How Matteo Messina Denaro was run to ground in Sicily after 30 years

How the last Mafia Godfather Matteo Messina Denaro was run to ground in Sicily after a 30-year manhunt – as revealed by the elite police unit he congratulated as they led him to jail

  • Matteo Messina Denaro killed a rival and then strangled their pregnant girlfriend 
  • He also kidnapped an 11-year-old and strangled him, dissolving his body in acid 
  • READ MORE: Fugitive mafia mobster had a poster for THE GODFATHER on the wall of his secret bunker, police reveal after he was finally captured

Nothing could prepare the Mafia hunters for the tension as the moment of truth approached. Gathered around a screen receiving live images from drones hovering above a hospital in the suburbs of Palermo, Sicily, some of the police chiefs looked on in silence. Others whispered prayers and drew crucifixes across their navy blue jackets.

As the clock ticked down to 9.15am on Monday, the nerve-shredding scene inside their HQ was reminiscent of the White House bunker on the day U.S. forces killed Osama Bin Laden.

The quarry on this occasion was The Last Godfather — an equally ruthless fugitive, whose name had been on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list for almost three decades.

During that time, Matteo Messina Denaro had outsmarted Italy’s top mob-busters at every turn, savouring the hedonistic fruits of his multi-billion criminal empire — including a harem of beautiful women enlisted to ease his isolation.


Matteo Messina Denaro (pictured left and right) put his hands round the throat of a rival’s girlfriend, she pleaded with him to spare her unborn child, yet he took two innocent lives without an ounce of pity

Carabinieri chiefs have dedicated the arrest to a colleague who fell to his death while erecting a listening post aerial on a mountain, hoping to intercept Mafia calls

By intercepting the phone calls of one of his sisters, however, investigators had discovered that Denaro, now 60, has cancer and they believed he was being treated at the Maddalena clinic, using an alias. The opportunity to bring him to justice for dozens of murders had finally arrived.

Yet, as they well knew from humiliating experience, it could all end disastrously. He might have been tipped off, as had happened many times before, and fail to show up for his 9.15am chemotherapy appointment.

They could have been wrong in deducing that he was the polite, well-heeled patient who presented himself as landowner Andrea Bonafede, posed for selfies with his nurses and gifted them ‘home-grown’ olive oil.

And if they did have the right man, a gun battle might erupt in the clinic, given that Denaro is an unconscionable monster, even by Mafia standards — a man who strangled a pregnant woman and a 12-year-old boy (dissolving his body in acid), and who once boasted that he had ‘filled a cemetery all by myself’. Before he was approached, around 100 officers, some armed with Beretta machine guns, sealed off the building. Yet the show of force proved unnecessary.

Pounced on while making his way to the coffee bar, Denaro meekly surrendered and immediately volunteered his real name. ‘This is actually quite common for Mafia of a certain level,’ said Palermo’s anti-crime commander Lieutenant Colonel Antonello Parasiliti Molica, giving me the most detailed account of the momentous arrest.

‘It is about protocol — a kind of code. They usually don’t run or show any emotion. They don’t react violently. Instead, they often compliment the arresting officers, and he did that. Before we put him on a helicopter and flew him to jail, he asked for a piece of paper and wrote down a message, congratulating the ROS and GIS [the two Italian special forces units that captured him] for treating him with humanity.’

As it became clear the mission had succeeded, the control room was filled with emotion. Lt Cl Parasiliti, who helped to plan the arrest and was among those watching the drone video, said he and his colleagues cheered and hugged one another. Some wept unashamedly, among them a burly senior officer who has hunted Denaro for 25 years. ‘It was a cry of relief and of liberation,’ the man, who asked not to be named because of his sensitive work, told me.

‘You must understand that Messina Denaro had seemed unreachable,’ the Lieutenant Colonel interjected. ‘It was a symbol who fell. The tension and stress had finally come to an end.’

Carabinieri chiefs have dedicated the arrest to a colleague who fell to his death while erecting a listening post aerial on a mountain, hoping to intercept Mafia calls.

Investigators had discovered that Denaro, now 60, has cancer and they believed he was being treated at the Maddalena clinic, using an alias

When arrested, he was wearing a £35,000 Muller watch and a designer leather jacket

Yet as their leader languishes in one of the ultra-harsh, 12ft by 9ft isolation cells to which mafiosi prisoners are consigned, his capture raises uncomfortable questions, not only for the Cosa Nostra, as the Sicilian Mafia is known, but also for the Italian establishment.

