Messina Denaro: 'Last godfather' Mafia boss who spent 30 years on the run dies from long illness

Messina Denaro was one of the most ruthless bosses in Cosa Nostra, the real-life Sicilian crime syndicate depicted in the Godfather movies.
Mobster Matteo Messina Denaro (Wikimedia Commons| AP)
Mobster Matteo Messina Denaro (Wikimedia Commons| AP)

ROME: Mobster Matteo Messina Denaro, who died Monday aged 61, was a ruthless assassin who spent 30 years on the run after a campaign of violence that helped forge the bloody reputation of the Sicilian Mafia. He has died in hospital in central Italy, the local mayor confirmed Monday.

The 61-year-old had been treated for colon cancer while detained in a high-security jail in L'Aquila, but was moved last month to hospital after his condition deteriorated.

"With the people I have killed myself, I could fill a cemetery," he is said to have boasted, a claim impossible to confirm but which speaks to the legend that surrounded him.

Messina Denaro helped wage terror on the state on behalf of the Cosa Nostra and over the years was handed six separate life sentences, including for his role in the murder of anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone in 1992 and deadly bombings in Rome, Florence and Milan in 1993.

He was a loyal lieutenant of top boss Salvatore "The Beast" Riina, who led the Corleonesi clan immortalised in the Godfather films, and who died in jail in 2017.

Messina Denaro was based in the Trapani province of western Sicily, but his influence stretched as far as the capital Palermo by the time of his arrest on January 16, 2023.

He had been on the run since 1993, fleeing what became a decades-long crackdown by the Italian state that would dramatically erode the Cosa Nostra's power.

Police finally caught up with him during a visit to a health clinic for cancer treatment in Palermo.

At the time, anti-Mafia journalist Roberto Saviano told AFP he was "the king... the last of the mass murderers, the man who carried out the violent massacres of the Cosa Nostra".

L'Aquila Mayor Pierluigi Biondi confirmed the mobster's death in hospital "following a worsening of his illness" in a statement to the ANSA news agency, which had earlier broken the news.

His death "puts the end to a story of violence and blood", Biondi said, thanking prison and hospital staff for their "professionalism and humanity".

It was "the epilogue of an existence lived without remorse or repentance, a painful chapter of the recent history of our nation".

A fan of Rolex watches and designer clothes, comic books and video games, Messina Denaro had a reputation as a playboy and was once featured on an Italian magazine cover in dark glasses, looking like a rock star.

Godfather movie memorabilia was found among his belongings following his arrest, including a magnet showing a mob boss in a tuxedo, with the words, "The Godfather, that's me".

He was convicted by the courts of involvement in the murder of anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone in 1992 and in deadly bombings in Rome, Florence and Milan in 1993.

One of his six life sentences was also handed down for the kidnapping and subsequent murder of the 12-year-old son of a witness in the Falcone case.

The list of his victims are long, including both a child whose body was dissolved in acid, and a pregnant woman. 

Messina Denaro disappeared in the summer of 1993, and spent the next 30 years on the run as the Italian state cracked down on the Sicilian mob.

Born on April 26, 1962, in Castelvetrano in southwest Sicily, Messina Denaro grew up in the heart of organised crime.

His father, Don Ciccio, was the head of the local clan and his godfather was also a member of the mob.

Messina Denaro's first run-ins with the law began in 1989, when he took part in a bloody struggle between two clans.

In 1992, he was part of a group sent to Rome by Riina to try and kill Falcone. They were recalled as the mob boss decided on another approach.

Falcone was eventually murdered in a car bomb near Palermo on May 23, 1992, a crime for which Messina Denaro was in 2020 sentenced in absentia to a life in jail.

Other crimes marked him out as particularly ruthless even by Mafia standards.

In July 1992, after taking part in the murder of Vincenzo Milazzo, the head of the rival Alcamo clan, he strangled Milazzo's partner, who was three months pregnant.

After Riina's arrest in January 1993, Messina Denaro continued his strategy of all-out terror, providing logistical support to bombings in Florence, Milan and Rome which killed 10 people and wounded around 100.

In November 1993, a court later found, he was one of the organisers of the kidnapping of Giuseppe Di Matteo, then 12, whose father had given testimony about the murder of Falcone.

The boy was held for 779 days before being strangled and his body dissolved in acid.

(Photo | AP)
(Photo | AP)

Messina Denaro had disappeared from public view in the summer of 1993, but in subsequent years, statements from turncoats shed some light on his activities.

In 2000, after a maxi-process against the Sicilian Mafia in Trapani, he was sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment for murder and mafia association.

During his decades as a wanted man, Messina Denaro managed his affairs by communicating through the pizzini system, where messages were left on tiny bits of paper.

He had numerous sources of revenue, from drug trafficking to gambling, both in Italy and abroad.

In 2015, an Italian prosecutor on his trail, Teresa Principato, said authorities had confirmed his presence in Brazil, Spain, Britain and Austria.

She said he likely eluded capture for so long because he was protected "at a very high level", without saying whether this was the Mafia, politicians or institutions.

It was his decision to seek treatment for his cancer that led to his capture. He was arrested on January 16, 2023, as he visited a health clinic in Palermo.

He was jailed in L'Aquila, where he continued treatment in his cell, but was moved to hospital in August, under heavy security.

Since Friday night, he had been reported to have been in an "irreversible coma". Medics had stopped feeding him and he had asked not to be resuscitated, Italian media reports said.

His arrest may have brought some relief for his victims, but the mob boss always maintained his silence.

In interviews in custody after being arrested, Messina Denaro even denied he was a member of the Cosa Nostra.

After Messina Denaro went on the run, there was intense speculation that he had gone abroad -- and he likely did.

But in the end, he was found to have been staying near his hometown of Castelvetrano in western Sicily.

Preparations are already under way for his burial in the family tomb in the town, alongside his father, Don Ciccio, according to the Corriere della Sera newspaper.

Don Ciccio was also head of the local clan. He was said to have died of a heart attack while on the run, his body left in the countryside, dressed for the funeral.

Investigators had been combing the Sicilian countryside for Messina Denaro for years, searching for hideouts and wiretapping members of his family and his friends.

They were heard discussing the medical problems of an unnamed person who suffered from cancer, as well as eye problems -- a person who detectives became sure was Messina Denaro.

They used a national health system database to search for male patients of the right age and medical history, and eventually closed in.

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