WHERE IS DIABOLIK? The net is closing in on Sicily’s most elusive godfather

WHERE IS DIABOLIK? THE NET IS CLOSING IN ON SICILY’S MOST ELUSIVE GODFATHER

The old town of Castelvetrano
The old town of Castelvetrano

The town of Castelvetrano is a typical rural settlement in Western Sicily. Located in Trapani province it has around 30,000 inhabitants with the economy centred on agriculture, mainly olives, and furniture making. The old town is dotted with piazzas and churches dating from the 16th century. But behind the sleepy façade, scratch the surface and the presence of the mafia can be felt pervading through all aspects of life here. This is in large part due to the fact that Castelvetrano is home to one of the most notorious crime bosses on the planet. The boss is only mentioned in hushed tones by the locals as “the fugitive” admired by some, feared and reviled by most. Castelvetrano is the powerbase and personal fiefdom of its most infamous son, the elusive Sicilian capo Matteo Messina Denaro. He has been a fugitive from justice for over 21 years and is one of the most wanted criminals in the world. Somewhere in this town or in its surrounding hinterland this most enigmatic boss moves from place to place ruling over his territory and avoiding the elite Mafia Hunters unit of the Carabinieri.

This Scarlet Pimpernel of mafia bosses, nicknamed “Diabolik” after a cartoon character who is fittingly a master criminal, is considered to be the last of the Corleonesi-era capo’s who is still living free today. Despite his links with the older generation of imprisoned bosses he is only 52 years old which is still considered young for a capomafia. Messina Denaro is said to be an intelligent, refined, well-educated and smooth man with a reputation for being a bit of a cad when it comes to women. But on the other side of the spectrum he is known to be an exceptionally callous individual who will not hesitate to use extreme violence, including personal involvement in blood curdling crimes such as strangling an enemy’s pregnant girlfriend to death. The boss of Castelvetrano has been in hiding since he helped to plan the 1993 terrorist bombings on the Italian mainland that was part of Cosa Nostra’s strategy to get the verdict of the disastrous maxi-trial overturned and their men freed from Italian prisons. In 2002, Diabolik was condemned to a life sentence in absentia for his part in the 1993 bombings but he has so far avoided spending a single day in prison.

One of the photographs available to police of the fugitive boss
One of the only photographs available to police of the fugitive boss

Reigning as the capo mandamento (precinct boss) of the entire province of Trapani, Sicily’s most mafia infested area outside Palermo, Matteo Messina Denaro heads a powerful network of mafia clans that numbers nearly a thousand “men of honour”. He is protected by an armed guard, blood family members, fellow Mafioso, civilian supporters, masonic lodges and politicians who have aided him in his 21 years on the run. He rules with the tacit acceptance of large parts of the population, although it is hard to tell if it is solely through fear.  There is some evidence a proportion of ordinary people genuinely admire him as an anti-hero benefactor providing jobs and patronage to this corner of Sicily. Messina Denaro has been erroneously labelled by the world media as the current the boss of bosses of the Sicilian Mafia but in fact such a position no longer exists after the capture of the last Corleonesi godfather Bernardo Provenzano in 2004. Cosa Nostra now operates more like a federation than a dictatorship but Messina Denaro is still considered one of the top bosses on the island today.

The Castelvetrano capo was born on 26 April 1962 into a family of mafia aristocracy. His father Francesco, a “man of honour” later known as Don Ciccio, had started out as a guard on a large estate owned by the influential D’Ali family. Don Ciccio rose to the rank of capo mandamento of his hometown and was a close ally of murderous Corleonesi godfather Toto Riina. Later on Don Ciccio became deeply involved in the transatlantic heroin trade. Matteo’s father was a highly respected capo among fellow Mafioso and brought his son into this world schooling him in the dark arts of Cosa Nostra. Matteo was a fast learner and proved to his father he had what it took, committing his first murder at aged 18. It was highly likely that after this killing he was fully initiated as a “man of honour” by his father. The young mafia prince then finished the rest of his mafia tutoring at the right hand of ruthless Corleone godfather Toto Riina who had just launched a brutal takeover of Cosa Nostra that had left over a thousand people dead. It is suspected that Diabolik has been personally involved in over fifty murders and he once bragged that he killed enough people to “fill his own graveyard”.