Since he was living openly, latterly in the small town of Campobello di Mazara, an hour’s drive from the clinic — unlike previous on-the-run Mafia bosses, who hid in labyrinthine tunnels dug into the Sicilian hills — and since he travelled extensively (making several trips to England) there is a clamour to know how he remained at liberty for so long.

Giacomo di Girolamo, author of The Invisible, an acclaimed biography of Denaro, believes the answer lies in an amalgam of ineptitude, apathy and corruption, suggesting he was protected by high-powered figures in business, politics and the justice system.

This despatch is being written at the Grand Hotel Et Des Palmes, a stunning building with a special place in Mafia folklore. In 1957, amid its Belle Epoque splendour, Cosa Nostra chiefs held a historic summit with their New York cousins, including legendary figures such as Lucky Luciano and Joey Bananas, sealing the deal by which the Sicilians would flood America with heroin.

Though Denaro inherited their mantle as the so-called Boss of Bosses, his lifestyle was far removed from that of these old-school mobsters who, for all their ruthlessness, upheld their own moral code. They paid lip-service to Catholicism and traditional Italian family values, frowning on ostentatious displays of wealth.

The Last Godfather, an avowed atheist who never married and had a string of lovers — at least one of whom bore him a child — is very much a playboy. When arrested, he was wearing a £35,000 Muller watch and a designer leather jacket. And though his two known lairs in Campobello were unprepossessing side-street apartments, police who searched them found Viagra pills, condoms and expensive jewellery.

Vaingloriously, a huge poster of Marlon Brando in his film role as The Godfather was displayed in the ground floor flat, a testimony to his inflated ego. Police have found evidence he was spending £10,000 a week on luxury items.

How, then, did this new breed of mob boss rise to pre-eminence? The fourth of six children born to Francesco Messina Denaro, who controlled Sicily’s Trapani province for the Mafia, he was initiated at 14 and quickly earned a reputation for dispassionate violence.

When a local hotel manager tried to end his romance with an attractive Austrian receptionist — fearing guests would be deterred by the presence of a swaggering young mafiosi — he had the man murdered. And when a Cosa Nostra member was discovered to be a police informer — the ultimate act of betrayal — Denaro kidnapped the man’s 11-year-old son, holding the boy prisoner for two years before strangling him and dissolving his body in acid.

He used the same disposal method after having four mob men who opposed his father’s decisions summarily throttled, and it was doubtless used to get rid of a further 50 or more victims, killed by Denaro or on his orders.

Perhaps his most shocking act came when he killed a rival, then lured his pregnant girlfriend to the murder scene on the pretext that the man was waiting to see her.

As Denaro put his hands round her throat, she pleaded with him to spare her unborn child, yet he took two innocent lives without an ounce of pity.

Such chilling dedication to the cause impressed Salvatore ‘Toto’ Riina, then godfather of the Sicilian Mafia. Denaro came to be regarded as his anointed heir. During the early 1990s, when Riina tried to bring the Italian government to heel with an all-out terror campaign, his protegee was a willing assassin.

Driving regularly to the cancer clinic in Palermo, this past year, he might have smiled as he passed a monument to his grisly craft — a stone obelisk beside the A29 motorway. It is a memorial to the anti-Mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone, his wife, and three police escort officers, blown to oblivion on May 23, 1992, as they crossed a bridge beneath which was planted 300kg of explosives.

Two months later, Denaro had a leading role in a second bomb attack which killed judge Paolo Borsellino, an equally zealous and brave scourge of organised crime. On Thursday, a judge attempted to question Denaro over these two seminal atrocities (which, contrary to their intended effect, hardened the state’s resolve to expunge the Mafia) but he refused to be interviewed over a video link in his cell. He was sentenced to life for his role in the bombings in 2002. By then he had already been on the run for almost a decade.

However, as the authorities had just one, grainy photo of him, taken when he was a young man, and his voice had been sketchily recorded only once — when he gave evidence at trial — it was, as one investigator says, ‘like hunting a ghost’. He never used phones or computers to deliver his orders, communicating with underlings by ‘pizzini’, small pieces of paper tightly wrapped in Sellotape so they could only be opened once before being burnt. Unwitting messengers included an acolyte’s five-year-old daughter, recruited after he treated her to an ice cream.

The hunt intensified when, following Toto Riina’s death in 2017, Denaro took his position. However, his pursuers received scant help from ordinary folk in his province, who were either too terrified to volunteer information or risibly regarded him as a modern-day Robin Hood.

Though there was rejoicing in the streets near the cancer clinic following his arrest, and pupils at a school in Castelvetrano, his Sicilian hometown, showed their approval with a playground demonstration, in some quarters this hero-worship persists.

Yet unlike his predecessors, who spread their wealth among the poor to curry loyalty, Denaro lavished his fortune on luxuries such as works of art, fine dining, incognito foreign travel and his only weakness — beautiful women. Indeed, according to Carlo Pulici, a former financial police officer who spent many years attempting to trace him, Denaro’s insatiable lust almost proved his downfall.

Through an informant, Mr Pulici discovered — too late — that The Godfather was sheltering in a sumptuous seaside villa in Bagheria, 20 minutes’ drive from Palermo. ‘There were always lots of women going back and forth. Young, good-looking, high-class, because he was very generous to his lovers,’ he told me.

‘They weren’t only brought to him for sex. He would have relationships with them. He saw himself as a romantic. A Latin lover.

‘Another lead I followed, in 2014, took me to Bologna. Denaro’s cousin owned a jewellery shop and when a diamond ring worth 30,000 euros disappeared from the shelves we deduced that the Mafia boss had it, because he was one of the few locals who could afford it.

‘He had fallen for a schoolteacher in Bologna — she was in her 30s, beautiful, tall and blonde — and he’d bought the ring for her. We followed her for a while, but we could never catch him with her.’

Mr Pulici worked on the case under Teresa Principato, a fearless prosecutor deployed to hunt Denaro. They learned that he travelled widely and was given succour by a network of overseas contacts, several of whom were members of secretive masonic lodges. The links between the Mafia and renegade Italian masons — far removed from the Freemasons we know in Britain — are well documented.

So, is it a coincidence that the doctor who referred Denaro (under his alias, Bonafede) to the cancer clinic belonged to a lodge until this week, when — by dint of their association — he was expelled?

Among the countries Denaro visited were Venezuela, where a chapter of Cosa Nostra has taken root, perhaps to run a drug trafficking operation; and Spain, where he stayed in a Marbella villa owned by a celebrated restaurateur to the stars. Intriguingly, before he was abruptly pulled off the search eight years ago (he claims in dubious circumstances) Pulici’s inquiries also led to London.

Aided by the British police, he told me, they learned that the Mafia boss had ventured there several times, staying with a Sicilian family who had set up a successful business.

Precisely why he allegedly visited these people (whom he named) is anyone’s guess. In more recent years, however, Denaro’s links to a number of outwardly respectable entrepreneurs — the so-called Mafia Bourgeoisie — have been uncovered.

He laundered and invested billions through companies with interests ranging from tourism to energy, construction to retailing. Assets seized by the authorities include a 1.5 billion euro wind turbine venture near Castelvetrano, allegedly set up by Denaro in collusion with corrupt local politicians, a nearby 700 million euro shopping mall (whose apparent owner is now in prison) and building firms worth 550 million euros.

In 2005, when Trapani, a coastal town on Denaro’s home turf, won the prestigious right to stage a leg of the America’s Cup yacht race, the Mafia don even muscled in on companies involved in the organisation.

For all his avarice and barbarism, however, he is a complex character. Utterly unsentimental in most respects, he is known to regret bitterly never having met his only daughter, Lorenza, 26, the product of one of his affairs while in hiding.

And even Carabinieri chief Parasiliti concedes that he’s well-read and ‘shows a certain level of culture . . . quite uncommon for the old-style Corleonesi bosses’, who were little more than peasants, albeit rich and powerful ones.

Yet at the height of the terror campaign, this ‘cultured’ man masterminded an art gallery bombing in Florence that deliberately destroyed priceless paintings by Rubens and Giotto.

On Wednesday, I watched black-masked members of the special services search the Campobello flat that served as one of his lairs.

In a bunker hidden behind a wardrobe, they found gemstones, but there is more excitement over documents they discovered.

The hope is, according to Parasiliti, that they will provide an unparalleled insight into the Sicilian Mafia’s operations dating back decades. For Denaro is thought to be the one man who harbours a written archive of their activities.

Some cynical Mafia watchers are treating the official story behind his arrest with caution, suggesting he engineered his own capture because his liver and colon cancer is at an advanced stage and he would prefer to spend his last days in prison, where he will receive good medical care and put aside the stress of living a lie.

In the Italian Press, there has also been speculation that The Last Godfather’s arrest might mark the end of the organisation’s 150-year tyranny.

The military man thinks otherwise. ‘I wish it would, but we are certain that it won’t,’ he says gravely. ‘The Cosa Nostra will change and evolve.

‘But I don’t think anyone will operate at the same high level again. It’s difficult to find a man of his charisma and sophistication. With this arrest we have destroyed a myth.’

Additional reporting: Antonella Sferrazza

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