The invisible Godfather

Cosa Nostra boss Matteo Messina Denaro has evaded arrest for two decades, but a police crackdown could mean his days are numbered.

Gary Evans November 12, 2015

Florence, the early hours of 27 May 1993. The sound of an explosion echoes across the city. A bomb close to the Uffizi Art Museum leaves a crater three metres wide and two metres deep. The blast, as intended, destroys paintings by Rubens and Giotto, and ruins scores of rare books and historical archives. It wounds 48 people and kills five.

Matteo Messina Denaro masterminded the bombing, now known as the Massacre of Georgofili. He was at the time a rising star in the Sicilian Mafia, a playboy gangster who dressed in Armani and Versace, drove convertible cars and wore a Rolex Daytona. He is the son of a mafioso, born into an established mafia family, and was 18 years old when he committed his first murder. There is a chilling line commonly attributed to him: “With the people I’ve killed, you could fill a graveyard.”

Bombings in Rome and Milan followed the Massacre of Georgofili. Italy’s newly established ‘hard jail regime’ made a stretch inside tougher for mobsters. So the mob responded by going to war with the state and the Catholic church, targeting cultural and religious sites, because these institutions had previously turned a blind eye to much of the Cosa Nostra’s activities, if not directly benefited from them. For his part in the attacks, Messina Denaro received a life sentence.

Mafia Massacre of Georgofili monument.jpg An olive tree now stands in the spot where the bomb hit in 1993.

One of Messina Denaro’s nicknames is Diabolik, taken from an Italian comic book character. Diabolik is an anti-hero, a refined thief, deadly and intelligent, a killer and an art connoisseur. And he is uncatchable. The Sicilian was chosen to arrange the Massacre of Georgofili for two reasons: because mafia bosses knew his blood ran cold enough to carry it out, and because his love of fine art meant he knew which paintings to target for maximum effect.

The prison sentence he received was handed out in absentia. Since 1993, the man they now call ‘capo di tutti capi’ – boss of all bosses – has proved as uncatchable as his comic book namesake. But recent developments suggest his time as a fugitive is coming an to end. And, according to one investigator, when police finally get their hands on Matteo Messina Denaro, he won’t come quietly. 

The sheep need shearing

Vito Gondola, grey hair, paunch, woke up every morning at 4am to see to his sheep. The 77-year-old was spending his retirement working a farm in Mazaro del Vallo, a sleepy little fishing town in western Sicily. But his fields kept secrets: Messina Denaro was using them to communicate with his lieutenants, having small slips of paper dug into the dirt and hidden under rocks.

“The sheep need shearing,” police recorded Gondola saying on the phone. Pizzini is an old Cosa Nostra method of communication – instructions written on paper that’s folded tightly and wrapped with sticky tape. The sheep farmer’s job was to let mobsters know when a new message was waiting with coded phrases such as ‘The fertiliser is ready for the field’ or ‘I’ve put the ricotta cheese aside for you. Will you come by later?’

Mafia Vito Gondola farm.jpg The Mazaro del Vallo farm from which Vito Gondola operated.

Gondola, it’s alleged, was once Totò Riina’s right-hand man. Riina, a former Corleonesi boss, was a mentor to Messina Denaro. When police arrested Riina in 1993, Bernardo Provenzano formally succeeded him as godfather. Provenzano insisted on communicating through pizzini.

In 2006, after 43 years on the run, police caught the 80-year-old Provenzano in a farmhouse in Sicily. He’d become deeply religious and lived an austere life. He spent his days reading the bible and ate whatever local farmers brought to him. It was via pizzini that he’s alleged to have nominated Messina Denaro as the new boss.

Whether Provenzano had the authority to do so is disputed. But in 2007, police arrested the other contender, Salvatore Lo Piccolo, and Messina Denaro is widely regarded to have become the boss of all bosses – the closest thing Sicily has to a godfather.

Cosa Nostra, ‘our thing’ in Italian, refers specifically to the original and most notorious Italian crime syndicate, based in Sicily. Also making up Italy’s four big mafia organisations are ‘Ndrangheta (Calabria), Camorra (Naples) and Sacra Corona Unita (Puglia). The Mafia Capitale, from Rome, is also thought to be growing in strength and numbers.

Mafia Corleone Gaetano Riina wanted poster.jpg Italian police show a photo of mafia boss Corleone Gaetano Riina, brother of Toto Riina.

The Italian public largely became less supportive of the mafia after the bombing campaign in the 90s. As a result, and because of divisions between the clans within Sicily, Messina Denaro never had the same power as his mentor Riina, perhaps exacerbated by his being in hiding for so long.

Italian authorities bugged Gondola’s farm. Cameras and microphones hidden around his land from 2011 to 2014 resulted in the arrests of 11 suspects including Gondola, who police said are “the men who were closest to Denaro right now.” Last year, police rounded up 30 of his affiliates and family members.

In the past couple of decades, Messina Denaro has focused his attention on Castelvetrano and western Sicily, rather than aspiring to keep all the clans of Sicilian mafia together as one. Riina was said to be angry about this. The former boss was recorded secretly in prison saying his protege had become too obsessed about making money from wind turbines, adding that he should “shove them up his arse.” 

Mafia wind turbines.jpg Messina Denaro is said to make much of his money from wind turbines.

