Hidden in plain sight: how the godfather of Sicily’s mafia escaped capture for 30 years | Mafia

Ap At 8:20 a.m. last Monday, Andrea Bonafede was queuing at the check-in of a private medical clinic in Palermo, Sicily. He suffered from colon cancer and was thought to be 59. He had already undergone two surgeries and chemotherapy at the clinic, often bringing gifts of olive oil to the staff and exchanging phone numbers and text messages with his fellow patients. He was known for wearing flashy clothes: that morning he wore a sheepskin coat, white hat, Ray-Ban sunglasses and an expensive Franck Muller watch.

While waiting for his Covid test, he went outside and approached the Fiat Brava, and the driver, who had taken him there. The undercover officers watching him feared that he had realized he was being watched and that he was about to flee. A colonel of the Carabinieri, Italy’s militarized police force, decided to withdraw: “Are you Matteo Messina Denaro?”

“You know who I am,” was the tired reply.

A composite police photo of mob boss Matteo Messina Denaro, left;  and, well, as he looks today, well.
A composite police photo of mob boss Matteo Messina Denaro, left; and, right, the way he looks today. Photo: AP

The 150 policemen and Carabinieri who were in position inside and outside the clinic suddenly sprang into action. Totò Schillaci, the former Palermo international footballer, became involved in the blitz and later compared it to “a madhouse, a wild west”. Armed troops in balaclavas charged out of unmarked vehicles and blocked exit routes and streets. After 30 years on the run, Italy’s most wanted man – nickname The sixor “Skinny” – had finally been captured.

When they realized what was happening, members of the audience began to applaud. Some gave the men in balaclavas a high five. In less than an hour, the arrest of Messina Denaro made headlines worldwide. Italian President Sergio Mattarella (whose brother Piersanti was killed by the Mafia in 1980 while he was governor of Sicily) thanked the police and the public prosecutor. The Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, immediately flew to Palermo to congratulate the special forces for capturing the man who had helped plan a terrorist bombing campaign across Italy in 1992 and 1993.

In those years, as the certainties of the First Republic fell apart, the impasse between the Italian state and the Cosa Nostra had turned into a violent confrontation. Two tenacious detectives, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, had persuaded a former mobster, Tommaso Buscetta, to become a state witness. The Mafia’s secret organization and political connections were clearly revealed for the first time. In mass trials, 338 gangsters were convicted.

When those verdicts were upheld on appeal, the Mafia retaliated brutally: their political protector, Salvo Lima, was executed in March 1992, and both investigators were killed in highly publicized bombings on the island later that year. Falcone, his wife and three bodyguards were killed in May on the road between the airport and Palermo; Borsellino was killed in Palermo in July, along with five bodyguards, when he visited his sister and mother. Messina Denaro was involved in the operational planning of both bombings.

The following year, the terror campaign focused on the mainland. At 1:04 am on 27In May 1993, a bomb exploded outside the Uffizi Gallery, in Via dei Georgofili 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, at 27July, a bomb outside a contemporary art gallery in Milan killed five; the next day there were two more bombs in Rome, this time with no casualties. Messina Denaro was sentenced in absentia for also ordering and planning the bombings on the mainland.

The scene outside the Uffizi art gallery after the 1993 bombing
The scene outside the Uffizi art gallery after the 1993 bombing that killed five people. Photo: Sipa/REX/Shutterstock

Born in 1962 in the province of Trapani, Matteo Messina Denaro is the son of a convicted gangster who had worked for the wealthy D’Alì family. He became the protege of Totò Riina, the boss of bosses, and was known as both a partying womanizer and a ruthless killer. He fell in love with an Austrian woman who worked in a hotel in Selinunte when her manager, Nicola Consales, overheard complaining about the “little gangsters‘ who hung around the hotel, he was – in 1991 in Palermo – shot dead.

A year later, another gangster complained about Riina’s strategy of a frontal attack on the Italian state. Messina Denaro invited Vincenzo Milazzo to a meeting, shot him and strangled his pregnant partner, Antonella Bonomo. Later that year, he was part of the group that tried to kill a police officer, Calogero Germanà. When a gangster Messina Denaro was a state witness and part of the dome – the group of top mafia bosses – who ordered the kidnapping of his 12-year-old son, Giuseppe di Matteo. The boy was held for 779 days before being strangled and dissolved in acid. Messina Denaro once boasted that he had killed enough people to fill a cemetery.

