“Socalj” for Borderland Beat

One of the world’s most wanted criminals for the last 3 decades was captured near his hometown in Palermo, Sicily, Italy this week. It was discovered he had been receiving treatment for cancer at a nearby clinic under the assumed name of Andrea Bonafede. Matteo Messina Denaro, his real identity, is said to be one of, if not the top boss of the Sicilian Mafia. He has been running operations while on the run from charges of multiple assassinations, kidnapping, murders, narcotics trafficking, and other crimes that he was convicted of in absentia.

Matteo Messina Denaro was captured at a private clinic in Palermo, Sicily, where he was receiving treatment for cancer.

Arrest in Palermo

Matteo Messina Denaro was captured at La Maddalena clinic in Palermo, an upscale medical facility known for treating cancer patients. Italian media said he was undergoing treatment there for a year.  Investigators said he was unarmed, “he didn’t resist at all,” Carabinieri Col. Lucio Arcidiacono told reporters.
Palermo Chief Prosecutor Maurizio De Lucia told reporters that the fugitive had used the alias Andrea Bonafede and had an Italian ID card in that name. He used the alias to book a morning appointment at the clinic. The doctor providing him treatment is currently under investigation as to whether he knew of the man’s true identity. Authorities have said he is well enough to continue with proceedings and answer for his crimes while receiving treatment in prison hospitals.
Police searched the apartment listed under the false alias, Denaro’s final hideout.

Hiding in Plain Sight

Perfumes, designer clothes, and Viagra pills were found in an apartment that investigators believe was his most recent hideout. The apartment is in a modest building near the center of Campobello di Mazara, a town in the Western Sicilian province of Trapani, just a few miles from his hometown of Castelvetrano. The town was home to his alleged aide Giovanni Luppino, who was arrested with him. “He had a regular life, he went to the supermarket,” said magistrate Paolo Guido of Denaro.

Neighbors described him as a friendly person. “I live on the first floor of the building, sometimes I have seen this person, greeted him, and nothing else. He responded in a cordial manner,” Rosario Cognata told Italian media. Fellow cancer patients said he wore designer scarves and hand-painted shirts. He would chat with them during chemo and sometimes gave them bottles of olive oil. 

Six years ago, Italian authorities confiscated €13 million worth of olive groves and bottling facilities linked to Messina Denaro in the countryside near Trapani. He was wearing a watch worth at least €38,000 when he was arrested.

Denaro as depicted in his last driver’s license photo.


Also known as “Diabolik” and “‘U Siccu” (The Skinny One), Denaro was born in the Sicilian town of Castelvetrano in 1962. He was born the son of a Mafioso. He followed his father and at 15 he was already carrying a gun. Police believe he carried out his first killing when he was 18. He never married, but was known to have a number of lovers. Denaro wrote that he had a daughter, but had never met her. He is also believed to have a son, but little is known about him. He liked wearing designer clothes, expensive sunglasses, and Rolex watches, he loved video games and had a taste for luxury foods. 

He was also a ruthless killer who once claimed to have murdered enough people to fill a cemetery.

The Castelvetrano Clan was allied to the Corleonesi, headed by Salvatore “Toto (The Beast)” Riina, who became the undisputed “boss of bosses” thanks to his ruthless pursuit of power. In 1987 the state convicted 338 Mafiosi in a “Maxi-Trial,” and Riina was finally captured on January 15, 1993. After the fall of Riina in 1993, Denaro and many other Mafiosi went on the run. A decade later, with Bernardo Provenzano’s arrest, it was said that Denaro rose to the top of the Corleonesi and the Sicilian Mafia Commission having been the protege of Riina. But his spot at the top has been questioned.
“He was never the boss,” says Principato. “He was a member of the commission, but that’s a different thing. He never took over Palermo, but remained the regional boss in Trapani.” Prosecutors have always doubted that Messina Denaro became the “Boss of Bosses” after Provenzano’s capture, saying it was more likely that he was simply the head of Cosa Nostra in western Sicily. It is likely that the last leader to hold anything close to that title was “Toto” Riina who seized power over the Sicilian Mafia before his eventual arrest imprisoned him in 1993. Instead, the Sicilian Commission balances out the power and lessens the risks of a top leader being captured or killed.
2023 Carabinieri arrest photo of Denaro.

20 Life Sentences

Italian Police say he was heavily involved in planning the 1992 murders of anti-mafia prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, crimes that shocked both Sicily and Italy sparking a further crackdown that led to Mafia boss “Toto” Riina’s arrest in 1993.

He was also held responsible for subsequent bombings in Rome, Florence, and Milan in 1993 that killed 10 people in an apparently failed bid to force the government to halt its attack on the Sicilian Mafia. Those bombings resulted in several fatalities and damaged the Uffizi Galleries in Florence, two major churches in Rome, and an art gallery in Milan.

He was also found guilty of helping organize the kidnapping of 12-year-old Giuseppe Di Matteo, to try to dissuade the boy’s father from giving evidence against the Mafia. The boy was held for two years before he was strangled and his body was dissolved in acid. 

