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Matteo Messina, the most-wanted mafia boss in Italy, was hiding just six miles from his family home

EL PAÍS traveled to his hideout in Campobello di Mazara, where residents say he was often seen at the local bar and pizza restaurant

Italian police officers guard the street leading to Mattelo Messina's home in Campobello di Mazzara.
Italian police officers guard the street leading to Mattelo Messina's home in Campobello di Mazzara. Paolo Manzo
Daniel Verdú

The hideout of Italy’s most-wanted mafia boss, Matteo Messina Denaro, is located on a dead end street. It’s the perfect metaphor for how most investigations into his whereabouts had ended. The Cosa Nostra kingpin, arrested Monday in Palermo after 30 years on the run, was hiding just a few miles from the Sicilian village where he and his family are from. The Carabinieri, the national gendarmerie of Italy, and the Palermo Prosecutor’s Office discovered the hideout – where he spent at least the last year – after Messina Denaro was captured at the private clinic in Palermo where he was receiving cancer treatment.

The apartment, situated on the first floor of a two-story yellow building, is located in Campobello di Mazara, a municipality of about 10,000 inhabitants in the province of Trapani, just six miles from Castelvetrano, the town where Messina Denaro was born and raised. Messina Denaro, like other fugitive mafia bosses, never wanted to leave his home territory. And he managed to do this by leading an apparently normal life.

Campobello di Mazara, in western Sicily, was also the hometown of Giovanni Luppino, the driver and bodyguard who was arrested on Monday with Messina Denaro. Authorities spent all Monday night searching the apartment in the hopes of gathering more information about the mafia boss’s recent activities, and the network that helped him evade capture for three decades. On Tuesday morning, around 30 Italian police officers closed off San Vito street, where his apartment is located. Mario Bottino, the commander of the Carabinieri, described the home as “normal, well refurbished, with expensive objects indicative of the economic level of the detainee.”

Matteo Messina Denaro
A screengrab taken from a video shows Matteo Messina Denaro the country's most wanted mafia boss after he was arrested.reuters

Messina Denaro’s home did not look like the temporary hideout of a man on the run, but rather the permanent apartment of an ordinary citizen. Insider the apartment, police found perfume, luxury watches, sneakers, a fridge full of food and restaurant receipts. Authorities also discovered pills against sexual impotence and condoms. “He didn’t exactly lead a monk’s life, as, for example, Bernardo Provenzano did,” said Paolo Guido, the deputy prosecutor. But the most important find happened a day earlier, when police seized two telephones and an agenda. Authorities hope this will help them paint a clearer picture of his recent activities and connections in the small town.

Campobello di Mazara is a humble town surrounded by olive trees, where locals mostly work in construction and agriculture. Some of the town’s residents were apparently incredulous to discover that a mafia boss was living among them. One resident, who did not want to give his name, told EL PAÍS that Messina Denaro had been living in the same building as him for “several years,” just on the floor below. “Why would I have suspected anything? He was a well-mannered person who greeted me in the morning,” he said.

The head of Campobello di Mazara’s local police, Giuliano Panierino, also said that Messina Denaro led a completely normal life, “coming and going like any ordinary citizen.” “Now that the residents have seen his photo, many have recognized him and told me that they often saw him at the bar and at the pizza restaurant next to his house,” he said. “That’s the best way to go unnoticed.” Indeed, Messina Denaro was vaccinated against Covid-19 at a medical center in Castelvetrano that had been seized from the mafia and turned into a public clinic. According to some locals, the mafia boss even ironically claimed to be a doctor.

Campobello di Mazzara, the Sicilian town where Matteo Messina Denaro spent at least a year in hiding.
Campobello di Mazzara, the Sicilian town where Matteo Messina Denaro spent at least a year in hiding.Paolo Manzo

Messina Denaro, who has appointed his niece as his lawyer, used an identity card in the name of Andrea Bonafede, a local surveyor whose family had links to the local mafia. Messina Denaro’s apartment was also in Bonafede’s name. During police questioning, the surveyor admitted that he bought the home with the mobster’s money, explaining that the two had known each other since they were children.

Operation Tramonto

The mission to arrest of Messina Denaro – the heir of Cosa Nostra capos Totò Riina and Bernardo Provenzano – was called Operation Tramonto. Tramonto, which means sunset in Italian, was the title of a poem written by six-year-old Nadia Nencioni, three days before she was killed by a bomb planted by Messina Denaro in 1993. The mafia boss was sentenced to life imprisonment for the bombing. He also tried in abstentia and convicted of dozens of murders, including the killing of a mafia turncoat’s 12-year-old son, who was strangled and dissolved in acid; and of being complicit in the murders of antimafia magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino.

The prosecution is now following the trail of Messina Denaro’s multimillion-dollar business dealings and his estimated $15-million fortune. The focus is on arresting the people who helped hide him for the past 30 years, a group police call the “mafia bourgeoisie.”

Police will continue to interrogate Messina Denaro from prison. Early Tuesday morning, the mafia boss was taken by helicopter from Palermo to a 10-square-meter cell in L’Aquila maximum security prison, in the center of Italy. In one prison wing, 151 prisoners are under a hard prison regime, officially known as Article 41-bis of the Prison Administration Act. This act, implemented by Falcone, allows authorities to isolate prisoners sentenced for mafia crimes. The prison also has a department to treat oncology patients, such as Messina Denaro, who has been undergoing chemotherapy for more than a year. The next few days will be key to determining whether Messina Denaro, who has never set foot in prison before, will be able to endure solitary confinement or decide to cooperate with authorities.

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