Although he was schooled by two of the more traditional godfathers in the ways of the Mafia, the young Messina Denaro had his own style cutting a dash as a bit of playboy. Driving around Castelvetrano in ferrari’s and dressing in $2,000 Armani suits he flaunted his status as the heir apparent of a mafia dynasty. His conquests were said to be numerous which is why rumours abound that he has several illegitimate children in and around the town. Unusually amongst Sicilian Mafioso, the well-educated Messina Denaro is thought to eschew Catholicism and is an atheist. In 1992 his standing in Cosa Nostra grew after he personally murdered the Mafia boss of Alcamo, Vincenzo Milazzo and his pregnant girlfriend. He was also involved in the planning of the heinous abduction and murder of 11 year old, Giuseppe di Matteo. Di Matteo’s father was a “man of honour” who had turned state’s evidence, pitiless Mafioso Giovanni Brusca held the boy for two years as a way to get his father to stop testifying. When the father refused Brusca strangled his son and disposed of the corpse in an acid bath.

The playboy capo
The playboy capo

Cosa Nostra’s war against the state, backed by Matteo Messina Denaro, was a disaster for the criminal brotherhood. Toto Riina’s strategy had failed utterly and the murders of anti-mafia Judges Falcone and Borsellino and subsequent crackdown forced the mafia to go underground. Toto Riina was arrested outside an apartment block in Palermo on 15 January 1993. For a while the strategy of war against the state continued under Riina’s vicious brother-in-law Leoluca Bagarella, which included the 1993 terrorist bombings on the Italian mainland that Messina Denaro helped too plan. But Bagarella was also arrested and a cooler head now took over at the helm.

The new boss of bosses. Bernardo Provenzano, had been Toto Riina’s right-hand man and paisano from Corleone, however there is some suspicion that he gave up Riina and Bagarella to the state. He too had supported the strategy of war but when he took over as boss posed as a peace keeper and conciliator, using flowery religious language and implementing a strategy of submersion. Basically Provenzano took the mafia back into the shadows, focusing on imposing the pizzo (extortion tax) on businesses across Sicily and legitimate sectors such as Sicily’s burgeoning private health care industry. In the past Messina Denaro and Provenzano had had their differences to one another, with the haughty Messina Denaro’s extreme loyalty to Riina’s. But Diabolik showed that he could be a pragmatist, one of the keys to being a successful boss, and now supported the new Provenzano regime and his strategy of submersion.  They two corresponded between each other with little notes called pizzini in which the younger man refers to his boss as his “nephew”.

In 1998, Messina Denaro’s father Francesco died while in hiding. He now took over officially as capo mandamento of Castelvetrano but to all intents and purposes he had been running the clan for several years. The nearby city of Trapani was ruled by capo mandamento Vincenzo Virga, a close ally of Bernardo Provenzano, who was arrested near the city in 2002. In the wake of Virga’s capture, Messina Denaro moved to unite all the mandamento’s in Trapani province under his rule. Around twenty clans in the province now amalgamated under the Castelvetrano capo creating a super-mandamento in Sicily’s western province. This was highly unusual as a mandamento was only supposed to cover three mafia clans. This cemented Messina Denaro’s status as one of the most powerful mafia bosses on the island.

Trapani, with its port, had always been an important transit point for the trafficking of illegal drugs. Now that Diabolik had the city under his direct control he formed ties with Colombian coke cartels and the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta becoming heavily involved in the international drug trade. He also made his vast fortune from the traditional protection-racket imposed across his territory, although he made his home town exempt from such payments. He also made a lot of money out of lucrative public works contracts via his ties to corrupt politicians and prominent masons. He financed and built supermarkets, shopping centres and health clinics through apparently legitimate front men.

