In this article, Matteo Messina Denaro was one of the world’s most notorious and elusive crime bosses, remaining free for nearly thirty years while leading Cosa Nostra (Sicilian Mafia). Responsible for murders, bombings, kidnappings and extortions that terrorized Italy and beyond; eventually caught near a private clinic in Palermo under false pretences where he underwent chemotherapy with false ID; succumbed to colon cancer soon thereafter before dying peacefully in prison hospital on September 25, 2023 due to treatment; this marked an end to Cosa Nostra and its longstanding challenge to Italian statehood.
The Rise of Diabolik
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Matteo Messina Denaro was born April 26 in Castelvetrano, western Sicily. His father Francesco Messina Denaro (Don Ciccio), an influential Mafia figure who controlled the area, left an immense criminal empire and ambition that Matteo inherited, taking on his name “Diabolik” based off a popular Italian comic book character who could blend in anywhere but was nevertheless deadly and brutal.
Messina Denaro began his criminal career early. By 14 years old he had learned how to use firearms, boasting of filling an entire cemetery with victims. Messina made headlines for killing rival boss Vincenzo Milazzo of Alcamo as well as strangling Milazzo’s pregnant girlfriend. Among other illegal activities Messina also engaged in drug trafficking, money laundering and corruption – forging alliances with powerful Mafia clans such as Corleonesi led by Salvatore Riina and Bernardo Provenzano which dominated Sicilian Mafia from 1980-1994.
The War Against the State
Messina Denaro was instrumental in leading Sicilian Mafia violence against Italy after two prominent anti-Mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were assassinated in 1992. Messina played an essential role in its violent campaign. Messina Denaro was responsible for several bomb attacks against public buildings, art galleries, churches, and tourist spots across Rome, Florence and Milan; killing more than 20 individuals while injuring hundreds more. He also ordered the kidnapping and murder of 11-year-old Giuseppe Di Matteo, son of a mafioso-turned state witness. Giuseppe was held captive for two years before being executed with acid to keep his family from mourning.
Attacks by Mafia members were intended to force the state into negotiations and lessen prison conditions for imprisoned Mafiosi. Instead, this strategy backfired as public opinion turned against them and demanded more justice; consequently, more arrests, trials, convictions of Mafia members and associates occurred; ultimately leading to Messina Denaro being issued an arrest warrant only for him to vanish without trace after 1993.
The Boss of All Bosses
Messina Denaro was on the run for thirty years, considered one of the world’s most wanted criminals and one of the ten most powerful. Furthermore, Messina was seen as unchallengeable within Sicilian Mafia after Riina and Provenzano were both arrested between 1993 and 2006, as well as their deaths while imprisoned respectively (2016/2017).
Messina Denaro managed to evade capture by constantly altering his appearance and identity, using fake documents and aliases when traveling around Italy and internationally, communicating with subordinates through coded messages hidden on sheep farms or couriered directly by trusted partners, and relying on an army of loyal supporters who provided money, weapons and safe houses as protection.
Messina Denaro continued to direct the criminal activities of the Sicilian Mafia from his hiding spots, expanding his interests into renewable energy, online gambling and waste disposal services. Furthermore, he maintained contacts with other criminal organizations including Camorra from Naples and ‘Ndrangheta from Calabria as well as foreign drug cartels.
The End of an Era
Messina Denaro was arrested near a private clinic in Palermo where he had made an appointment using false identities on January 16, 2023. Police had been monitoring him closely for some time after intercepting some of his communications and identifying some of his associates – they used DNA analysis and facial recognition technology to confirm his identity as well.
Messina Denaro’s arrest was widely seen by Italian authorities and the public alike as an historic victory against Sicilian Mafia, and also seen as an honoring to victims and heroes in their fight against Mafia activity. Maria Falcone, sister of judge Giovanni Falcone said she wished her brother could have witnessed such a scene for themselves.
Messina Denaro was arrested without resistance or significant statements during interrogation, and taken directly to a high-security prison in L’Aquila, Abruzzo for isolation. He faced charges including Mafia association, murder, bombing, kidnapping and extortion; for some of these offenses he had already been sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia.
Messina Denaro never faced trial; instead he died peacefully in prison hospital on September 25, 2023, succumbing to colon cancer shortly before his arrest and having undergone chemotherapy treatment since diagnosis. Messina’s death marked an era for Sicilian Mafia as its last remaining fugitive and raised questions regarding its future and possible successors.