matteo messina denaro italian mafia boss is arrested

Matteo Messina Denaro, who was sentenced in absentia for the 1992 murder of two prosecutors and other crimes, was apprehended in a Sicilian hospital.

The Italian police on Monday arrested the country’s most wanted fugitive, Matteo Messina Denaro, a mafia boss who had eluded the authorities for three decades and was convicted in absentia of murder and other crimes.

Mr. Messina Denaro, 60, was arrested in a hospital in Palermo, in his native Sicily, where he was undergoing treatment, according to Pasquale Angelosanto, a general with the Italian national police.

Law enforcement had considered Mr. Messina Denaro the heir to Salvatore Riina, the “boss of bosses” who was responsible for a series of brutal killings of Italian prosecutors and police officers in the 1990s. Mr. Riina was captured in 1993, also in Palermo, and spent the rest of his life in prison. He died in 2017.

The Italian prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, flew to Sicily to congratulate the police and prosecutors for the arrest of the “most significant representative of mafia syndicates,” her office said in a statement.

“We didn’t win the war, we didn’t defeat the mafia, but this was a fundamental battle to win,” Ms. Meloni told reporters in impromptu remarks at the main Palermo courthouse. “This is a hard blow to organized crime.”

“Italy has never thrown in the towel,” she said. “It is stronger than the mafia.”

President Sergio Mattarella of Italy, whose brother, Piersanti Mattarella, was murdered by the mafia in 1980 while serving as Sicily’s governor, phoned the police and prosecutors on Monday to congratulate them on the arrest.

Mr. Messina Denaro maintained power even while in hiding, mostly managing assets and infiltrating legal economic enterprises including solar energy companies and large-scale distribution, investigators said. In 2020, he was sentenced to a life term in absentia for his role in the 1992 murders of two anti-mafia prosecutors, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, and bombings in 1993 in Florence, Milan and Rome that left 10 people dead.

Prosecutors say that he was also involved in the 1993 kidnapping of a 12-year-old boy, Giuseppe Di Matteo, to pressure his father to stop revealing mafia secrets to the authorities. The boy’s remains were later found dissolved in acid.

Antonio Parrinello/Reuters

Police officials say that Mr. Messina Denaro was linked to dozens of murders in the 1990s, including the strangulation of a pregnant woman whose partner was seen as a threat to his clan, and had been killed days earlier.

“One of the most dramatic seasons of the republic’s history closes today,” Carlo Nordio, the Italian justice minister, said in a statement on Monday. “The work of Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, and all the state’s servants who gave their life to defend democratic values, has continued.”

The police had tried several times to apprehend Mr. Messina Denaro after he went underground in June 1993, but officials said that a network of collaborators in Sicily, especially in the western Trapani region, helped him evade arrest.

Mr. Messina Denaro was born to a mafia-affiliated family, and his own father died in hiding in 1998. He disappeared from public life at the age of 31, soon after the arrest of Mr. Riina. The Cosa Nostra syndicate — the mafia based in Sicily — was led at the time by Bernardo Provenzano, like Mr. Riina a member of the Corleone family, who pulled back from Mr. Riina’s war against the state and the killings of top investigators and journalists.

Mr. Provenzano was arrested in 2006, after 13 relatively quiet years of criminal activities. His most likely successors appeared to be Mr. Messina Denaro and Salvatore Lo Piccolo, but Mr. Lo Piccolo was arrested a year later.

Only Mr. Messina Denaro remained at large, surrounded by an increasing aura of mystery. Known as a ruthless boss with a penchant for designer clothes and playboy inclinations, he communicated with associates through letters and handwritten messages that he avoided drafting personally. Most of his closest relatives have been arrested over the years for mafia-related crimes, but they never betrayed him.

For decades, the police had little evidence to track him down.

Italian Carabinieri Press Office, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Even his physical appearance was long in question. Italian news outlets have published video frames of an older man purported to be Mr. Messina Denaro traveling in a jeep across the Sicilian countryside, as well as reports of sightings across Europe.

There was speculation that he had undergone facial surgery to disguise his identity. The only evidence the police had to work with were to him was a tape with his voice from a court in Palermo, recorded at a hearing in the 1990s, and a handwritten love letter he left to his girlfriend before going into hiding.

To narrow their search, the authorities produced a computer-generated image of Mr. Messina Denaro, based on his picture from a 1990s family album, and circulated it to international police forces and the news media. In September 2021, a man from Liverpool, England, was arrested in the Netherlands after he was wrongly identified as Mr. Messina Denaro. He was released days later.

A police picture on Monday showed Mr. Messina Denaro as an older man, with facial features similar to his pictures at a younger age.

In video footage of his detention on Monday, Mr. Messina Denaro wore a brown fur-lined jacket, khaki trousers, a woolen hat and sunglasses, as he was escorted by a policewoman and a policeman from the hospital into a black police van.

The director of the private clinic where he was arrested, Stefania Filosto, told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera that Mr. Messina Denaro was surrounded by officers while he was waiting in line for a Covid test before undergoing chemotherapy under a false name. He briefly tried to flee.

Bystanders outside the clinic applauded police officers, their faces obscured by hoods, as some hugged each other and others raised their fingers in victory signs.

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