Illness is what ultimately snared Italy's top Mafia fugitive

Arrest of mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro

By Alvise Armellini

ROME (Reuters) - Failing health, more than anything else, is what brought to an end 30 years of life as a fugitive for Matteo Messina Denaro, Italy's most wanted man until his arrest on Monday.

Messina Denaro, 60, was caught just outside a private clinic in Palermo together with an accomplice. Judicial sources said the mobster was a regular visitor there after a cancer operation last year.

Illness "is one of the events in the life of a (fugitive) individual that forces them to come out into the open," Palermo Prosecutor Paolo Guido told a press conference.

After receiving a tip that he was sick, police honed in on Messina Denaro, weeding out other potential suspects of a similar age and condition, partly by checking the database of the national health system.

Investigative work was "unrelenting, constant and incremental", General Pasquale Angelosanto of the Carabinieri police ROS special forces said.

He added that over the years Carabinieri police had arrested more than 100 alleged accomplices of Messina Denaro - including his sister and other family members - and seized assets worth around 150 million euros ($162 million), crucially undermining his support network.

In the end, the man known as 'U Siccu' (the skinny one) or 'Diabolik' (an Italian comics character) offered no resistance and did not try to escape, Palermo Chief Prosecutor Maurizio de Lucia said.

"We caught a very dangerous fugitive without having to use violence, we didn't even have to use handcuffs," he said.

Officers found a man who looked well-groomed, in apparent good health, with a luxury watch worth 35,000 euros ($37,840). In police pictures, Messina Denaro was seen wearing a brown fur-lined jacket, glasses and a brown and white woolly hat.

Even though police and magistrates did not know what Messina Denaro looked like - apart from computer-generated images that relied on decades-old photographs - it was immediately clear that they arrested the right man.

"Looking at him, there was little that needed to be confirmed, he was who we were expecting to find," said Colonel Lucio Arcidiacono, another special forces chief of the Carabinieri police.

Chief Prosecutor de Lucia said Messina Denaro spent his life hiding in various parts of Italy, but most recently stayed in his home province of Trapani, in western Sicily, and in the island's regional capital Palermo.

Questions remain on the extent to which political and other establishment connections allowed the mobster to escape justice for so long, with de Lucia calling his presumed white collar enablers "Mafia bourgeoisie".

"There are ongoing investigations on this," he said.

Meanwhile, Messina Denaro seems set for a life behind bars.

Convicted in absentia for a long list of murders, including of a teenage boy whose body was dissolved in acid, the cancer-stricken mobster is fit enough to serve time in prison, prosecutors insisted.

"He will be certainly treated and looked after, as is the right of any Italian citizen - in a prison," Guido said.

($1 = 0.9250 euros)

(Reporting by Alvise Armellini, Angelo Amante; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Mark Potter)