Hiding in Plain Sight: How the Sicilian Mafia Godfather Evaded Capture for 30 Years | Mafia

Hiding in Plain Sight: How the Sicilian Mafia Godfather Evaded Capture for 30 Years |  Mafia

AAt 8:20 a.m. last Monday, Andrea Bonafede was in line at the registration of a private medical clinic in Palermo, Sicily. Suffering from colon cancer and thought to be 59, he had already undergone two operations and chemotherapy at the clinic, often bringing staff gifts of olive oil and exchanging phone numbers and text messages with colleagues patients. He was known to dress in flashy clothes: that morning he wore a sheepskin coat, a white hat, Ray-Ban sunglasses and an overpriced Franck Muller watch.

While waiting for his Covid test, he got out and headed for the Fiat Brava, and the driver, who had taken him there. Plainclothes officers watching him were concerned that he realized he was being watched and might be on the run. A colonel from the Carabinieri, the Italian militarized police, decides to move in: “Are you Matteo Messina Denaro?

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

A police composite photo of mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro, left;  and, to the right, as it looks today, to the right.
A police composite photo of mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro, left; and, on the right, as it looks today. Photography: AP

The 150 police and carabinieri who were in position inside and outside the clinic suddenly went into action. Totò Schillaci, the former Palermo international footballer, was caught up in the blitz, later comparing it to “a madhouse, a wild west”. Armed forces in balaclavas burst into unmarked vehicles and blocked exit routes and streets. After 30 years on the run, Italy’s most wanted man – nicknamed The sixor “Skinny” – had finally been captured.

Realizing what was happening, audience members began to cheer. Some clapped the hands of the men in balaclavas. Within an hour, the arrest of Messina Denaro made headlines around the world. Italian President Sergio Mattarella (whose brother, Piersanti, was murdered by the mafia in 1980 while he was governor of Sicily) thanked police and prosecutors. Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni immediately flew to Palermo to congratulate special forces on capturing the man who helped plan a campaign of terror-style bombings across Italy in 1992 and 1993.

During these years, as the certainties of the First Republic disintegrated, the standoff between the Italian state and Cosa Nostra had turned into a violent confrontation. Two fierce investigators, 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, for the first time, clearly revealed. In mass trials, 338 gangsters were convicted.

When these convictions were upheld on appeal, the Mafia exacted their brutal revenge: their political protector, Salvo Lima, was executed in March 1992 and later that year the two investigators were killed in very public bombings on the island. Falcone, his wife and three bodyguards were murdered on the road between the airport and Palermo in May; Borsellino was murdered in Palermo in July, along with five bodyguards, while visiting his sister and mother. Messina Denaro participated in the operational planning of both attacks.

The following year, the campaign of terror turned to the mainland. At 1:04 a.m. on the 27thMay 1993, a bomb explodes outside the Uffizi Gallery, Via dei Georgofili in Florence, destroying various works of art and killing five people, including a nine-year-old girl, Nadia, and her two-month-old sister. Two months later, on the 27July, a bomb in front of a contemporary art gallery in Milan killed five people; the next day there were two more bombs in Rome, this time with no casualties. Messina Denaro was convicted, in absentia, of also ordering and planning the bombing campaign 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 in which five people were killed. Photography: 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 renowned for being both a party-loving womanizer and a ruthless killer. He fell in love with an Austrian woman who worked in a hotel in Selinunte and when his manager, Nicola Consales, was overheard complaining about the “little gangstersthat hung around the hotel, he was – in Palermo in 1991 – shot dead.

A year later, another mobster complained about Riina’s strategy of a frontal assault 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 attempted to assassinate a policeman, Calogero Germanà. When a gangster became a state witness, Messina Denaro was part of the cupola – the group of top Mafia bosses – who ordered the kidnapping of their 12-year-old son, Giuseppe di Matteo. The boy was held captive for 779 days before being strangled and dissolved in acid. Messina Denaro once bragged that she had killed enough people to fill a cemetery.

But in her three decades in hiding, Messina Denaro has also led the mafia in a new direction. Drive-by executions and semtex bombings only guaranteed repressions and bad headlines, and The six had seen how the Calabrian mafia, the ‘Ndrangheta, had enriched himself by quietly infiltrating and investing in legitimate businesses. Messina Denaro has invested her dirty money in clean energy, using an unknown electrician as a front to build a wind empire worth 1.5 billion euros. He created a 700 million euro chain of 83 stores through another leader.

Investigators grew suspicious of various builders and salami makers who were suddenly making millions from slot machines, stolen archaeological treasures, transportation hubs, construction companies, and tourist resorts. In 2011 alone, they arrested 140 alleged acolytes and ringleaders, a few of whom turned around and gave investigators insight into Messina Denaro’s business empire.

But the man himself remained elusive. Investigators didn’t even know what he looked like. There was only one photograph 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 killed in Florence. The breakthrough came when wiretapping of her relatives revealed that Messina Denaro had colon cancer. Investigators 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 assassinated on the watch of Messina Denaro.

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

But despite the initial euphoria at the famous fugitive’s capture, details of his life on the run shocked the country last week. Stunningly resembling the artificially aged photograph, Messina Denaro lived openly in Campobello di Mazara, next to her birthplace in Castelvetrano. He used to go regularly to the local bar, pizzeria and even, according to reports, to the football stadium in Palermo. The Viagra found in his apartment suggests he had company. A doctor treating 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 GP (known to be a member of a local Masonic lodge) who presumably knew the real Bonafede.

“He was hiding in plain sight,” says Federico Varese, professor of criminology at Oxford University and author of mafia life. “It is extraordinary and disconcerting that it took 30 years to arrest this man and it speaks to a fact: there was no help from local informants due to a deep mistrust of the inhabitants of this part of Italy towards the institutions of the State.” Another former fugitive, mob boss Bernardo Provenzano, was able to evade capture for 43 years.

But more than passive the silence, or silence, from the local community, many investigators spoke last week of active collusion. Pasquale Angelosanto, the commander of the elite troops behind Operation Tramonto, lamented that the long hunt was “marked by arrested politicians, law enforcement officers and state officials or being investigated for warning the boss that the circle was closing.” On several occasions, the authorities thought an arrest was imminent, only to be foiled at the last minute: on one occasion, the police burst into the alleged meeting place in Bagheria where Messina Denaro allegedly met one of his lovers, Maria Masi. They found only fresh caviar, a scarf, a bracelet, Merit cigarettes and a puzzle, all hastily abandoned.

The suspicion of an overlap between institutional figures and organized crime has increased in recent months: last December, Antonio D’Alì – former undersecretary at the Ministry of the Interior under the government of Silvio Berlusconi from 2001 to 2006 – was sentenced for “external complicity with the mafia”. Messina Denaro and her father had worked for the D’Alì family. In September 2022, Totò Cuffaro, a former governor of the island who spent almost five years in prison for “complicity” with Cosa Nostra and violation of the secrecy of the investigation, ran for re-election. His party or “list” won five seats in the regional assembly. In an ongoing trial, many other politicians are accused of having negotiated with the mafia in those crisis years of 1992-93.

The faint hope that the captured man could collaborate with the authorities and reveal some of the secrets of that dark time has also faded. The decision to name his niece, a notorious defender of gangsters, as his lawyer suggests, he will make neither revelations nor confessions. Nor is there much hope that the organization will be significantly weakened. “The mafias are not reducible to their ‘bosses'”, wrote Luigi Ciotti, lifelong anti-mafia activist last week: “[they have] has developed into a latticework of organizations capable of compensating for the disappearance of an individual through the strength of the system.

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

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

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