"Not the end of the story": Professor Federico Varese speaks on capture of mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro

"Not the end of the story": Professor Federico Varese speaks on capture of mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro


Federico Varese

Professor Federico Varese

This week, headlines were made when Sicilian mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro was captured by authorities, after 30 years on the run.

Messina Denaro is the boss of the Castevetrano mafia family and, in 2002, was sentenced in absentia to life in prison for multiple murders. In his role, he also oversaw racketeering, money-laundering and drug-trafficking. 

In particular, the mafioso was linked to the 1992 murder of anti-Mafia prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino; deadly 1993 bombings in Milan, Florence and Rome; and the 1993 kidnap and murder of a 12-year-old boy. 

Messina Denaro was an ally of La Cosa Nostra boss Salvatore “Toto” Riina, who was arrested in 1993 after 23 years as a fugitive. He has been a dominant figure in the Sicilian mafia from the 1990s until his death behind bars in 2017.

2023 mugshot of Matteo Messina Denaro, alongside older image

Matteo Messina Denaro in a released 2023 mugshot (left) and earlier in his life

Messina Denaro was detained in Palermo, Sicily, at a private health clinic where he was receiving treatment for cancer. He had reportedly been living in the region for a while.

Head of Department Federico Varese, Professor of Criminology, has spoken to numerous press outlets about the arrest. 

Speaking to the Financial Times, he noted the potential reasons for Messina Denaro's ultimate capture:

The net was closing in on him — the cost of being on the run was going up and up. He also needed the [cancer] treatment and that made him more vulnerable.

There is also the possibility that he was losing some of his protection. He was a man of the past, and not a man of the future.

Professor Varese explained that the Sicilian mafia had been in “significant decline” over the past 30 years, becoming edged out of the lucrative international drug trade by the Calabrian mafia, the 'Ndrangheta.

However, it hadn't disappeared, and he noted that Messina Denaro's arrest was not "the end of the story" for the mafia, which remains influential in some parts of Sicily.

"If you want to get rid of the Sicilian mafia, we have to go to the roots, the deep economic, political and social reasons for the mafia,” he said.

While there was some surprise that Messina Denaro was hiding in plain sight within Sicily, Professor Varese explained to Reuters that it makes sense:

Mafias are really not global, fluid.

On the contrary, they are very rooted in their territory and fugitives who want to maintain some sort of control and role in the organisation hang around the place where they operate.

Part of why Messina Denaro was able to evade capture for so long was due to a general mistrust of the state within the local community.

Professor Varese told the Guardian:

It is extraordinary and disconcerting that it took 30 years to arrest this man and that speaks to one fact: there was no help from local informants because of a deep mistrust of people in this part of Italy towards institutions of the state.


Despite this, as Messina Denaro was led away by military police, cheering and clapping could be heard on the streets.

Professor Varese noted the significance of the event:

This is a very important arrest at a psychological level for Italy because Matteo Denaro is the Sicilian mafia’s most prominent fugitive.

He’s been convicted for very heinous crimes, very violent crimes, so it's a great success for the Italian state that he's finally in custody.

Further quotes from Professor Varese can be read in the below articles:

The Financial Times: 'Messina Denaro’s arrest saps strength of the Sicilian mafia'

The Guardian: 'Hiding in plain sight: how Sicily’s mafia godfather eluded capture for 30 years'

The Telegraph: 'Mafia boss who dissolved boy in acid captured after 30 years on the run'

Reuters: 'Arrest of 'last godfather' deals new blow to ailing Sicilian mafia'

Vice: 'Sicilian Mafia's ‘Boss of Bosses’ Arrested After 30 Years on the Run'

Yahoo News: 'Italy catches Mafia boss Messina Denaro after 30 years on the run'

The Business Standard: 'After 30 years, Italy arrests mafia boss Messina Denaro at Sicilian hospital'

Postsen: 'Erik de la Reguera: The mafia has not disappeared – just changed its guise'

ABS-CBN: 'Italy catches fugitive Mafia boss Messina Denaro'

Radio Sole 24 Ore: 'Matteo Messina Denaro e l'internazionale delle mafie'

Internazionale: 'L'arresto di Matteo Messina Denaro sulla stampa internazionale'

La Stampa: 'Quando la serie tv supera la realtà: così The Bad Guy aveva “previsto” l’arresto di Messina Denaro'

Le Point: 'Le mafieux le plus recherché d'Italie arrêté à Palerme'

La Presse: 'Le mafieux le plus recherché d’Italie arrêté à Palerme'