UPDATED: After 30 years, Italy arrests mafia boss Messina Denaro at Sicilian hospital

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PALERMO, Italy (Reuters) -Italy’s most wanted mafia boss, Matteo Messina Denaro, was arrested by armed police at a private hospital in Sicily on Monday, where the man who has been on the run since 1993 was being treated for cancer.

Nicknamed “Diabolik” and “‘U Siccu” (The Skinny One), Messina Denaro had been sentenced in absentia to a life term for his role in the 1992 murders of anti-mafia prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, crimes that shocked the nation and sparked a crackdown on Cosa Nostra.

Messina Denaro, 60, was led away from Palermo’s “La Maddalena” hospital by two uniformed carabinieri police and bundled into a waiting black minivan. He was wearing a brown fur-lined jacket, glasses and a brown and white woolly hat.

Judicial sources said he was being treated for cancer and had an operation last year, followed by a series of appointments under a false name.

An eyewitness on Monday (January 16) recalled the frantic moments just before the arrest of Italy’s most wanted mafia boss, Matteo Messina Denaro. 

“The whole hospital was full of policemen, Carabinieri… then around 11 a.m. (1000GMT) we saw some excitement, we heard police sirens, and then we heard the news of Matteo Messina Denaro’s arrest,” said Francesco Quinci.

A handout mugshot made available by Italy’s Carabinieri shows Mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro, Italy’s most wanted man, following his arrest in Palermo, Sicily, by the Carabinieri police’s ROS unit after 30 years on the run, 16 January 2023. EPA-EFE/CARABINIERI

Other patients clapped and shouted “Bravi!” (well done) during the arrest.

Messina Denaro was taken to the San Lorenzo Carabinieri barracks in Palermo after the operation.

Prosecutors say Messina Denaro is a boss of Sicily’s Cosa Nostra mafia. Nicknamed Diabolik or U Siccu (the skinny one), Denaro was born in Castelvetrano, Sicily, in 1962. His father was a powerful Cosa Nostra boss, and Denaro thrived in the family business, building an illicit multibillion euro empire in the waste, wind energy and retail sectors.

A handout photo made available by Italy’s Carabinieri shows Mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro, Italy’s most wanted man, being arrested in Palermo, Sicily, by the Carabinieri police’s ROS unit after 30 years on the run, 16 January 2023. EPA-EFE/CARABINIERI HANDOUT

He has been sentenced in absentia to a life term for his role in the 1992 murders of anti-mafia prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino.

He also faces a life sentence for his role in bomb attacks in Florence, Rome and Milan which killed 10 people the following year.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni hailed the arrest as “a great victory for the state that shows it never gives up in the face of the mafia”. “Today is a historic day, a day of celebration. It’s a day of celebration for good people, for the families of the victims of organized crime because the sacrifice of so many heroes was not in vain, because someone picked up their legacy and the war was carried on. Noting that it happened the day after the anniversary of late Cosa Nostra boss-of.bosses Totò Riina’s arrest in 1993, she said it shows that the State “does not give up in the face of the Mafia”.

“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. I also want to add that today is a day of celebration for me.”

“My tribute (to the memorial of anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone) was due. Someone continued his work and the war goes on. Thank you, have a nice day.”

Maria Falcone, sister of the murdered judge, echoed that sentiment.

“It proves that mafiosi, despite their delusions of omnipotence, are ultimately doomed to defeat in the conflict with the democratic state,” she said.

Police said in September 2022 that Messina Denaro was still able to issue commands relating to the way the mafia was run in the area around the western Sicilian city of Trapani, his regional stronghold, despite his long disappearance.

Messina Denaro, who comes from the small town of Castelvetrano near Trapani, is accused by prosecutors of being solely or jointly responsible for numerous other murders in the 1990s.

In 1993 he helped organise the kidnapping of a 12-year-old boy, Giuseppe Di Matteo, in an attempt to dissuade his father from giving evidence against the mafia, prosecutors say. The boy was held in captivity for two years before he was strangled and his body dissolved in acid.

The mobster, who once infamously claimed, “I filled a cemetery, all by myself”, has apparently kept up his luxurious lifestyle, thanks to several bankrollers who, according to prosecutors, include politicians and businessmen. He was known for wearing expensive suits, a Rolex and Ray-Ban sunglasses.

The quest to locate Denaro was complicated by the near complete absence of recent photographs. With only a few identity pictures taken in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Italian authorities reconstructed his appearance digitally, using the latest computer technology and information provided by Mafia turncoats. Some informants revealed that the boss underwent facial plastic surgery to conceal his identity, while others stated he had had his fingerprints removed.

Experts say that Cosa Nostra has been replaced by the ‘Ndrangheta, the Calabrian mafia, as the most powerful organised crime group in Italy.

“There is a sense that the Sicilian Mafia is not as strong as it used to be, especially since the 90s, they have really been unable to enter the drug market and so they are really second-fiddle to the ‘Ndrangheta on that,” said Federico Varese, Professor of Criminology at Oxford University.

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