After 30 years on the run, Italy’s most wanted Mafia boss has finally been caught
On Monday the 16th of January, 2023, Matteo Messina Denaro was detained in La Maddelena private healthcare facility in Palermo. He was immaculately dressed, calm in demeanour and reportedly polite and soft-spoken – He didn’t even try to run. A far cry from the vicious mobster that they had anticipated. So how did it all come to this? His capture has been 30 years in the making.
In the Summer of 1993, after a string of murders, including the brutal strangling of a woman who was three months pregnant, Matteo Messina Denaro went on a holiday with his brothers Giuseppe and Filippo to Forte dei Marmi in Tuscany. After that he disappeared pretty much without a trace.
That same year he was added to the “Most Wanted” list for committing acts including, but not limited to – involvement in dozens of Mafia-related murders, a quadruple homicide, bombings in Rome, Milan and Florence, Kidnapping and murdering a twelve year old boy, the list goes on and on. All of this led to the beginning of a 30-year long manhunt to catch him.
Operation Golem 2
After several years and multiple failed attempts the police decided to apply a new strategy to capture Denaro – Arrest scores of his associates and family members and seize billions of euros worth of his assets.
This came in the form of Operation “Golem 2”. On the 15th of March 2010, Denaro’s brother Salvatore Messina Denaro was arrested along with 18 others that were all a part of the intimate network surrounding and protecting Matteo.
In September of 2010 police seized a record amount of assets worth €1.5 billion from Sicilian businessman Vito Nicastri, who had been accused of working with Denaro.
“The circle is closing around the No.1 fugitive” – Interior Minister Roberto Maroni.
So it went for a number of years. Investigators would infiltrate his network and seize billions in assets – everything from cars to olive-oil businesses and bank accounts, arrest any known associates including his sister and a former lover, possible business partners etc. Slowly they weakened the chain one link at a time.
Palermo Chief Prosecutor Francesco Messineo added that the aim of the strategy was to “dry up the water he swims in”
Cancer caught him in the end – but not in the way you’re thinking
Investigators learned a small number of key facts that finally helped them catch Denaro. They wiretapped the phones of all known friends and family members. They noticed consistent conversations about “a person with cancer” and “cancer surgeries” coupled with those individuals’ internet search history about “Crohn’s disease and liver cancer”. This led the investigators to assume Matteo was ill, possibly dying. Utilising this knowledge they compiled a list of cancer patients that were born in 1962 near Trapani province. They managed to narrow it down to a list of just ten names – five of which were quickly disproven, leaving only five possible suspects to filter through. Out of the remaining five names one of them really caught their attention – Andrea Bonafede.
According to medical records this person had been in for surgery twice – once in 2020, and again in 2021. Now that alone might not sound incriminating enough, you might think that there’s a possibility that it could be a coincidence, but it wasn’t – The real Andrea Bonafede is the son of the now deceased Trapani mafia boss – Leonardo Bonafede, aka Nardo. Coupled with the fact that Andrea Bonafede and Matteo have known each other since they were children and Matteo’s father “Don Ciccio” had been close friends with Andrea Bonafede’s uncle. With this information in mind, Bonafede became the obvious suspect.
Disappearing for 30 years is a very conscious decision, everyday activities that most of us take for granted have to be done with the utmost caution. Despite the colossal rise of technology, Matteo Messina Denaro did not own a smartphone or a laptop. Unsurprisingly, unlike the paranoid Matteo, the real Andrea Bonafede possessed a mobile phone. After learning about Bonafede’s recent cancer surgeries, police used mobile mapping to track his whereabouts. With this information they could see where he was and more importantly – where he wasn’t. They consequently learned that the real Bonafede was nowhere near Palermo on the dates of his surgeries.
This was more than enough information for them to assume that both men were using the same identity and that Matteo, did in fact, have cancer. They later discovered that Matteo Messina Denaro was due for a chemotherapy session in Palermo and they utilised it as an ample opportunity to finally catch him.
“You know who I am. I am Matteo Messina Denaro.”
On the 16th of January, on the day of Matteo’s scheduled chemotherapy, over 100 members of armed military and Carabinieri surrounded La Maddelena private healthcare facility.
Matteo was walking to a café when he first spotted the police, He turned to walk away but then noticed more officers closing off the street – he realised that the area was surrounded. Up until this point, police still weren’t 100% certain if it was him or not.
When asked his name he simply said “You know who I am. I am Matteo Messina Denaro.”
Want to find out more about Matteo Messina Denaro? Check out his in-depth criminal profile here.