Matteo Messina Denaro, ‘omertà’ and hiding in plain sight

The most-wanted fugitive in Italy led a normal life in a town adjoining the municipality where he was born, but residents claim they had no idea who he was

A resident of Campobello di Mazara observes a huddle of journalists and police officers in front of the apartment where Messina Denaro was hiding.
A resident of Campobello di Mazara observes a huddle of journalists and police officers in front of the apartment where Messina Denaro was hiding.Paolo Manzo

Matteo Messina Denaro was Italy’s most-wanted criminal and one of the most dangerous fugitives in the world. The former head of the Corleonesi crime family had been on the run for 30 years but photofits of the mafia boss were commonplace in police stations and airports. Messina Denaro, who was born and raised in Castelvetrano in the Sicilian province of Trapani, remained close to home and to his associates by hiding out in an apartment in Campobello di Mazara, a town just a few miles from his birthplace, where his family still lived. Despite being the most notorious resident of Trapani, nobody in the area recognized him despite the capo leading a relatively normal life, visiting his local bar and shopping at nearby stores. “Many people have associated that photo with the man they saw at the pizzeria, at the bar or at the supermarket,” said the local police chief, Giuliano Panierino.

The question now being asked is how nobody, in a small town where everybody knows everyone else, failed to detect that person was Matteo Messina Denaro. “If a stranger from out of town arrived and saw him dining in a restaurant three nights in a row, it wouldn’t take them long to figure out who he is,” police sources said. The answer, as in many cases, is omertà, the code of silence observed in a region that the organized crime syndicate headed by Messina Denaro has ruled for decades. At the store on the corner of the street where he lived, for example, and where either Messina Denaro or one of his bodyguards regularly bought groceries, none of the employees consulted had ever set eyes on him. “Anyway, he was very old. How are we going to recognize him?” said a cashier.

Panierino says that several residents of Campobello di Mazara have told him that Messina Denaro was a regular at the San Vito bar, next to his apartment, and the Don Peppe pizzeria. In the restaurant, while news feeds on the television show images of the town and the arrest of the mafia boss on a loop, the response is very much the same: “Look, I’m not the only one who makes pizzas around here. It must be another pizzeria. And if he came in, I didn’t see him. A lot of people pass through here, fortunately for us.”

The mayor of Campobello di Mazara, Giuseppe Castiglione.
The mayor of Campobello di Mazara, Giuseppe Castiglione.Paolo Manzo

The mayor of Campobello di Mazara, Giuseppe Castiglione, tells EL PAÍS that the town did not work to protect Messina Denaro’s identity. “It’s very likely there has been some collusion with people who have protected him. But out of 11,000 inhabitants, maybe there have been five or six. That doesn’t mean that this is a mafia town. Anyway, I doubt he has lived in our town for 30 years. He will have moved around and found all kinds of people who have helped him. And I hope they all get arrested.”

However, further evidence that some residents knew perfectly well who Messina Denaro was is provided by the local doctor, Alfonso Tumbarello, who handled check-ups for the man registered at his surgery as Andrea Bonafede: the real Bonafede – a surveyor and childhood friend of the capo who had provided documents and Messina Denaro’s apartment – had also been his patient for years.

In any case, Messina Denaro is not an everyday fugitive. His placid daily routine is a far cry from how Totò Riina and Bernardo Provenzano, his predecessors as boss of the Corleonesi mafia clan, spent their time on the run. Selfies Messina Denaro took with nurses at a Palermo hospital where he received treatment for cancer have now emerged, and a patient there has also stated he sent messages to his companions in the chemotherapy unit. Of course, they believed they were chatting to a man called Andrea Bonafede.

Over the course of the past year, Messina Denaro was a more frequent visitor to the hospital. The colon cancer from which he suffered had caused a metastasis in his liver and he required regular chemotherapy. He was forced to leave his house more regularly and some sources believe that, in part, the illness caused him to let down his guard and take fewer security precautions than previously. He was arrested at the private clinic in Palermo by Carabinieri officers on Monday.

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