The Robin Hood of Castelvetrano

Authorities believe that, as a fugitive, Messina Denaro twice travelled to Barcelona to receive eye treatment. He’s apparently severely myopic – in the few photos of him that exist, he wears glasses. But in business, the Sicilian is a visionary.

A recent report, entitled Criminality’s Grip on Business, stated that in Italy most conventional businesses and commercial activities are directly affected by organised crime “every single minute of the day.” Marco Venturi, president of the business group that published the report, called the mafia “the biggest bank in the country.” Mob groups earn an estimated €100bn a year profit, equivalent to 7 per cent of Italy’s GDP, much of which is from drugs. The FBI suspects Messina Denaro is the Mafia’s main connection to South American drug trafficking cartels – particularly in Venezuela and Colombia – importing heroin and cocaine to Europe. But the boss also makes his money in other, more surprising ways.

Anti-mafia investigators recently confiscated €1.3bn worth of cash, property and alternative energy companies belonging to Vito Nicastri, known as ‘lord of the wind.’ It was hailed as the “biggest ever seizure of assets linked to Messina Denaro.” Nicastri built wind farms near the boss’s hometown, Castelvetrano. The entrepreneur worked as a middleman, brokering deals between mafioso and bent politicians. Messina Denaro took his share of the profits and used the projects to launder money.

Mafia Sicilian mafia boss Bernardo Provenzano.jpg Sicilian Mafia boss Bernardo Provenzano in custody in Palermo.

Police also seized a further €1.25bn worth of property and businesses belonging to Rosario Cascio and Giuseppe Grigoli. They’re also alleged to have ties to the boss. Some believe Messina Denaro’s empire was once so big, it propped up the whole of western Sicily’s economy.

This is why many Sicilians still see Messina Denaro as a Robin Hood figure. He helps local businesses win public work through tenders he fixes with corrupt officials. But, of course, there comes a day when he calls upon them to do a service for him, usually money laundering or bankrolling his hideouts.

The seizure of assets linked to Messina Denaro has caused job losses in and around Castelvetrano, which has angered locals. A spokesperson for anti-mafia organisation Libera said, “What you hear all the time in town, and on blogs, is how the mafia gives work and the government takes it away. There are people here who would like to see Messina Denaro appointed mayor.” 

Mafia Sicily.jpg Despite its beauty, unemployment is still a major issue in Sicily.

There can be only one end

A young Messina Denaro, smirking, wearing oversized sunglasses, appeared on a 2001 cover of Italian magazine l’Espresso. ‘Ecco il nuovo capo della mafia,’ read the headline. ‘Here is the new boss of the Mafia.’

Messina Denaro’s father started his mafia career as an armed guard for the D’Alì family, founders of the Banco Sicula. Antonio D’Alì Sr. resigned from the board of the Banco Sicula in 1983 because he appeared on a list of secret freemasons known as the ‘shadow government.’ Antonio D’Alì Jr., a senator for Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, was between 2001 and 2006 undersecretary at the Ministry of the Interior, responsible for fighting organised crime.  

His cousin Giacomo D’Alì is a counsellor of one of Italy’s largest banks, Banca Commerciale Italiana (Comit), which bought the Banca Sicula in 1991. Messina Denaro’s brother, Salvatore, worked at the Banca Sicula and continued to work for Comit.

Mafia Messina Denaro magazine front cover.jpg Messina Denaro's magazine cover appearance.

Giacomo Di Girolamo wrote a book, L’invisibile, about Messina Denaro. The author is convinced that, as well as never using cell phones or computers, the boss has bankers, police officers and politicians on his pay roll. “How else do you explain the fact that Denaro has been on the run for almost 20 years? He has a network of allies and is always on the move, but I doubt he is abroad. If he left his home territory then it would be a sign of weakness and he could lose his grip.”

After his father died in 1998 Messina Denaro became capo mandamento of Castelvetrano and the surrounding area. But, long before this, he was a force to be reckoned with. In 1993, the same year he plotted the Massacre of Georgofili, he murdered rival boss Vincenzo Milazzo, and strangled his girlfriend, who was three-months pregnant.

While most mafiosos are ostensibly religious family men, Messina Denaro is a known womaniser – he murdered a hotel manager who had protested about his affair with an Austrian receptionist – and had a child out of marriage. He has little respect for Catholicism. “I don’t challenge death,” he wrote, “I simply kick it in the head, because I have no fear of it. It’s not down to courage, it’s because I have no love for life, and after life there is nothing.”

Mafia Marco Messina Denaro.jpg Messina Denaro has evaded capture for almost 20 years.

Where the bomb detonated in Florence there now stands an olive tree. Times are changing. At his peak, Messina Denaro probably commanded a thousand men. But Cosa Nostra’s 80s and 90s heyday is over – either the Camorra or ‘Ndrangheta are now thought to be Italy’s biggest criminal outfit. The more assets police seize, the more of his associates they arrest, the smaller Messina Denaro’s world becomes. The recent arrest of his cousin Lorenzo Cimarosa proved a prize catch, as he revealed he recently gave Messina Denaro €60,000 to keep him solvent.

Without money, without high-ranking connections, and with his power seemingly waning, Messina Denaro could cease to be useful to the Cosa Nostra. The noose may be tightening around the neck of the boss of bosses. He’s not old-school in the same way as Riina. He’s certainly not religious like Provenzano. So for a man who has no love for life, no belief in consequences after death, there can be only one end. And one former investigator said, when it comes, it will be bloody: “When police finally catch up with him, you can expect a fierce gun battle.”