Italian mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro, who was convicted of multiple murders and arrested in January after 30 years on the run, has died of cancer, officials said Monday.
Messina Denaro, 61, was suffering from colon cancer at the time of his arrest. As his condition deteriorated in recent weeks, he was transferred to a hospital from the high-security prison in central Italy where he was initially held.
He fell into a coma on Friday and never regained consciousness.
“You can’t deny prayers to anyone, but I can’t say I’m sorry,” Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini said on Instagram.
Messina Denaro was found guilty of numerous crimes, including helping plan the 1992 murders of anti-mafia prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino – crimes that shocked Italy and prompted a crackdown on the Sicilian mafia.
He was also blamed for bombings in Rome, Florence and Milan in 1993 that killed ten people, and for helping to organize the kidnapping of 12-year-old Giuseppe Di Matteo to prevent the boy’s father from testifying against the mafia. The boy was held captive for two years and then murdered.
Messina Denaro, dubbed ‘the last godfather’ by the Italian press, is said to have given no information to police after he was arrested outside a private clinic in the Sicilian capital Palermo on January 16.
According to medical data leaked to Italian media, he underwent surgery for colon cancer under an assumed name in 2020 and 2022. A doctor at the Palermo clinic told La Repubblica newspaper that Messina Denaro’s health had deteriorated significantly in the months leading up to his arrest.
Messina Denaro, the son of a mafioso, was born in 1962 in the southwestern Sicilian town of Castelvetrano. He followed his father into the crowd and was already carrying a gun at the age of 15. Police say he committed his first murder when he was 18.
The Castelvetrano clan was allied with the Corleonesi, led by Salvatore “the Beast” Riina, who, thanks to his ruthless pursuit of power, became the undisputed “boss of bosses” of the Sicilian mob known as Cosa Nostra (Our Thing).
Nicknamed “U Siccu” (The Skinny One), Messina Denaro became his protégé and showed he could be as ruthless as his master, receiving twenty life sentences in trials held in absentia for his role in a series mafia murders.
He himself once claimed to have killed enough people to fill a cemetery.
“You must always respect death, because unlike the mafiosi, we respect life until death. But we cannot forget who Messina Denaro was, a murderer, a mass murderer who harmed his country,” Castelvetrano mayor Enzo Alfano told the Adnkronos news agency.
Messina Denaro went into hiding in 1993 as a growing number of defectors began giving details of his role in the mafia, but investigators believe he rarely strayed far from Sicily.
Police say he spent much of 2022 in hiding in Campobello di Mazara, a town of about 11,000 people a short drive from his mother’s home in western Sicily.
He communicated with other mafiosi via “pizzini”, small pieces of paper, sometimes written in code distributed by messengers, some of which were intercepted by police.
He never married, but was known to have a number of lovers. Denaro wrote that he had a daughter but had never met her. Italian media said the two saw each other after he was captured and that she had agreed to take his surname.
Despite his fame, prosecutors have always doubted that Messina Denaro became the mafia’s “boss of bosses,” saying it was more likely that he was simply the head of Cosa Nostra in western Sicily.
His body is expected to be returned to Sicily in the coming days for a strictly private funeral, a government official said.
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