Mafia boss who was on the run for decades dies just months after his arrest

L’AQUILA, Italy (AP) — Matteo Messina Denaro, a convicted mastermind of some of the Sicilian Mafia’s most heinous murders, died Monday in a hospital prison ward for several months after being captured as Italy’s No. 1 fugitive and after decades on the run, Italian prosecutors said.

Reporting from L’Aquila hospital in central Italy, state broadcaster Rai said the strong police force that had been guarding his hospital room had been moved to the hospital’s morgue at around 2 a.m. following the death of Messina Denaro, who had been in a coma since Friday.

The L’Aquila prosecutor’s brief statement on his death did not mention the time of death, but said that both the prosecutor’s office and the prosecutor’s office in Palermo, Sicily, requested an autopsy, even though it was known that Messina Denaro was “from “affected by a very serious illness”.

A computer-generated image released by Italian police of Mafia top boss contender Matteo Messina Denaro.
A computer-generated image released by Italian police of Mafia top boss contender Matteo Messina Denaro.

Italian media said the funeral was expected to take place in Sicily later in the week.

61-year-old Messina Denaro, considered by investigators to be one of the Mafia’s most powerful bosses, lived as a fugitive in western Sicily, his stronghold, and was able to evade prosecution for at least much of his 30 years thanks to the help of complicit city residents. His need for colon cancer treatment led to his arrest on January 16, 2023.

The investigators had been on his trail for years and had found evidence that he was receiving chemotherapy as an outpatient in a clinic in Palermo under a pseudonym. They searched the Italian health system’s database, located him and took him into custody when he showed up for a treatment appointment.

His arrest came 30 years and one day after the capture of the Mafia’s “boss of all bosses,” Salvatore “Toto” Riina, on January 15, 1993, in an apartment in Palermo, also after decades in hiding. Messina Denaro herself went into hiding later that year.

As a fugitive, Messina Denaro was tried in absentia and convicted of dozens of murders. Among other things, he helped plan, along with other Cosa Nostra bosses, two bombings in 1992 that killed Italy’s top anti-Mafia prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino.

Prosecutors had hoped in vain that he would cooperate with them and reveal Cosa Nostra secrets. However, according to Italian media reports, Messina made it clear to Denaro that he would not speak immediately after his arrest. When he died, he “took his secrets” with him via Cosa Nostra, state radio said.

After his arrest, Messina Denaro served multiple life sentences in a maximum-security prison in L’Aquila, a town in Italy’s central Apennine mountain region, where he continued to receive chemotherapy for colon cancer. But in recent weeks, after two operations and a deterioration in his condition, he was transferred to the prison ward of the hospital, where he died.

His silence made it clear the examples from Riina and about the Sicilian Mafia’s other top boss, Bernardo Provenzano, who was captured in 2006 after 37 years in hiding in a farmhouse in Corleone, Sicily – the longest period on the run for a Mafia boss. Once Provenzano fell into the hands of the police, the state’s hunt focused on Messina Denaro, who managed to evade capture despite numerous reports of his sightings.

Dozens of low-level Mafia bosses and foot soldiers made the state statement following a crackdown on the Sicilian syndicate sparked by the killings of Falcone and Borsellino. The bombings also killed Falcone’s wife and several police bodyguards. Messina Denaro’s multiple murder convictions included the murder of a defector’s young son. The boy was kidnapped and strangled and his body dissolved in a vat of acid.

Messina Denaro was also among several top Cosa Nostra bosses convicted of ordering a series of bombings in 1993 that targeted two churches in Rome, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and an art gallery in Milan. A total of ten people were killed in the bombings in Florence and Milan.

According to renegades, the attacks in these three tourist towns were aimed at pressuring the Italian government to ease strict prison conditions for convicted gangsters.

When Messina Denaro was arrested, Palermo’s chief prosecutor, Maurizio De Lucia, declared: “We have captured the last mastermind of the massacre.”

D’Emilio reported from Rome.

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