Italy catches fugitive Mafia boss Messina Denaro

Italian anti-mafia police caught Sicilian godfather Matteo Messina Denaro on Monday, ending a 30-year manhunt for Italy's most wanted fugitive.

A ruthless operator who once reportedly boasted he could "fill a cemetery" with his victims, the 60-year-old Messina Denaro was a leading figure in Cosa Nostra, the real-life Sicilian crime syndicate depicted in the Godfather movies.

The mobster was nabbed "inside a health facility in Palermo, where he had gone for therapeutic treatment", special operations commander Pasquale Angelosanto said in a police statement.

He had been undergoing periodic treatment for colon cancer under a false name, and did not resist arrest, ANSA news agency said.

Criminology expert Anna Sergi at the University of Essex said Messina Denaro was "the last one, the most resilient one, the 'purest' Sicilian mafioso remaining".

"The secrets he is said to keep fuel conspiracies around mafia-state agreements in the 1990s," she told AFP.

"He is the essence of the great historical power of Cosa Nostra. The myths around his period on the run are part of the reason why the Mafia myth endures."

- 'Extremely dangerous' -

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said Messina Denaro was the "most significant" mafia boss and his arrest in his native Sicily was a "great victory" for the state in its war against organised crime.

Police images showed him being escorted by officers to a waiting vehicle, wearing a cream hat, sunglasses and a brown leather jacket with a cream sheepskin lining.

Before that, the only known photo of him dated back to the early 1990s. He had been on the run since 1993.

His first words to police were "I'm Matteo Messina Denaro", ANSA reported.

Locals could be seen cheering and applauding in the rain as he was driven away.

Messina Denaro was arrested a day after the 30th anniversary of the arrest of Salvatore "The Beast" Riina, the Cosa Nostra boss who died in 2017.

He had been number one on Italy's most-wanted list, accused of mafia association, multiple murders and use of explosives.

- Dissolved in acid -

Messina Denaro was convicted in absentia of being behind the 1993 bombings in Rome, Milan and Florence that killed 10 people, just months after Cosa Nostra murdered anti-mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in similar attacks.

He was also convicted for the murder of a teenager who was strangled and dissolved in acid after his father turned state witness.

The arrest of "an extremely dangerous fugitive" was "an extraordinary day for the state", Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi said.

In 2015, police discovered Messina Denaro was communicating with his closest collaborators via the pizzini system, where tiny, folded paper notes were left under a rock at a farm in Sicily.

Investigators spent decades searching the homes and businesses of the boss's known allies on the island.

They looked in particular for hiding places in grottoes, caverns or even bunkers inside buildings where the man nicknamed "Diabolik" could be concealed.

Federico Varese, a criminology professor at Oxford University, said the fact that Sicilian mob families are weaker these days than their counterparts in Calabria or Campania may have helped in Messina Denaro's capture.

He said it was "amazing that he was still in Palermo".

"But it makes sense. If you want to continue to exercise a degree of power, you must be in the territory," he said.

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