Has Denaro’s arrest prompted the end of the Sicilian Mafia?

Last week Italy’s most-wanted “Godfather” Mafia Boss, leader of the Cosa Nostra Mafia (or the Sicilian Mafia) Matteo Messina Denaro was arrested in Palermo, the capital of Sicily where he was receiving treatment for cancer in a private clinic.

Denaro who is known as the boss of the notorious Mafia was sentenced to jail, in absentia, over multiple murders as early as 2022.

How was the long-sought arrest made possible?

According to the Italian media, over a hundred members of the armed forces were engaged in Denaro’s arrest, who was captured before 9:00 GMT and taken to a secret location. The mobster was visiting a private clinic for chemotherapy, they claimed. In a video, since circulated across media, witnesses at the time of arrest can be seen applauding the police over the arrest, as Matteo Messina Denaro is taken away.

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It is worth noting that among the murders committed by Denaro, for which he has been convicted, are the 1992 killing of Anti-Mafia prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, as well as the 1993 bombings in three Italian cities: Milan, Florence, and Rome. Denaro had also been convicted for the kidnapping, torture, and killing of an eleven-year-old boy, whose father had turned witness for the authorities from mafioso (a member of the Mafia). What’s more, is that at one point, Denaro boasted he could “fill a cemetery” with victims.

Among other illicit activities, the Sicilian Mafia boss is known for racketeering, waste dumping, money laundering, and drug trafficking while leading the crime syndicate, Cosa Nostra. Succeeding Totò Riina, as his protege, Denaro was nicknamed “Diabolik” after a comic book character from the series, “U Siccu” (meaning Skinny). Riina who headed the mafia before Denaro was arrested in 1993 after he had been on the run for almost 23 years.

Following his arrest last week, Denaro is said to be the Mafia’s last “secret-keeper” as he is believed to be the only member who has all the information including names of those involved in the mafia’s high-profile crimes, among which are also the murders of Falcone and Borsellino, in 1992. Despite many thinking him a fugitive since 1993, it is believed Denaro was still the leading man calling all the shots, and issuing orders to subordinates from secret locations while evading the authorities.

It is worth noting that officials in charge of his case have come close to arresting him on previous occasions, by monitoring those closest to him, including his sister Patrizia and other senior mafiosos, in 2013. However, despite having seized valuable “businesses” linked to him, they were not able to take Denaro in at the time, according to international media.

Among other attempts was also one in September 2021, when authorities took into custody a Formula 1 fan from Liverpool, in a restaurant in the Netherlands, because they believed him to be Messina Denaro.

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After news of his arrest broke on Monday, Italians were reportedly “glued” to their screens because Denaro had been a symbol of the state’s failure to reach the “upper echelons” of organized crime. His arrest though largely unexpected, shone brightly as a symbol of hope for Italians across the country – giving them hope that one day the Cosa Nostra can be brought to justice.

What does the Arrest symbolize?

Speaking to BBC News, Anna Sergi a criminology professor at the University of Essex, Denaro’s arrest is “symbolic” not only because he was the boss but also because he “represents the last fugitive” that the Italian authorities wanted to catch. Referencing the video of Denaro’s arrest, Sergi said it felt “triumphant”.

Though the news of the arrest comes as a welcome news for Italians, it raises questions pertaining to a shift of power. As argued by Sergi, it seems someone from within the organization deemed it fit that Denaro is removed from his position as its Boss. It is worth noting that the timing of the arrest is questionable. Considering a man as powerful as Denaro evades authorities “presumably protected, for 30 years” only to get arrested when seeking treatment for cancer.

During a press conference on Monday, authorities claimed Denaro had not attempted to escape despite learning of the possibility of arrest. They said that a “painstaking and extremely delicate” operation led to the capture after which the fugitive admitted that he was indeed the person being hunted down. Moreover, authorities claimed that Denaro was “looking well”, and “well dressed” and did not look like the “destroyed man” they thought they would be arresting.

Public & Political reaction to Denaro’s arrest

Following the arrest, prosecutor general Maurizio De Lucia said that it would be “a mistake” to think the Mafia has come to an end because “Obviously the mafia has not been defeated”.

The arrest is being termed an “exceptional… simply historical event” by former prosecutor general Gian Carlo Caselli, who said it may lead to more developments in the 1993 bombings across Italian cities that killed ten people.

On the other hand, Italian president, Sergio Mattarella congratulated the minister of Interior and the Carabinieri for their work that led to the arrest. It is pertinent to note that Mattarella is among families who were victims of the Mafia boss, as his brother was killed by Cosa Nostra back in 1980, according to international media. Likewise, PM Giorgia Meloni visited the memorial of the victims where she observed a minute’s silence and thanked the forces for their work. Meloni claimed: “This is a great victory for the state”.

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Although the arrest is an achievement marking the end of an era for Cosa Nostra, it is by no means the end of the mafia itself. What’s more, is that the arrest indicates troubling times for the Italian government since he is the last known leader. The authorities will most probably be left in the dark about future Mafia bosses unless Denaro spills the beans, which is highly unlikely.

Since his takeover of the mafia, in 2007, it is believed that Denaro shifted from more openly illicit activities to productive businesses and links to others with non-criminal records making it harder for authorities to trace him. It is believed that in recent years, he was looking to invest in wind and solar energy companies, according to reports of The Wire.

Speaking on the future of the mafia, Anna Sergi said, “Messina Denaro was the last godfather, he represented all the secrets of Cosa Nostra. It is the end of a myth and the organization will have to cope with this”. However, while it is unclear who will succeed Denaro, there is no doubt that a new leadership may very well be actively carrying out operations against the state.

Background on the Sicilian Mafia

The Sicilian Mafia is one of the most renowned syndicates of organized crime rooted in the backdrop of Italy. Also known as the Cosa Nostra (“Our Thing”), they are the leading faction behind many a gruesome murder including the torture of the eleven-year-old son of a former mafioso, in an attempt to coerce its former member into taking back his statement to the authorities.

Although the organization originated sometime during the early 19th century, in Sicily, it became a global phenomenon in the 20th century.
Following its stint as a land-grabbing mafia under the leadership of Gabellotto who used fear and violence to get the work done, the Cosa Nostra was allowed a foothold into the Italian community by the leadership in 1861 when the government was tackling an economic crisis. Then came the 20th century when many Italians migrated to the United States. During this time, the mafia enabled easy access to illegal immigration for the many Italians seeking to settle in the US but not having the means to do so.

Then during WWII, the US intelligence worked alongside self-exiled or hidden mob bosses in the US to help Italy gain its freedom from Nazi Germany. The price being their return to Italian soil and freedom for convicted and/or captured bosses. The move was instrumental for Italy as it forever changed the country’s history.

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Able to thrive in both the US and Italy, the mafia was now at a greater advantage as they ventured into drug trafficking. In the 1970’s they divided into two factions: the Corleonesi family led by Totò Riina (Cosa Nostra) and the other side led by Don Tano Badalamenti. While the mafia is not as active as it used to be, in general, it is very much active across both Italy and the US.

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