How the biggest mafioso could hide for 30 years

Rome Campobello di Mazara, a small town in northwestern Sicily, has only around 11,000 inhabitants. One of them was probably one of the most wanted criminals in the world for years: Matteo Messina Denaro, 60 years old, head of the Cosa Nostra clan, responsible for various murders.

A week ago, Denaro was arrested in Palermo after 30 years on the run. Since then, the anti-mafia authorities have been trying to find out how large the network of protectors was – and whether Denaro was even in his homeland the whole time. Three hiding places have already been found, all in the village, an hour and a half’s drive from Palermo.

It’s hard to imagine that the local people didn’t notice who was taking shelter here. “If so many hadn’t covered for him out of affection, out of friendship, out of fear, he would have been caught much earlier,” the Campobello pastor was quoted as saying by the Italian media. The police found jewels, bills for more than 700 euros in luxury restaurants, numerous documents, post-its with names and telephone numbers.

To the end, Denaro was a boss “with contacts and financial resources,” the chief prosecutor said. The state celebrates the arrest of the most wanted mafioso as a great success. But the case also shows how powerful and influential the mafia clans still are today.

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In one of the hiding places, investigators found a fridge with magnets from the famous film by Francis Ford Coppola, The Godfather. “Il padrino sono io”, I am the godfather, was written on one. Posters of Al Pacino and Marlon Brando, the main protagonists of the mafia saga, hung in the living room. So far, the forensics team has not found large amounts of cash or safes – Denaro’s assets are estimated at four to five billion euros.

For months, the Cosa Nostra boss had been treated for colon cancer under the pseudonym Andrea Bonafede. The first operation is said to date back to November 13, 2020, and he should have been living in his home country since then at the latest. In the end, his illness also led to his arrest: On January 16, Denaro wanted to undergo chemotherapy, which is where the officials took action. Since then he has been in a maximum security prison.

Investigators in Campobello

The police found three hiding places in the village so far.

(Photo: IMAGO/Independent Photo Agency Int.)

The man who drove him to the clinic is called Giovanni Luppino. “I only knew him as Francesco,” he told investigators, who also arrested him. The story is questionable: Luppino, an agricultural entrepreneur, lived right next to one of Denaro’s hideouts. The police found a jackknife and two switched-off mobile phones on him – an indication that he wanted to avoid phone surveillance.

Also under suspicion is the doctor from Campobello, Alfonso Tumbarello, who is said to have treated Denaro for years. The politician Antonio D’Alì is said to be among his supporters. He was a senator in parliament from 1994 to 2018, in between he was state secretary in the Ministry of the Interior and president of the province of Trapani – from which Denaro also comes. In December last year, D’Alì was sentenced to six years in prison for mafia involvement.

The former mayor of Castelvetrano, a neighboring town of Campobello, could also be one of those who knew. However, the man who is said to have been in constant contact with Denaro died two years ago.

Mafia clans make 200 billion euros in sales in five years

Roberto Scarpinato speaks of a “system issue”. He was senior public prosecutor in Palermo in the 1990s and has been under police protection since 1989. The 71-year-old has been a senator in parliament since the September election.

In an interview with “La Repubblica” he raises serious allegations: Denaro was not only protected by people on site and in the institutions, but possibly also by police circles. “Several times we suspected that he knew how the investigations against him were progressing,” Scarpinato recalls. The surveillance of Denaro’s mother and sister once had to be stopped because the investigators were stopped by a police patrol.

In the eighties and nineties the mafia was still bloody. In 1991 alone, more than 1,900 people died, a sad record to date. In the deadly attacks on the famous mafia hunters Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, the then 30-year-old Denaro is said to have been one of the string pullers.

The paradigm shift came in the mid-1990s, and the era of “quiet immersion” began. This means the infiltration of the real economy, of real estate companies, restaurants and hotels, of industrial companies. It takes all the companies to wash away the billions from the drug business, which is now the mainstay.

According to a study by the Italian central bank, the big mafia clans in Italy are said to have made sales of 200 billion euros in five years. In contrast, there are around 35 billion euros in real estate, companies and valuables confiscated by the Italian mafia authority DIA. According to the authorities, there were almost 69,000 suspicious bank transactions in the country in the past six months alone, almost 10,500 of which had a confirmed connection to the mafia.

More: The mafia is squinting at the EU’s aid billions – can Italy still prevent that?

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