But during his three decades in hiding, Messina Denaro also took the mafia in a new direction. Drive-by executions and semtex bombings only generated crackdowns and bad headlines, and The six had seen how the Calabrian mafia, the ‘Ndrangheta, had enriched itself by quietly infiltrating and investing in legitimate companies. Messina Denaro put his dirty money into clean energy and used an unknown electrician as a cover to build a wind energy empire worth $1.5 billion. Through another frontman, he created a chain of 700 million euros with 83 stores.

Investigators grew suspicious of several builders and salami makers suddenly making millions from slot machines, stolen archaeological treasures, transportation hubs, construction companies and tourist resorts and so they began to arrest those they suspected were fronts for the Sicilian “Scarlet Pimpernel”. In 2011 alone, they arrested 140 suspected sidekicks and stooges, a few of whom freaked out and gave investigators an insight into Messina Denaro’s business empire.

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

Joseph of Matthew
Giuseppe di Matteo, who was killed during Messina Denaro’s watch.

Of the possible matches, one stood out: Andrea Bonafede was the name of a man on the fringe of the mafia and it turned out that when he was supposed to be on the operating table in Palermo, his phone actually revealed his presence in Campobello di Mazara. , near Trapani. The obvious conclusion was that Bonafede had lent his identity to someone who could not reveal his own. On 29December, “Bonafede” booked an appointment at the Palermo clinic for 16January and when the real Bonafede stayed home last Monday morning, the authorities decided to intervene.

But despite the initial euphoria at the famed fugitive’s arrest, the details of his life on the run have shocked the country over the past week. Messina Denaro was surprisingly similar to the artificially aged photo and lived openly in Campobello di Mazara, next to his birthplace in Castelvetrano. He regularly went to the local bar, pizzeria and even, according to reports, to the Palermo football stadium. The Viagra found in his flat suggests he had company. A doctor who treated him took selfies as if he knew he was in the presence of a star. In a town of just over 11,000, Messina Denaro was referred for treatment by a general practitioner (known as a member of a local Masonic lodge) who presumably knew the real Bonafede.

“He was hiding in plain sight,” said Federico Varese, a professor of criminology at the University of Oxford, and author of mafia life. “It is extraordinary and disturbing that it has taken 30 years to arrest this man and that speaks for one fact: there was no help from local informants because of a deep distrust of people in this part of Italy towards state institutions.” Another former fugitive, mob boss Bernardo Provenzano, evaded arrest for 43 years.

But more than just passive Silence, or silence, from the local community, many detectives spoke of active collusion last week. Pasquale Angelosanto, the commander of the elite forces behind the Tramonto operation, lamented how the long hunt had been “marked by politicians, law enforcement and state officials who were arrested or investigated for warning the boss that the circle was closing in.” Repeatedly, authorities thought an arrest was imminent, but that was thwarted at the last minute: on one occasion, police raided the suspected meeting place in Bagheria where Messina Denaro was supposed to meet one of his lovers, Maria Masi. All they found was fresh caviar, a scarf, a bracelet, cigarettes from Merit and a puzzle, all hurriedly left behind.

The suspicion of an overlap between institutional figures and organized crime has deepened in recent months: in December last year, Antonio D’Alì – a former undersecretary at the Ministry of the Interior during Silvio Berlusconi’s government from 2001-2006 – was convicted of “external complicity”. with the mafia”. Both Messina Denaro and his father had worked for the D’Alì family. In September 2022, Totò Cuffaro, a former governor of the island who had been imprisoned for nearly five years for “complicity with” Cosa Nostra and the violating investigative secrecy, standing for election. His party or “list” won five seats in the regional assembly. In an ongoing trial, many other politicians are accused of negotiating with the mafia in the crisis years 1992-93.

The faint hope that the imprisoned man would cooperate with the authorities and reveal some secrets of that dark period has also vanished. The decision to his niece, a notorious defender of gangsters, as his lawyer suggests, he will not make any disclosures or confessions. Nor is there much hope that the organization will be significantly weakened. “Mafias cannot be traced back to their ‘bosses,’” Luigi Ciotti, a lifelong anti-Mafia campaigner, wrote last week: “[they have] developed into a network of organizations capable of making amends for the disappearance of one individual through the power of the system.”

“The longevity of this criminal organization is extraordinary,” says Varese. “It has been around since the 1830s, much longer than most companies. We have to ask ourselves what is being done to get rid of not only the head, but also the root causes of the mafia.”

Tobias Jones lives in Parma. His most recent book is The Po: an elegy for Italy’s longest river

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