The elite mafia hunters unit has continuously hunted for Messina Denaro but the capo is an extremely hard target to catch. Relying on a close-knit group of people who he can trust he rarely uses a phone or laptop and moves from place to place across Western Sicily, everywhere and nowhere at the same time. His two decades on the run also suggests that he has “guardian angels” in the guise of corrupt politicians and high-ranking police who warn him when the net is closing in on him. He also has important ties to masonic lodges that have a long and dark history of supporting the mafia and doing business with it.

A police e-fit of how he may look today.
A police e-fit of how he may look today.

The new strategy of submersion implemented by Provenzano had helped to stabilise Cosa Nostra after the disastrous turn of events in the early 1990s. Provenzano however was being hunted night and day by the police who targeted his support network which was being slowly eroded leaving him perilously isolated. He was finally captured on April 11, 2006 in a humble shepherds hut near Corleone. After the boss of bosses was arrested many people in the media and law-enforcement tipped Messina Denaro to be the old godfather’s successor. But Diabolik showed no interest in taking over the role, probably knowing that it would only increase the pressure from law-enforcement. He focused on ruling his own corner of Sicily but he did maintain important ties to powerful Palermo families. Cosa Nostra now came to resemble what it had a before the Corleonesi takeover in the 1980’s, that is a federation of crime clans across the island meeting only very occasionally to discuss criminal strategy and sort out any tension between the rival families.

With the boss of bosses now behind bars, the pressure was ratcheted up on Messina Denaro by dedicated anti-mafia police who now went into overdrive to bring the elusive boss to justice. In 2008 hundreds of millions of euro’s worth of assets were seized from a supermarket magnate who was alleged to be a front for the boss’s legitimate business interests. This seizure was the first among many damaging moves by police to cut Messina Denaro off from his support network. Then in 2010 a construction tycoon’s assets were seized in the province of Trapani, the businessman was again accused of laundering vast sums of money for the Castelvetrano capo. This strategy by police is called “scorched-earth” where you metaphorically “burn” everything around the fugitive boss forcing him to fall back on an ever dwindling band of followers, perhaps forcing him to make a mistake. Also in 2010 his brother Salvatore and 18 others were arrested, they were accused of being a crucial part of his support network who handled his communication system. Messina Denaro had begun to make vast sums of money from the lucrative green energy wind-farms industry. Through “lord of the wind” businessman Vito Nicastri, the boss had wind farms built across Trapani province reaping hundreds of millions for the project from the Italian government and European Union! Nicastri was arrested in 2013 and his 1.5 billion euro empire was seized by the Italian government. All in all billions upon billions of assets have been seized from Messina Denaro and his clan in recent years.

"Lord of the Wind" Vito Nicastri who along with Messina Denaro made a fortune from wind-farms and helped the boss launder his money
“Lord of the Wind” Vito Nicastri who along with Messina Denaro made a fortune from wind-farms and helped the boss launder his money

A further blow was dealt to Messina Denaro’s support network in December 2013 when 30 clan members and close family were arrested, including his sister, nephew and two cousins. Patrizia Messina Denaro was alleged to have personally overseen her brother’s protection rackets and directly funnelled cash to the fugitive capo. With each passing month Diabolik is becoming more and more isolated. History shows that even the most elusive capo’s are eventually brought to justice, Bernardo Provenzano time on the run lasted 42 years! Messina Denaro will know that with his support network dwindling and the police pressure continuing daily it may only be a matter of time.

Western Sicily isn’t the biggest place in the world and he has to stay one step ahead of the Mafia Hunters at all times. Many people have questioned the whereabouts of Diabolik, including rumours that he has fled to Tunisia or even the United States. But if this were true he would no longer be the boss as a Sicilian capo derives his power from dominating his territory like a feudal lord, if he is no longer around to exercise his rule then there are plenty of other “men of honour” who would be willing to take his place. My guess is that he is somewhere on his territory in Western Sicily, probably near his hometown perhaps in an underground bunker. When Messina Denaro beds down for the night or wakes up tomorrow will he be thinking “Is today the day they finally catch me?”

By Steven Trotter

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