In a story that seems made for Hollywood, Italian police this week captured one of Italy's most famous fugitives: Matteo Messina Denaro, who helped lead the Cosa Nostra mob syndicate even as he was on the run for the past three decades. And it was a routine, somewhat expected consequence of aging that led officials to the 60-year-old, who was busted outside of a private health clinic near Palermo, Sicily. He'd been visiting the clinic regularly since a cancer operation last year, judicial sources say. "[Illness] is one of the events in the life of a [fugitive] ... that forces them to come out into the open," Palermo prosecutor Paolo Guido said at a presser, per Reuters.
The hunt for Messina Denaro, who'd been a wanted man since 1993, was "unrelenting, constant, and incremental," says Gen. Pasquale Angelosanto of Italy's Carabinieri military police, adding that cops had slowly chipped away over the years at the mobster's support network, arresting 100-plus accomplices (including close relatives) and seizing assets in excess of $160 million. Police, who'd heard a tip that he was sick, were able to narrow down his most recent location by scouring the national health system database for patients around his age and with a similar condition.
Three days ago, authorities learned his whereabouts, and on Monday, they were waiting for him when he departed the La Maddalena health facility, which he'd visited regularly under the name Andrea Bonafede, per the Guardian. Chief Palermo prosecutor Maurizio de Lucia says that Messina Denaro, who was wearing a fur-lined coat and $38,000 watch, didn't try to resist when confronted by cops, though he did initially try to flee when police first broke into the building. "We didn't even have to use handcuffs," de Lucia says, per Reuters.
The Guardian notes some bystanders applauded as Messina Denaro was led away from the clinic by authorities. As for how he'd gotten along all of these years, Al Jazeera reports that the mafioso lived off of money made from gambling and drug trafficking, and that, using the alias "Alessio," he kept things in the syndicate running by passing along messages on tiny pieces of paper, or pizzini. Messina Denaro was said to have been taken to a military barracks after his arrest, then an airport, and is set to be moved to a maximum-security prison. Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni thanked police for nabbing "the most significant figure in the Mafia," per the Guardian. (Read more Mafia stories.)