Messina Denaro went into hiding in 1993 as a growing number of turncoats or “Pentiti,” started providing details of his involvement. He started communicating with other Mafiosi via “Pizzini,” small pieces of paper sometimes written in code distributed by messengers. Many of these notes were found with Bernardo Provenzano in 2006 when police caught him. Provenzano led the Sicilian Mafia following Riina’s arrest. In a letter to a contact, Messina Denaro said he couldn’t believe how careless Provenzano had been. “When I receive a letter, even from family members, I reply as quickly as possible and immediately burn the one that arrived,” he wrote.

He was tried and sentenced to life in jail in absentia in 2002 over numerous murders.

  • The 1992 killing of anti-Mafia prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino
  • The killing of Antonella Bonanno, the pregnant girlfriend of a rival Mafia boss
  • The kidnapping and killing of Giuseppe Di Matteo, the 11-year-old son of a mafioso-turned-state witness

He was convicted again in 2020. 

  • 1993 bomb attacks in Milan, Florence, and Rome, which killed 10 people
The Mafia boss also oversaw racketeering, illegal waste dumping, money laundering, and drug trafficking for the Sicilian crime groups. Although Messina Denaro had been a fugitive since 1993, he was thought to have still been issuing orders to his subordinates from various secret locations.
Age progression Photofit of Messina Denaro done in 2007, based on the 20-year-old photo from his driving license.

30 Years on the Run

Over the decades, Italian investigators often came close to catching Messina Denaro by monitoring those closest to him. This resulted in the arrest of his sister Patrizia and several other of his associates in 2013. Italian police also seized valuable businesses linked to Messina Denaro, leaving him increasingly isolated.

Matteo’s sister Patrizia was sentenced to 14 years in prison for being a member of the Mafia. 
As police repeatedly swept Sicily looking for clues about his whereabouts, more correspondence emerged showing they were dealing with someone who saw himself very differently from the way he was portrayed by his foes. “I only care about being a fair man, I have made fairness my philosophy of life and I hope to die a fair man,” he wrote in a letter dated Feb. 1, 2005, found in an abandoned hideout.

In an eavesdropped recording from prison, Riina is heard complaining about his one-time protege, apparently perturbed by the news he was investing in wind farms and angered he hadn’t taken more charge like he had. “The only guy who could do something because he was straight… didn’t do anything,” Riina told a fellow inmate.

Besides hideouts in Sicily, he traveled abroad while a fugitive, including to Marseille, France, where he underwent surgery, according to investigators. During his years on the run, he had a series of lovers and passed time by playing video games, according to Italian media reports. One of his girlfriends was arrested and convicted of having hidden him for a time.

“If you asked, where is Matteo Messina Denaro, people would say, he’s either dead, or he’s in the province of Trapani,” said Giacomo di Girolamo, author of a biography of Denaro called The Invisible. “He wasn’t one of those Mafiosi who would go abroad, to Brazil or Northern Europe. He didn’t need to build himself a bunker like the heads of the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria. He was protected in his territory.”

However, few photos of Messina Denaro exist until now and police relied on digital composites to reconstruct his appearance in the decades after he went on the run. A recording of his voice was not released until 2021. In September 2021, a Formula 1 fan from Liverpool was arrested at gunpoint in a restaurant in the Netherlands after being mistaken for Messina Denaro.

Several of his collaborators were arrested in 2020, making him more vulnerable. Police wiretapped the homes of his family members, and only spoke generally of “people with cancer” and “cancer surgeries.” Names were never mentioned, assuming they knew that the phones were being tapped. This was enough for police to assume that Denaro was seeking treatment of some sort.

Investigators then gathered the details of all male cancer patients born in 1962 near Trapani, in western Sicily, and slowly narrowed down the search to five suspects. They identified a man who had booked a treatment under the name of Andrea Bonafede, the nephew of deceased Mafia boss Leonardo Bonafede. But after analyzing Bonafede’s phone records, they discovered that he was far from the clinic where he was meant to be having surgery one day, confirming that Denaro was likely using the name as an alias.

“Lucky” Luciano founded the American Mafia’s Commission. One of his early arrests was for dealing heroin, and after being deported to his native Italy, helped set up a heroin pipeline back to the US.

