Italy's most-wanted fugitive Matteo Messina Denaro lived in the open in a small town in Sicily, near his birthplace, thanks to widespread silence and complicity from his neighbors. It was essential to evading police for more than 30 years.
CAMPOBELLO DI MAZARA — Matteo Messina Denaro certainly wasn't hiding down at the bottom of some well.
Arrested in January at a clinic in Palermo, Italy’s most-wanted mob boss had been living freely and openly in this small Sicilian town, surrounded by neighbors who somehow never saw him.
“Yes, now, after the arrest and the images that appeared on all the television channels, many people admit to having seen him around here, in this area,” says the commander of the municipal police of Campobello di Mazara, Giuliano Panierino, disconsolately.
“Everyone who told me they recognized him now swears they never suspected it was him before,” the police commander says.
This story is a nightmare. Either they knew, or they didn't understand. There is no other possibility.
People saw Messina Denaro buying beauty products, or shopping at the supermarket. They saw him driving his black Alfa Romeo Giulietta alone, or sometimes with a driver who picked him up at home when he had to go to Palermo for cancer treatment.
He didn’t hide: he ate at restaurants. Several receipts for lunches and dinners were found.
For at least a year, Italy’s most-wanted fugitive had been moving through the streets of Campobello di Mazara, 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from Castelvetrano, the town where he was born, and the center of his criminal power.
Hear no evil, see no evil
“I never saw him,” says the gas station attendant. “I didn't pay attention,” says the resident across the street. “I am not surprised by the arrest,” says Vita Accardi, a retired teacher. “We imagined he might have lived around here.”
He lived on the main road, alongside 12,000 inhabitants. “For us, it is a deep shame, what is emerging,” says Mayor Giuseppe Castiglione.
First, police found Messina Denaro’s driver. Then, an associate who had lent his identity to the boss, then his hideout. All in the same town. “Everything here in Campobello di Mazara. I feel enormous bitterness,” the mayor says.
We are not all mafiosi here.
On the evening of his arrest, the mayor wrote on Facebook, inviting his fellow citizens to an impromptu demonstration in front of the Pirandello Institute, the only school in town. “A flashmob for legality. A way to stand by our children, because they are the ones who will save us.”
But the appeal fell on deaf ears. Some students with colorful banners showed up, but no parents. “That hurts too,” says the mayor. “Nobody saw and nobody knew?” wondered headmaster Giulia Flavio. “I am bewildered by the news that is coming in.”
Messina Denaro's fake identity
One piece of news relates to the village doctor, the well-known Alfonso Tumbarello. Now retired, he is known for two failed attempts at a political career — the first at the regional level and the second as candidate mayor of Campobello di Mazara.
But Tumbarello is better known as the general practitioner for everyone in town, for four decades. Amidst all of his other patients, the boss too: Matteo Messina Denaro, alias Andrea Bonafede.
Over the last few months, Messina Denaro asked for the doctor’s help following surgery to remove a tumor. Of course, the fugitive boss presented himself to the doctor with a forged identity card, but Tumbarello also knew the real Andrea Bonafede, a local resident whose identity Messina Denaro had assumed.
So, how could he treat two patients with the same ID and a different face? This is what investigators want to understand.
Yesterday, the town’s general practitioner was added to the list of people suspected of aiding and abetting. He joins two other names already known: Bonafede himself, who is cooperating with police, and driver Giovanni Luppino, a farmer, “a nobody” for the police, who instead chose not to answer questions.
Two policemen entering Messina Denaro's hideout
Conspiracy of silence
Here is the map: it is a map of complicity. Sometimes it’s silence; other times, concrete support.
The fugitive Matteo Messina Denaro was not hiding. Here in Campobello di Mazara, he felt safe. He went around bare-faced, wearing designer clothes.
It was only in Palermo, before entering the clinic, where he knew he would pass under security cameras, that he wore a cap and had the foresight to cover his face with a mask.
“I fear that this is only the beginning of the investigation into the network of Matteo Messina Denaro’s backers,” said Castiglione, the mayor. “But it is right. Every complicity must be uncovered. Every doubt must be clarified. This country must rebel. We are not all mafiosi here.”
But it’s not as if no one had alerted police about the fugitive’s presence in town.
The mystery of the Nov. 2021 tip
On Nov. 19, 2021, the Carabinieri of the Campobello di Mazara station filed a note. An anonymous source, who was “known to the offices and of proven faith” — that is, "credible," in the jargon of the barracks — had told them that Messina Denaro was living in the area. The source even named two people suspected of helping him.
Teenage boys see him as an idol, even though they all now say they never recognized him.
“They do not want to catch him! Someone has to bring him clothes and food. Where do you think he is, if not here? Haven’t you seen those two … who go back and forth to [nearby town] Torretta Granitola? There’s the widower of the gynecologist and the one from the bar.”
The carabinieri noted that, when speaking of “him,” the informer raised the little finger, the skinniest finger in the hand. After further investigation, police confirmed the source was talking about U Siccu, or "The Skinny One" — Messina Denaro’s nickname.
Matteo Messina Denaro's arrest
A detective story, or something else?
At the time of the events, police were already investigating Messina Denaro’s most loyal collaborators — 35 of whom were arrested in Sept. 2022.
The connection to the town of Torretta Granitola was also made as early as 2017 by the investigative TV program Report. More than a year ago, an anonymous source said that Matteo Messina Denaro was already living in Campobello di Mazara: “He still has the same face, but he has aged a lot,” he added. “In Campobello, he is protected. The young people love him. The town is sick.”
Teenage boys see him as an idol, even though they all now say they never recognized him. They pass by on their scooters and take pictures of journalists lurking under the hideout on San Vito Street.
At the gas pumps, in bars, supermarkets and shops — all frequented by Messina Denaro, investigators have revealed — no one recognizes him. Someone explains: “He was never here.”
Friends of convenience
Many people knew of Messina Denaro's connections, especially with people who had no criminal records. In his 2021 book Matteo Messina Denaro: latitante di Stato, journalist Marco Bova explores cover-ups at all levels, and argues that, during Messina Denaro’s long fugitive period, the boss was surrounded by people who were unknown to police.
“And today, we discover that this was exactly how it was, because Bonafede and others had no criminal record — but we continued to see the same names arrested, i.e. the known bad guys. It seems clear to me that something doesn’t add up,” Bova says.
Other details lend credibility to this theory. For example, Andrea Bonafede, the man who had lent his identity to the former fugitive, worked in a well-known water park which was a 12-minute drive from Campobello — right in Torretta Granitola.