Matteo Messina Denaro, who has died in prison aged 61 of colon cancer, was regarded as the head of the Sicilian Mafia, the Cosa Nostra.
Nicknamed “Diabolik” or “U siccu” (the Thin One) he became “u capu di ’i capi” (boss of bosses) after the arrest in 2006 of the previous head of Cosa Nostra, Bernardo “U Tratturi” (the Tractor) Provenzano, who in turn had replaced Toto “La Belva” (the Beast) Ri’ina when he was arrested in 1993.
But Messina Denaro’s control of Cosa Nostra was never as absolute as theirs had been. This was in part because he was not from the town of Corleone, in the Sicilian interior to the south of Palermo, as they were, but from near Trapani on the north-west coast. But it was also a reflection of the concerted effort by the Italian state over the last few decades to destroy Cosa Nostra. These days, the Calabrian and Neapolitan Mafia – the N’Drangheta and the Camorra – are said to be far more powerful.
Messina Denaro had been on the run for 30 years when he was finally arrested in January this year thanks to a brilliantly planned undercover police operation that ensnared him when he went to a private hospital in Palermo where he was undergoing chemotherapy using a false name.
They had intercepted telephone calls from people who mentioned him by name and said that he was having cancer treatment. They trawled through the records of everyone undergoing such treatment in Sicily to find one who fitted his profile. When they arrested him they were not sure that he was Messina Denaro as they had no recent photograph of him but when he was asked to say who he was, he confessed.
While on the run, Messina Denaro had been convicted of more than 50 murders. These included his role in the assassination of Italy’s two most famous anti-Mafia magistrates, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, in two car bomb attacks in Sicily within the space of three months in 1992.
They also included the strangling of Antonella Bonomo, the widow of a rival Mafia boss who was three months pregnant, and the kidnap and murder of Giuseppe Di Matteo, the 12-year-old son of a Mafioso who had become an informant. The boy was held in captivity for more than two years before being strangled and dissolved in acid in 1996. “Men of Honour”, as Mafiosi style themselves, are not supposed to kill pregnant women or children. Messina Denaro did.
The 1992 bomb attacks on the two anti-Mafia magistrates, plus further bomb attacks in 1993, most notably in Florence, Rome and Milan, amounted to a declaration of war by Cosa Nostra on the Italian state.
It was Ri’ina who ordered those attacks in retaliation for the so-called “Maxiprocesso” – said to be the largest ever trial anywhere ever – that the two judges had masterminded in the late 1980s and which saw 460 Mafiosi convicted. But it was Messina Denaro who did the dirty work.
In the end, Cosa Nostra was severely weakened by the Italian state’s determined drive to eradicate it – or at least, that is how it seems. But Cosa Nostra may just have switched tactics and decided, as Michael Corleone did in the last Godfather film, to abandon violence and go “legit”.
Matteo Messina Denaro was born on 26 April 1962 in the town of Castelvetrano in the province of Trapani, the fourth of six children of Francesco Messina Denaro and Lorenza Santangelo. His father was a local Mafia boss known as “Don Ciccio” (Don Fatso). The boy left school early and did not do the Italian equivalent of A-levels; later he would say that one of the biggest regrets of his life was that he had not gone to university. Short-sighted and cross-eyed, he took to wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses.
Post-war Cosa Nostra bosses such as Ri’ina, who died in 2017, and Provenzano, who died in 2016, looked and behaved like peasant farmers. Messina Denaro was suburban flash: he wore Armani and Versace, drove sports cars and loved comics and computer games, cognac, Cuban cigars and expensive restaurants. When he was arrested he had a Richard Mille watch worth about €30,000 on his wrist.
In one of the flats he lived in there was a poster on the wall of Marlon Brando as the Godfather, five different identity documents, and a Smith & Wesson pistol hidden in a secret compartment in a kitchen cupboard. In another, there was a magnet on the fridge with the image of Marlon Brando and the words: “I am the Godfather”. There were also biographies of Vladimir Putin and Adolf Hitler and books on philosophy and current affairs.
Unlike traditional Mafia bosses Messina Denaro did not observe Cosa Nostra’s strict adherence to traditional family values and the Catholic church. He was a womaniser who never married and did not believe in God or go to Mass. He had at least one child, with a woman called Francesca Alegna – a daughter, Lorenza, born in 1996, whom he never knew until she visited him in prison at the end of his life and agreed with his consent to take his surname.
His principal girlfriend was Laura Bonafede, a primary school teacher in Campobello di Mazara, the small town where he lived incognito, who is the daughter of a local Mafia boss and wife of another Mafioso serving a life sentence. She is in custody awaiting trial for protecting Messina Denaro.
That such a woman can openly work as a teacher illustrates the gravity of Sicily’s Mafia problem. According to court documents, the only explanation for her loyalty to Messina Denaro was her “total adhesion to the spirit, ideals, and behaviour of one of the most ferocious Mafiosi ever seen in Italy”.
Yes, the Mafia protects people, but ultimately it is the people who protect the Mafia – which, they reckon, is preferable to the state. The Mafia protects them – in every sense of the word – unlike the state. Indeed, the Mafia protects them from the state. Everyone, surely, in that small town knew who Messina Denaro was. All remained silent.
Like him, Provenzano and Ri’ina also spent decades on the run under the noses of the police. Ri’ina was arrested in a car coming out of the residential compound in Palermo where he had lived for years, while Provenzano was arrested inside a shepherd’s hut near Corleone, where both were born.
Like them, Messina Denaro refused to reveal any information about Cosa Nostra to investigating magistrates. He denied that he was a Mafioso and claimed that he only knew about Cosa Nostra from “reading the newspapers”.
Messina Denaro will be buried in his family’s mausoleum in the cemetery at Castelvetrano but there will be no religious ceremony in accordance with Catholic Church policy regarding the deaths of Mafia bosses. Not that this would worry him.
Provenzano was a devout Catholic who used to send coded messages to his Mafiosi, including Messina Denaro, inside copies of the Bible. He would invariably include benedictions such as: “May the Lord bless and protect you.” But Messina Denaro, who described himself as an agnostic, felt contempt for the Church.
In a 2013 diary found by police in one of the flats he lived in he wrote: “I refuse any religious ceremony because [they are] made by unclean men who live in hatred and sin. It will not be those who proclaim themselves to be soldiers of God who will be able to decide the fate of my lifeless corpse.” After death, he said elsewhere, “There is nothing.”
Matteo Messina Denaro, born April 26 1962, died September 25 2023