The Mafia’s Long Drug Trafficking History

Drug trafficking has been a core part of the Sicilian Mafia, also known as Cosa Nostra since as far back as it became illegal. The notorious “French Connection” between the US, Corsican, and Sicilian Mafia groups was made by Commission founder Salvatore/Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Joseph Bonanno with their Italian counterparts. The connection was formalized during the “Palermo Meeting” in 1957. But the groups had been involved years prior. In July 1949, police in Rome arrested Luciano on suspicion of involvement in the shipping of narcotics to New York. After a week in jail, he was released with no charges being filed. 
This meeting set the stage for the Sicilian clans to be the primary controllers of the heroin trade and a Sicilian Mafia Commission was formed on the advice of their US counterparts. The Sicilians would procure opium from Asia and Turkey, and process it into heroin at Corsican labs in France before smuggling it into Canada with future Bonanno leader Carmine Galante, and also into New York to the various LCN families, and through Cuba as well until Fidel Castro kicked the Mafia out of the country following the 1959 Revolution.
The American Mafia/La Cosa Nostra began to distance itself from narcotic sales due to increased law enforcement pressure; even putting in a rule that any member caught dealing would be killed. But the bosses turned a blind eye so long as their cuts kept coming in. For even more deniability, Italian Mafiosi were given permission by the New York bosses to operate on US soil as evidenced in cases such as heroin imported as part of the ‘Pizza Connection,’ of which slain Judge Giovanni Falcone was a part of investigating. US families focused more on corrupting legitimate businesses and unions, gambling, loan sharking, stock fraud, cargo theft, and other more traditional organized crime schemes.

But in Italy, drug trafficking and local street sales became their main source of income allowing groups like the Mafia, Camorra in Naples, and ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria to gain power and push their way into politics and legitimate businesses.
The massive crackdown on the Sicilian Mafia following those bombings allowed other groups such as the ‘Ndrangheta to grow. The Calabrians funded their start in drug trafficking after kidnapping for ransom an heir to the Getty family oil fortune in 1973 for $2.2 million.

Unlike Sicily’s crime syndicates, the ’Ndrangheta draws its members based on family ties, leaving it less vulnerable to those who cooperate with investigators. The ’Ndrangheta clans are now some of the world’s most powerful cocaine traffickers. They have gained more ground in Europe due to their connections with South American cartels.
Raffaele Imperiali was second to Messina Denaro of Italy’s most wanted, he recently began cooperating with authorities. It is highly unlikely there is any connection to this arrest.
Recently, longtime Camorra cocaine broker Raffaele Imperiali, who was number two on the list of Italy’s most wanted fugitives, was captured in Dubai and cooperated with Italian authorities. His capture was part of several operations to bring down the so-called “Super Cartel” made up of several European organized crime groups. The Super Cartel was said to be responsible for importing a third of Europe’s cocaine.

But the Sicilian Mafia still maintains drug trafficking operations heavily across Europe. This was seen recently in a Europol operation dismantling multiple drug trafficking networks based in Germany. Nearly 100 people connected to the Sicilian Mafia were arrested. Their trafficking includes cocaine, synthetic drugs, and heroin.

Other illegal businesses include their infiltration of public works contracts including construction and waste disposal as well as the extortion of small businesses for protection money. Their strategy of survival is no longer violence against the state; Cosa Nostra is lying low, opting to “co-penetrate the social and economic fabric of Italy,” Italy’s anti-Mafia prosecutor, Giovanni Melillo said.

Public & Political Reactions

“It is a day of celebration when we can tell our children that the Mafia can be beaten,” said Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who flew to Sicily when news of the arrest broke, underlining the importance of the capture.
“We have not won the war, we have not defeated the Mafia but this battle was a key battle to win, and it is a heavy blow to organized crime,” said Meloni. Meloni also thanked the authorities for their work adding: “This is a great victory for the state.” Italian police and the public in the area were seen applauding and celebrating the capture.
Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, whose brother Piersanti was killed by Cosa Nostra in 1980, congratulated the Minister of the Interior and the Carabinieri Military Police. 

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University of Essex criminology professor Anna Sergi told the BBC that Messina Denaro’s arrest was “symbolic not just because he was the boss of Cosa Nostra, but because he represents the last fugitive the Italian state really wanted to get its hands on.” But she questioned the timing of it after his 30 years on the run and being treated at the same clinic for over a year. The state of his health might have been seen as a sign of weakness and he was given up in a power play and/or a favor to Italian authorities.

Gian Carlo Caselli, a Judge, and former Prosecutor General said that the arrest of Messina Denaro was an “exceptional… simply historical event” that might lead to significant developments in the ongoing inquiries into the 1993 bomb attacks that killed 10 people across Italy. “We captured the last of the massacre masterminds” of the 1992-1993 Mafia killings, Prosecutor De Lucia said. “It was a debt that the Republic owed to the victims of those years.” 

Whether Denaro continues to exert any influence at all on Cosa Nostra will probably depend on his health. “Toto” Riina continued to run the organization from inside of prison, in spite of high-security conditions and limited visitors. “It would be a mistake to think that with today’s arrest, the fight against the Mafia is finished. Experience should teach us that Cosa Nostra is capable of regrouping, reorganizing, and relaunching itself. Making connections with business, and in some cases, politics has always been in the DNA of Cosa Nostra. I believe Matteo Messina Denaro knows a lot about those connections, and it would be a great step forward if he decided to collaborate with justice, and tell the truth about what he knows.” stated Nino di Matteo, a former Anti-Mafia Prosecutor in Palermo.