The arrest of a fugitive like a “quake”, but the mafia is very resilient

ROME – Matteo Messina Denaro’s long record as a murderer – renegade mobsters said he would boast of enough murders to fill a graveyard – has greatly polished his credentials among his peers as the main boss of the Sicilian Mafia.

After evading capture for 30 years while still running much of the mafia’s affairs, he was arrested on Monday at a clinic in Palermo where the convicted gangster was undergoing chemotherapy. But while he was transferred to a maximum-security prison in mainland Italy early Tuesday, given the syndicate’s more than centenary roots and rules, his capture is unlikely to spell Cosa Nostra’s demise.

“We don’t know exactly what will happen,” Palermo Attorney General Lia Sava told state radio Rai about the future of the mafia.

“But one thing is certain. Cosa Nostra consists of rules. She has relied on these rules for 150 years, so she will certainly enforce these rules to repair the damage and thus create the new governance structure that will be needed after the arrest,” Sava said.

While Messina Denaro wielded great influence in the mafia, the Cosa Nostra lacked a top capo for decades, investigators say.

The almost mythical figure of a “boss of bosses” ended in 1993 with the arrest of Salvatore “Toto” Riina, who had been Italy’s top fugitive for 23 years, in a Palermo hideout.

According to trial testimonies that led to his conviction for many murders, including the 1992 bombings that killed Italy’s two top anti-mafia judges, Riina was in charge of the Cosa Nostra’s “commission,” which ran illicit deals and a strategy deadly retaliation against the Mafia for its crackdown on the mob.

“After Riina, there was never an absolute boss,” said Francesco Lo Voi, Rome’s chief prosecutor, who took office last year after serving as Palermo’s chief prosecutor and helping to coordinate the hunt for Messina Denaro.

Even if the figure of “capo di capi” still existed, Messina Denaro would not have qualified because he hails from Castelvetrano on Sicily’s western edge, not Palermo or the surrounding country, noted Lo Voi, citing Cosa Nostra rules.

Still, Messina Denaro, the son of a crime boss, “was one of the main bosses and (he) had connections to other criminal organizations in Italy and abroad,” Lo Voi told The Associated Press.

“Therefore, his arrest at this moment certainly represents an earthquake for Cosa Nostra,” Lo Voi said.

Messina Denaro’s standing was also bolstered by his acrimonious record as a murderous clan boss who ruled much of western Sicily, Lo Voi said.

A military plane took Messina Denaro on Tuesday to a maximum-security prison in L’Aquila in the central Apennines, where strict rules for top organized crime bosses who do not cooperate with authorities include severely curtailed visitor rights.

Italy’s national anti-mafia prosecutor Giovanni Melillo said putting Messina Denaro behind bars will not change the strategy Cosa Nostra has been pursuing for more than a decade.

That strategy is “no longer one of violence” against the state, Melillo said on state television Monday night, referring to the 1992 bombings that killed Palermo prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino and the 1993 bombings on churches in Rome, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and an art gallery in Milan, part of the mafia’s attempt to get the state to stop its crackdown on Cosa Nostra.

Instead, Cosa Nostra is keeping a low profile, opting “to penetrate the social and economic fabric of Italy together,” Melillo said.

A small army of renegades helped Italian authorities to put dozens of Cosa Nostra members behind bars over the past few decades, and subsequently gave a boost to the ‘ndrangheta crime syndicate in Italy’s southern “toes”, enabling it to conquer the Sicilian eclipsing Mob to become one of the largest cocaine brokers in the world.

In the 1980s, an FBI undercover operation in conjunction with Italian investigators including Falcone broke up a multi-million dollar heroin ring and cocaine distribution operation involving Sicilian Mafia figures and the Gambino crime family in New York.

But Cosa Nostra has recently “returned to drug trafficking on a large scale,” including cocaine, synthetic illicit drugs and heroin, Lo Voi said. Since there is enough drug trafficking, there is no real rivalry between Cosa Nostra and ‘ndrangheta, he added.

In drug trafficking, “the revenue is huge and the activity is less dangerous than extortion,” Lo Voi said.

Pressuring local businesses to pay criminal clans monthly protection money, known as “pizzo,” has long been a mainstay of Cosa Nostra’s activities.

But some 15 years ago, grassroots groups of young people in Palermo rebelled against their elders’ longstanding commitment to the practice. They formed an organization called “Addiopizzo” or “Farewell Pizzo” and encouraged companies to report extortionists to the authorities instead of paying them.

Control of local territory is crucial to the mafia’s existence.

Lo Voi said during the COVID-19 pandemic, neighborhood gangsters brought groceries to residents when breadwinners lost their jobs.

This complex relationship — a combination of benefit, fear, and even complicity — is said to have helped Messina Denaro evade the law for 30 years, most of it in Sicily.

Since his arrest, police have been searching his last hiding place – a house on a cul-de-sac in Campobello di Mazara, near Trapani. The owner is Andrea Bonafede, the name the fugitive used on an ID card to receive his cancer treatment.

The real Bonafede is under investigation, including at least one of the doctors involved in treating the fugitive at the clinic as of late 2020, Italian news reports said.

Other cancer patients daily told La Repubblica that the man, who wore designer scarves and hand-painted shirts, chatted freely with them during chemotherapy and sometimes gave them bottles of olive oil.

Six years ago, Italian authorities seized €13 million worth of olive groves and bottling plants linked to Messina Denaro in the countryside near Trapani.

“Bravi!” shouts rose from the street in front of the clinic as two Carabinieri officers escorted him out of the clinic.

But others wondered why it had taken decades to catch him.

“I had long expected it to happen, but it’s absurd that it’s taken 30 years,” Salvatore Borsellino, brother of the slain prosecutor, told AP in a video interview from Palermo.

It was clear “that he enjoyed cover” at the local level, Borsellino said. “But there must also have been institutional complicity.”


Andrea Rosa contributed to this.

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission. The arrest of a fugitive like a “quake”, but the mafia is very resilient

Sarah Y. Kim

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