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ROME – In a scene reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 cinematic sensation “The Godfather,” Italy’s most notorious mob boss was arrested Monday after 30 years on the run, a development celebrated by civil and ecclesial authorities alike.
A fugitive for the past 30 years, infamous Italian mobster Matteo Messina Denaro – tied to countless kidnappings, killings, and public attacks – was arrested Monday at the La Maddalena private clinic in Palermo, where he had been receiving treatment for over a year and had gone for a cycle of chemotherapy.
High-profile murders with which Denaro’s name has become associated over the years include that of the young Giuseppe Di Matteo, who was kidnapped in 1993 at the age of 12 then killed in 1996 and his body dissolved in acid; the 1992 slaying of prominent anti-mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino; and a string of mafia terrorist attacks in 1993 in Milan, Florence and Rome.
A longtime leader within Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian mob, Denaro was sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia and put on Italy’s most wanted list in 1993. In 2010, Forbes magazine labeled Denaro as among the top 10 most wanted and powerful criminals in the world.
After the death of other prominent mafia leaders in recent years, Denaro was widely seen as the “boss of all bosses” within the mafia and had been dubbed as Sicily’s “last godfather.” His arrest is therefore seen as a major blow to the mafia world and is being hailed as a historic step in the fight against organized crime.
More than 100 officers from Italy’s special forces division were present for Denaro’s arrest, though he reportedly came willingly.
Denaro’s arrest has also been welcomed by the Italian Church, which historically has sometimes been faulted for being quiescent and even accepting of the mob, but which in recent decades has become increasingly identified with a strong anti-mafia stance.
In a statement, the Archbishop of Palermo, Corrado Lorefice, said the 30 years that Denaro lived in hiding “are the same thirty years that the city of Palermo and its inhabitants have instead passed choosing the path of freedom and of dignity, rejecting with all their strength the logic of violence and prevarication and embracing with conviction, as a community, the logic of a new industrious and shared civic spirit.”
Lorefice said Denaro’s arrest held major symbolic value and signaled “the closure of the most dramatic and painful page of Palermo’s recent life,” and applauded the efforts made in recent years by the city to distance itself from the mafia legacy.
He also recalled all the victims of mafia violence, calling them “martyrs of justice and faith.”
Similarly, Bishop Angelo Giurdanella of Mazara del Vallo in Sicily called Denaro’s arrest not only a great victory for law enforcement, but “a great satisfaction for those who fight every day for legality.”
“Thirty years on the run have also been 30 years of civic engagement by many men and women who have rejected the logic of violence,” he said, calling the arrest a reminder of the importance of education, “because the mafia is also fought in making new generations grow with their heads held high.”
Bishop Giuseppe Marciante, who leads the Sicilian diocese of Cefalù, likewise praised authorities and said the arrest held enormous “historic significance,” but he cautioned that the fight is not over yet.
“It makes us think because someone like Matteo Messina Denaro who is hidden for years means that he is well protected. This means that the mafia is still alive, it’s not true that it’s dormant, so you should never let your guard down.”
In terms of what more can be done at this point, Marciante said the mafia’s labor force must be removed, saying it “takes root” where there is unemployment, which is a problem throughout much of Sicily. For this to happen, he said, more state initiatives fostering labor opportunities are needed.
In a sign of just how prevalent mafia activity still is in Italy, the country’s bishops’ conference for the southern region of Campania, also notorious for organized crime, recently announced the establishment of a special diocesan commission to support and guide priests involved in anti-mafia efforts.
The leaders of several prominent organizations on the frontlines fighting against the mafia have also hailed the arrest as historic, and have echoed Marciante’s caution that there is still a long way to go.
Italian Father Luigi Ciotti, president of the anti-mafia Libera organization and one of the most prominent anti-mafia figures in the country, said Denaro’s arrest was “beautiful and comforting news” for both the authorities who have been chasing him, and the families of mafia victims.
While praising police efforts, Ciotti also cautioned that the country is “seeing the same scenes and reactions as thirty years ago: the climate of general exultation, the unanimous applause of the politicians, the congratulations and the declarations of a ‘great day,’ of ‘victory of legality,’ and so on.”
“I would not like the mistakes made following the capture of Riina and Provenzano to be repeated,” he said, referring to two other major mob bosses.
Mafias, Ciotti said, “are not reducible to their ‘bosses,’ they never have been, and they are even less so today, having developed into reticular organizations able to make up for the single lack through the strength of the system.”
Ciotti said Denaro’s decades in hiding were accompanied by political inaction that was ultimately “indirectly complicit” in Denaro’s actions with “the failure to build, in Italy as in the world, a social and economic model based on fundamental rights – home, work, school, healthcare – the antithetical model to the predatory one which produces injustices, inequalities and voids of democracy.”
These latter problems, he said, “are opportunities for the profit and power of mafias all over the world.”
Ciotti voiced hope Denaro, now that he’s in custody, will be forthcoming with the details of the mafia syndicates that he was a part of and the crimes he helped to commit, as well as other key figures involved.
“No one avoids capture for thirty years if not thanks to cover on several levels,” he said, saying it is necessary that those complicit in Denaro’s actions and hiding are unmasked, “also because only so many family members of mafia victims who await justice and truth would have partial compensation for their long and intolerable agony.”
Similarly, Father Marcello Cozzi, president of the Study and Research Center on Southern Realities (Cestrim), which works with the disadvantaged in Italy’s typically less-developed south, thanked authorities for their work, but cautioned that “the mafia doesn’t have the face of just one person.”
Denaro’s arrest means “the end of a massacre season,” Cozzi said, but cautioned that “the mafia doesn’t stop there…we are invited to continue in this battle because the mafia exists and we need the commitment of all to defeat it.”
Italian Father Francesco Fiorino, who founded the Marsala Center of the Just in Sicily on the grounds of a confiscated mafia property to help those who have lost relatives to mafia violence, said the arrest is “excellent news both for the entire country and for Sicilians who fought the mafia and are fighting in the ranks of social and educational anti-mafia” activities.
“As a church it is the miracle of inner change that is most dear to us,” he said, calling the mafia “a cancer for our country” and a product “of social underdevelopment.”
As a priest, Fiorino said he is happy with the arrest because it testifies that “good wins over evil,” but he cautioned that “it is not a victory of revenge by of justice.”
“Whoever destroyed lives and families must be accountable to human justice,” he said, saying Denaro’s arrest is a “sign of hope” for those left behind and a motivation, especially for the church, to continue fighting the mafia with education regarding dignity and respect.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen