Matteo Messina Denaro is pushed into a minibus by two carabinieri, where police officers in riot gear are already waiting. The man who was Italy's most wanted mafioso is trying to hide his face under a cap and behind the collar of his jacket.
After three decades of searching for the last big boss of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, Italy is celebrating the capture of the 60-year-old. Messina Denaro has been convicted of some of the most horrific crimes in recent history. "Today is a day to celebrate," says Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni in Palermo, "because we can tell our children that the mafia can be defeated."
The rain that fell over the Sicilian capital ended on Monday morning a great chapter in the fight against organized crime that was so painful for Italy. Special forces from the Italian Carabinieri arrested the wanted man in a private clinic in Palermo.
"I'm Matteo Messina Denaro," said the surprised criminal when he was approached by agents at the entrance to the hospital. His flight, which had lasted since 1993, was over. Dozens of police officers secured the clinic. When it was clear who was being arrested here, other patients spontaneously applauded.
Born on April 26, 1962 in the small town of Castelvetrano in western Sicily, Messina Denaro was sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment for dozens of crimes. There are heinous acts among them: The man is said to have organized the bomb attacks on Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in 1992, in which the two mafia hunters and several companions died.
He is also said to have helped plan the kidnapping of little Giuseppe Di Matteo: from November 1993, the boy had been held by Cosa Nostra for more than two years in different places and under inhumane circumstances. The mafia wanted to force his father not to testify in court. After 779 days, the mafiosi strangled the boy just before his 15th birthday and dissolved his body in acid. Italy was shocked by so much brutality.
At that time, Messina Denaro began to rise to the boss of the Cosa Nostra. He was considered a confidant and then successor to former Cosa Nostra godfathers Salvatore "Totò" Riina and Bernardo Provenzano. The brutal and ruthless Riina was called the boss of bosses in Sicily. He was arrested on January 15, 1993, almost 30 years to the day before Messina Denaro. Riina and Provenzano died in prison in 2017 and 2016 respectively. Messina Denaro was considered the last fugitive top Mafioso from that time.
His arrest caused great joy and satisfaction in the Mediterranean country. Cell phone videos show passers-by in Palermo going to the Carabinieri after the operation and thanking them - sometimes in tears. Many applaud as one of Messina Denaro's accomplices is also led away from the clinic.
A historic day
Prime Minister Meloni announced an initiative so that January 16th will be celebrated as a day in honor of anti-mafia investigators and prosecutors. "Italy is proud of her," said the right-wing politician, who immediately rushed to Sicily and visited the spot on the highway where Falcone was killed.
Politicians from all parties praised the police. President Sergio Mattarella - whose brother Piersanti, as regional president of Sicily, was shot dead in his car by mafiosi in 1980 - phoned the interior minister and the Carabinieri commander to congratulate them. The social democrat Enrico Letta tweeted: "In the end, the mafia always loses. That is the central message of this historic January 16." Ex-Prime Minister Matteo Renzi spoke of a "celebration for the whole country".
However, the jubilation at the arrest was mixed with disbelief and even horror that it took so long for the country's most wanted criminal to be arrested. Messina Denaro, who was actually in hiding, had been treated for cancer in the private clinic for no less than a year.
The hospital said he checked in and underwent surgery a year ago under the name Andrea Bonafede, and has continued to return for follow-up visits since then. Supposedly he had an official identity card and even a tax number under this identity.
The last godfather of the Cosa Nostra
The last godfather hasn't left his home country in all these years, tweeted journalist, author and anti-mafia activist Roberto Saviano, who himself is being hunted by the Neapolitan Camorra and lives under constant police protection: "Like all bosses, he stayed in exactly that place , which everyone knows is to be found there."
Despite the critical voices, many spoke of a historic date in the fight against the mafia. Mario Mori, the former head of the Carabinieri special unit Ros, said the era of the structured and organized mafia in Sicily was over. "Some areas will remain 'infested' by mafia culture, but the Cosa Nostra no longer exists," Mori told Adnkronos news agency.
Isn't this analysis a bit too optimistic? On the one hand, experts assume that Messina Denaro has lost a lot of influence in recent years anyway. And even if organized crime on the Mediterranean island is now weakened, there have long been other groups like the 'Ndrangheta in Calabria, which are considered to be significantly more dangerous and powerful. "This battle is ours," Meloni said in Palermo, "but we haven't won the war yet. We haven't defeated the mafia yet."