Strong clan loyalty, locals, helped mafia boss Messina Denaro stay hidden

  • The last godfather of the Mafia enjoyed an unusually strong loyalty
  • An omerta code of silence also helped the boss disappear
  • Messina Denaro, the ‘last godfather’, lived with his mother

PALERMO, Italy, Jan 25 (Reuters) – When Salvatore Catalano discovered that Mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro was living not far from his home in the western Sicilian town of Campobello di Mazara, he was taken ill.

Catalano’s brother, Agostino, was a policeman who died in a 1992 bomb that killed anti-mob magistrate Paolo Borsellino — an attack prosecutors say Messina Denaro helped mastermind.

“There’s anger in my heart and soul, I know he’s here and I didn’t recognize him,” Catalano told Reuters.

Messina Denaro, 60, was arrested on January 16 after 30 years. Police believe he spent much of the past year simply hiding in Campobello di Mazara, a town of about 11,000 residents not far from his mother’s home.

“We celebrated the arrest with my family. He is in prison and now under strict detention rules,” Catalano said.

The last confirmed sighting of Messina Denaro in 1993 has made it difficult for police to identify Italy’s most wanted man. He apparently leads an open life in town, shopping by himself at the local supermarket, authorities said.

Prosecutors say his 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 from his nearby hometown of Castelvetrano, as well as prosecutors and police who helped track him down.

He revealed the struggle investigators faced to break through the Mafia’s wall of “omerta,” or code of silence, that had crumbled in other parts of Sicily but still stood firm around Messina Denaro, dubbed “The” by the Italian press. The Last Godfather”.

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“I have arrested at least 200 people related to him. Only one of them decided to cooperate with justice,” said Roberto Piscitello, the prosecutor who tried to capture Messina Denaro from 1996 to 2008.

“In the nearby provinces of Palermo and Agrigento, five out of 10 of those arrested are turncoats,” he told Reuters from his home in Marsala, on Sicily’s western tip.

In the end, Messina Denaro’s fellow robbers betray him, but his failed body.

False identity

Police say they managed to catch Messina Denaro after he learned from wiretaps of his relatives that he had cancer.

He had long suspected that 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 been operated on in the western city of Mazara del Vallo, while his mobile phone was active. Another part of the island.

Investigators took this as “the first significant confirmation” that Messina could have hidden Denaro under a false identity, court documents seen by Reuters showed, as the man believed to be operating the phone was not the real Andrea Bonafede.

He saw the patient and learned that he was due to undergo routine chemotherapy treatment on January 16 in Palermo, the island’s capital.

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Police surrounded and rushed the clinic after the patient arrived for her appointment. He immediately admitted his true identity but dashed any hopes that he would spill the beans on his life of crime.

“I have my code of honor,” a law enforcement source quoted him as saying when magistrates first met him, referring to the Sicilian Mafia’s rule of not talking about the organization to anyone outside for the past 30 years.

Their silence means investigators must try to piece together as best they can how they managed to avoid detection over the years.

The initial focus of their investigation was on the real Andrea Bonafede, a trained surveyor with no criminal record.

Bonafede confirmed his acquaintance with Messina Denaro from his youth and admitted buying a flat for the gangster in Campobello di Mazara, prosecutors said. He remains in custody and has not publicly commented on the case.

Police are also investigating their driver, Giovanni Luppino, an olive farmer who has no police record. He had a switchblade and switched off his two mobile phones, in what magistrates said was an attempt to avoid detection.

He denied knowing the real identity of his passenger.

Palermo chief prosecutor Maurizio De Lucia told Reuters men like Bonafede represented the “first link” of the fugitive’s matrix – those who provided for their basic needs.

But he believes his support network has deep roots.

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“His area has helped him for many years. It is reasonable to think that he was protected by professionals, businessmen,” he said.

His doctor, Alfonso Tumbarello, is among those already under investigation for allegedly aiding the boss. His lawyer said he was confident his client would prove his innocence.

Business contacts

Magistrates said they found evidence that Messina Denaro had visited Spain, Greece and Austria over the years. But the main focus of his trading activities remained in western Sicily, meaning he probably spent most of his time on the island.

Dozens of low-level mafiosi have been arrested in the area over the years – a thinning of Messina Denaro’s inner circle, he said, as magistrates repeatedly intercepted promising leads.

“(But) we couldn’t sacrifice justice. We couldn’t leave gangsters on the streets,” Paolo Guido, the prosecutor who led the long hunt for the boss over the past years, told Reuters.

Prosecutors said the mob boss built extensive financial interests beyond traditional Mafioso concerns, helping him establish a loyal network of white-collar professionals.

A secret 2013 recording made in prison exposed former boss Salvatore “The Beast” Rina, who complained that his one-time protégé was investing in renewable energy projects instead of focusing on hardcore mafia activities.

“In the Sicilian context, those who believe in creating jobs and the possibility of doing business get protection, consensus,” said Col. Antonello Paraciliti Mollica, who heads the anti-crime unit of the Carabinieri special forces in Palermo.

Writing by Angelo Amante; Edited by Crispian Balmer and Ross Colvin

Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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