They’re calling him the “last don” and hailing his capture as the final nail in the coffin of the Italian government’s war against the Mafia.
We’ve been here before.
The arrest of Matteo Messina Denaro outside a cancer clinic in Palermo back in January was certainly a major development in the ongoing battle against the notorious Sicilian underworld. But the fact that Denaro, 60, was able to live a prosperous and comfortable life during his thirty years on the run – yes THIRTY YEARS – says as much about Sicilian society as it does about law enforcement.
Denaro, according to police reports, had several safe houses in and around Palermo and lived a relatively normal life in a small village, Campobello di Mazara, just a few miles from the town where he was born and where family members – that’s family with a small F – still lived.
He dined at fine restaurants, dressed in fashionable clothes and was partial to expensive watches and other pieces of jewelry. He also, according to one Italian news agency report, “enjoyed orgies with Palermo women while on the run.”
That hardly sounds like a mobster constantly looking over his shoulder. And it underscores a comment by Italian Prosecutor Paolo Guido who told reporters there had been a “deafening silence…shown by the community that had sheltered” the mob boss over the years.
Sergio Mattarella, Italy’s president, offered a different take on the capture of Denaro. He hailed the “tenacity and dedication” of law enforcement and said the arrest marked “the supremacy of the law over crime and has strengthened citizens’ trust in society.”
Those two comments frame the issue. The reality is probably somewhere in the middle.
Trust has always been the issue in the fight against organized crime in Italy and anywhere else where it has flourished. Too often the glamour and bravado of Mafiosi have presented a distorted vision of who they are and what they’re really about.
Greed, power and wealth, not honor, loyalty and family, are the cornerstones of the organization.
Denaro was a vicious Mafia boss, a leader of the so-called “massacre wing” of the Corleonesi clan. He was a successor to Bernardo Provenzano and Salvatore Riini, two equally vicious mob bosses who also were captured after years on the run. Both died in prison, the fate that appears to await Denaro.
All three were suspected of orchestrating two of the most outrageous mob hits in Sicilian history, the 1992 murders of prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino.
Falcone, his wife and bodyguards were killed in a massive explosion from a bomb planted under a highway as the prosecutor’s caravan made its way from the airport to downtown Palermo on May 23, 1992. Less than two months later Borsellino was killed when a bomb planted beneath his car was detonated as he was leaving an apartment after visiting his mother.
The Sicilian-born Falcone is credited with developing the Italian version of the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a major tool in the war on organized crime. He did this while convincing mob boss Tommasso Buscetta to cooperate. Buscetta’s turncoat testimony was a major factor in the historic Mafia maxi trial in 1986 in which more than 300 mob figures were convicted.
(A movie The Traitor released in 2019 is an excellent biopic of Buscetta and captures the impact of his testimony on the Sicilian Mafia.)
Falcone and Borsellino were Italian heroes and their murders were major factors in turning public sentiment against Cosa Nostra in Sicily. Their assassinations were part of a national campaign of terror launched in the 1990s by Denaro and his clan against the Italian government. Bombings of public buildings in Milan, Florence and Rome that left ten people dead and forty injured further galvanized a populace that for decades had been either indifferent toward or resigned to the existence of the Mafia in its midst.
Denaro, who was convicted in absentia and sentenced to life in prison while on the run, once boasted, according to several news reports, that he had killed enough people to fill a small cemetery. One of his victims, according to police, was the 12-year-old son of a suspected mob informant. The boy was kidnapped and held for more than a year before he was strangled to death. His body was then dumped in a vat of acid in order to deny his family an opportunity for a proper burial. Denaro also ordered the murder of a rival mob boss and the boss’s girlfriend. The woman, authorities said, was three months pregnant when she was killed.
Someone once wrote that in order to understand the Mafia, you have to understand Sicily. This was a reference to the troubled history of the island which for centuries was ruled by outsiders. At different times, the French, the Spanish, the Greeks and the Moors dominated the island. Out of this came an almost innate distrust of authority and a sense that only family, only blood relatives, mattered. Only they could be depended upon.
The concept of “omerta,” now described as the Mafia’s code of silence, came into being during the era of occupation. Omerta, in a very literal sense, meant to be a man. And a man in Sicily during that era took care of his own problems. He never sought the assistance of authority since authority rested with outsiders. He never shared information with those in power. He dealt with his own problems in his own way and in his own time.
“Revenge is a dish best served cold” is a Sicilian proverb that comes from that era. So is this: “He who is deaf, dumb and blind will live a hundred years.”
I visited Sicily with my wife and a half dozen of her family members back in 2007. This was a year after Bernardo Provenzano had been captured. He had been on the run for more than 30 years, but routinely visited the village where his wife lived. She often did his laundry.
I asked one of my wife’s cousins how it was possible that on such a small island – Sicily is about the size of Arizona and has a population of about five million – Provenzano was able to avoid arrest for so many years. How was it possible, I asked, that no one saw him?
My wife’s cousin shook his head and smiled at my naivety.
“People knew not to know,” he said.
I thought about that when I heard about Matteo Messina Denaro’s capture and read the news reports that detailed how he had avoided arrest and lived a luxurious life while on the run for thirty years.