Hideouts, wigs and cash: an Italian mobster's life on the run


By AGENCY
  • People
  • Saturday, 28 Jan 2023

A woman displaying a photograph that became iconic in Italy and shows top anti-mafia prosecutors Falcone (left) and Borsellino, during a demonstration in the streets of Palermo, Sicily, on Jan 16, the day Italy's top fugitive, mafia boss Messina Denaro, was arrested. Photos: Alberto Lo Bianco/LaPresse/AP

While some mobsters flee to the tropics to escape prison, most of Italy's mafia fugitives stay close to home, where they can continue to reign from the shadows.

"Going to state prison means failure for a mafioso. The mafioso wants to die in his own bed, not behind bars," Italian journalist Attilio Bolzoni, a specialist on Italy's criminal underworld, said.

Specialised police "hunter squadrons" tirelessly track down these fugitives, who have gone to ground in Sicily, the wilds of Sardinia or in the mountains of Calabria.

It is there, in the heart of the towns or villages where they were born, that they held their first weapons, drew their first blood, and continue to pull the strings under the protection of their followers – but always at the risk of betrayal.

Like Sicilian mafia godfathers Toto Riina and Bernardo Provenzano before him, Matteo Messina Denaro, who was arrested Jan 16 after 30 years on the run, was holed up in Sicily, a stone's throw from his hometown of Castelvetrano.

The 60-year-old was arrested after visiting a health clinic in the Sicilian capital Palermo where he was being treated for colon cancer.

A handout picture showing Italian police reconstructions of the face of fugitive Messina Denaro, caught by Italian anti-mafia police on Jan 16, ending a 30-year manhunt for Italy's most wanted mobster. Photo: Handout/Italian Carabinieri Press Office/AFPA handout picture showing Italian police reconstructions of the face of fugitive Messina Denaro, caught by Italian anti-mafia police on Jan 16, ending a 30-year manhunt for Italy's most wanted mobster. Photo: Handout/Italian Carabinieri Press Office/AFP

Messina Denaro, who once reportedly boasted he could "fill a cemetery" with his victims, had been a leading figure in Cosa Nostra, the real-life Sicilian crime syndicate depicted in the Godfather movies.

The last living great Sicilian "capo" (boss) was staying in a comfortable apartment and would go out in broad daylight for a coffee at the local bar, to get a pizza or do his shopping. He was armed with false papers and pretended to be a doctor.

He could not command from a distance or risk having his power challenged. He had to remain among his men, at any cost.

'Like animals'

Bosses have been known to hide in specially adapted "bunkers" with a bedroom, bathroom and kitchen, in the basement of safe houses or small buildings, accessed by hatches hidden under furniture, carpets, false floors, or behind a mirror.

Some wear wigs, dress as women, or undergo cosmetic surgery.

Their hosts are friends, associates, or family members who provide for them, with whom they play cards or celebrate Christmas under the nose of the authorities.

According to the newspaper Il Corriere della Sera, investigators found condoms and boxes of Viagra in Messina Denaro's hideout.

People displaying a placard in Italian saying 'There will be victory when we know the names of the external instigators of the massacres' during a demonstration outside the para-military police Carabinieri headquarters in Palermo on Jan 16.  People displaying a placard in Italian saying 'There will be victory when we know the names of the external instigators of the massacres' during a demonstration outside the para-military police Carabinieri headquarters in Palermo on Jan 16.

Others do not have this luxury, condemned to take refuge deep in the wooded countryside of southern Italy.

In 2016, two leaders of the 'Ndrangheta, the Calabrian mafia, were discovered in a miserable "bunker" nestled in the mountain, among the trees, where they "lived like animals", in the words of the public prosecutor, eating canned food in filthy conditions.

By contrast, Toto Riina, the boss of Corleone nicknamed "the beast" for his ferocity, lived in the centre of Palermo until his arrest in 1993 in a "villa-bunker", which now houses a carabinieri barracks.

"A man among the most wanted in the world needs protection and money," explained criminology professor Anna Sergi from Britain's University of Essex.

Messina Denaro's fortune has been estimated at hundreds of millions of euros, according to the Italian media.

Cosa Nostra has been weakened significantly by the state, following the murders of anti-mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, for which Messina Denaro was sentenced to life in his absentia in 2020.

But in addition to family and henchmen, the mafia in Italy have long benefitted from support at the highest level of the state and complicity among the police, the judiciary, businesses or the Catholic Church.

This is still the case, at least at a local level.

"They have connections everywhere, so they are informed when there are police operations, but above all a territory that helps them to hide," writer Roberto Saviano said.

Sergi said they can "count on a group of people who, either because they are paid well, or because they were blackmailed, can protect them from being discovered". – AFP

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