown and jailing of many Cosa Nostra leaders left the Sicilian criminal organization greatly weakened but didn’t suppress it.

Other Italian crime syndicates are now considered richer and more powerful, notably the ‘Ndrangheta from the southern region of Calabria, which has built up global clout through drug trafficking, among other activities.

Monday’s capture of 60-year-old Mr. Messina Denaro marks one of the most significant moments in decades in the country’s fight against organized crime.

Paolo Borrometi, a writer and expert on the Sicilian mafia, called the arrest a historic moment that could help resolve unanswered questions about how the organization operates. First among them: How was the mobster able to elude arrest for so long?

“After 30 years, we may be able to understand how Matteo Messina Denaro was able to live so freely,” said Mr. Borrometi, who has received death threats from the mob for his work. “Whose protection, including from high up, did he enjoy?”

His arrest is “a great victory for the state, showing it won’t surrender to the mafia,” said Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. “The fight against mafia crimes will continue without respite.”

Monday’s arrest was the result of a long investigation, Italian prosecutors and Carabinieri officers said on Monday.

Italian investigators had received a tip that Mr. Messina Denaro underwent surgery and was receiving regular medical treatment. Over time, they gradually whittled down the list of names of people in Sicily who matched Mr. Messina Denaro’s profile and illness.

They eventually focused on a person who went by the name of Andrea Bonafede, who had booked an appointment at Palermo’s La Maddalena private hospital. Investigators suspected it was a fake name used by Mr. Messina Denaro. The Carabinieri sprang into action on Monday morning at the time of the appointment.

“We hypothesized that that person could have been the fugitive,” Carabinieri Gen. Pasquale Angelosanto, who oversees the force’s special-operation units, told reporters. “But we didn’t know for sure until this morning.”

Mr. Messina Denaro, was wearing a $30,000 watch, didn’t resist arrest and quickly admitted his true identity, the Carabinieri said.

Official footage released Monday showed Mr. Messina Denaro in a woolen hat and sunglasses walking out of the hospital in Palermo and climbing into a Carabinieri van. He was escorted by Carabinieri agents, including members of the force’s special-operations unit in bulletproof vests and balaclavas.

They were the first public images of the mobster in decades.

Cosa Nostra remains active, particularly in Sicily. Mr. Messina Denaro’s detention brings some comfort to the group’s victims, including Mr. Borrometi.

“For people like me, who live under police protection because they’ve been sentenced to death by the mafia, it’s also a day of tears of joy and hope,” he said.

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