- The Last Mafia Boss Enjoyed Unusually Strong Loyalty
- The Omerta code of silence also helped the boss stay hidden
- “The Last Godfather” Messina Denaro lived near her mother
PALERMO, Italy, Jan 25 (Reuters) – When Salvatore Catalano discovered that mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro was living a short walk from his home in the western Sicilian town of Campobello di Mazara, he felt ill.
Catalano’s brother Agostino was a policeman who died in a 1992 bombing that killed anti-mob magistrate Paolo Borsellino – an attack prosecutors say Messina Denaro helped organize.
“There is anger in my heart and soul now that I know he was here and didn’t recognize him,” Catalano told Reuters.
Messina Denaro, 60, was arrested on January 16 after 30 years on the run. Police believe he has spent much of the last year hiding in plain sight in Campobello di Mazara, a town of around 11,000, a short drive from his mother’s home.
“We celebrated the arrest with my family. He is in prison and will now be subject to strict detention rules,” Catalano said.
The last confirmed sighting of Messina Denaro was in 1993, making it difficult for police to identify Italy’s most wanted man. He led a seemingly open life in the city, shopping at the local supermarket, authorities said.
Prosecutors say their hunt was further complicated by the unusually strong loyalty he received from members of his clan in western Sicily.
Reuters interviewed dozens of residents on the streets of Campobello and his nearby hometown of Castelvetrano, as well as prosecutors and police who helped find him.
They revealed the struggle investigators faced in an attempt to break through the mafia wall of ‘omerta’, or code of silence, which had crumbled in other parts of Sicily but still held firmly around it. of Messina Denaro, nicknamed by the Italian press “the last godfather”.
“I arrested at least 200 people related to him. Only one of them decided to collaborate with justice,” said Roberto Piscitello, a prosecutor who tried to capture Messina Denaro from 1996 to 2008.
“In the neighboring provinces of Palermo and Agrigento, five out of 10 people arrested become defectors,” he told Reuters from his home in Marsala, on the western tip of Sicily.
In the end, it wasn’t Messina Denaro’s other gangsters who betrayed him, but his failing body.
Police say they managed to nab Messina Denaro after learning through phone taps from relatives that he had cancer.
They had long suspected he was living in his native Sicily, and a thorough check of cancer patients in the area revealed that a man named Andrea Bonafede had undergone surgery in the western town of Mazara del Vallo at the same time. when his cell phone was active in another part of the island.
Investigators took this as the ‘first significant confirmation’ that Messina Denaro may be hiding under this false identity, court documents seen by Reuters showed, as it suggested the man operated on was not the real Andrea Bonafede, who was presumed to be with his landline.
They headed to the patient and learned that he was to receive routine chemotherapy treatment in Palermo, the island’s capital, on January 16.
Police surrounded the clinic and surged after the patient arrived for his appointment. He immediately recognized his true identity but seemed to dash any hope he would spill the beans on his life of crime.
‘I have my code of honour,’ police source quoted by magistrates as saying when they first met him, referring to Sicilian mafia rule, which has been badly degraded over the past 30 years , not to talk about the organization to anyone outside.
His silence means investigators must try to piece together as best they can how he managed to avoid discovery over the years.
The initial focus of their investigation was on the real Andrea Bonafede, a trained surveyor who had no criminal record.
Bonafede confirmed that he had known Messina Denaro since his youth and admitted buying the mobster an apartment in Campobello di Mazara, prosecutors said. He himself is under arrest and has not publicly commented on the case.
Police are also investigating his driver, Giovanni Luppino, an olive grower who also had no criminal record. He was wearing a switchblade and had both of his mobile phones turned off, in what magistrates say was an attempt to prevent being found.
He denied knowing the true identity of his passenger.
Palermo’s chief prosecutor, Maurizio de Lucia, told Reuters that men like Bonafede represented the “first link” in the fugitive’s matrix – those who provided for his basic needs.
But he thinks his support network had deep roots.
“His territory helped him for many years. It is reasonable to think that he received protection from professionals, entrepreneurs,” he said.
Among those already under investigation for allegedly aiding and abetting the boss is his doctor, Alfonso Tumbarello. His attorney said he was confident his client could prove his innocence.
Magistrates said they found evidence that Messina Denaro had traveled to Spain, Greece and Austria over the years. But the bulk of his trading activities remained in western Sicily, meaning he probably spent much of his time on the island.
Dozens of lower-level mafiosi have been arrested in the region over the years – a clearing up of Messina Denaro’s inner circle who magistrates say repeatedly cut short promising leads they hoped would one day lead them to the boss .
“(But) we couldn’t sacrifice justice. We couldn’t leave the gangsters on the streets,” prosecutor Paolo Guido, who led the long hunt for the boss in recent years, told Reuters.
Prosecutors said the mob boss had built a wide range of financial interests that went well beyond traditional mafia concerns, helping him build a loyal network of white-collar professionals.
A secret 2013 recording made in prison revealed that the former boss of bosses, Salvatore “the Beast” Riina, had complained that his former protege was investing in renewable energy projects rather than focusing on the activities of hardcore mafia.
“In the Sicilian context, those who are supposed to create jobs and the possibility of doing business obtain consensus, protection,” said Colonel Antonello Parasiliti Molica, who heads the Carabinieri’s special forces anti-crime unit. Palermo.
Written by Angelo Amante; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Ross Colvin
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