ROME — Each day, Giacomo Di Giralomo makes a point of asking, “Where are you, Matteo?” on his talk radio show, which is broadcast across western Sicily.
It’s a question that the police are asking with greater urgency as they seek Matteo Messina Denaro, the Sicilian Mafia’s last fugitive godfather, a fixture on Top 10 lists of the world’s most wanted for allegedly killing about 50 people and going on the run 20 years ago.
Known for his love of fast cars, women and designer clothes, Messina Denaro, 51, has returned to the spotlight with the opening of a trial in Palermo last month. The case involves senior politicians accused of entering secret talks with the Cosa Nostra during a wave of bombings across Italy that Messina Denaro and other senior members of the group are suspected of carrying out in the 1990s.
As a silent network of mobsters, friends and family keeps him hidden, investigators are not just hunting the fugitive but they are also slowly sucking the cash out of his empire by seizing assets worth $3.8 billion since 2009 from entrepreneurs suspected of acting as front men for him.
“What we are doing to Messina Denaro is like slowly removing the gas from a car,” said Arturo De Felice, the head of the Italian Interior Ministry’s anti-mafia unit.
It may still take some degree of siphoning. Although authorities tracking Messina Denaro decline to estimate his wealth, the Mafia in western Sicily remains the hub around which the local economy revolves, making it hard to determine where its revenue ends and legal economic output begins.
Though the Cosa Nostra has been overtaken on the global stage by its rival Italian mafia, the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta, Messina Denaro remains a larger-than-life figure admired and feared across much of western Sicily, similar to the local brigands who battled foreign occupiers through the centuries.
“I have heard people saying they would do anything for him,” said radio broadcaster Di Giralomo, who has written a book about the longtime fugitive.
“People reminisce about when they gave him a lift or smoked with him. He has the same appeal as [Emiliano] Zapata had in Mexico,” Di Giralomo said, referring to the charismatic 20th century Mexican revolutionary.
One local mobster, caught on a wiretap planning to abandon his wife and daughter to join his idol on the run, said, “Better one day as a lion than 100 as a sheep!”
The son of a local mob boss, Messina Denaro gained a reputation as a killer in the 1980s, adopting the nickname Diabolik after his favorite Italian comic book villain.
The rising Armani-garbed mobster — who famously boasted, “I filled a cemetery by myself” — saw himself as a great seducer of women, once allegedly killing a hotel manager who was jealous of his fling with an Austrian receptionist. He is also suspected of strangling the pregnant girlfriend of a rival mob boss.
That made him a perfect partner in the murderous reign in the early 1990s of Salvatore “Toto” Riina, the “boss of bosses” from Corleone, in central Sicily, who was convicted of ordering the 1992 slayings of two magistrates, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino.
Seeking to persuade politicians to ease tough conditions for jailed mobsters, the Mafia launched a string of bombings across Italy, with Messina Denaro said to favor attacks on Italy’s artistic heritage, such as the 1993 bombing in Florence that destroyed three paintings at the famed Uffizi Gallery and damaged 30 others, including works by Rubens and Giotto.
Messina Denaro went underground that year, which helped him avoid the fate of Riina, who was arrested, and of Bernardo Provenzano, the man seen as Riina’s successor, who was captured in a farmhouse hideaway in 2006 after 43 years on the run.
“Even if he has not been officially anointed, Messina Denaro is effectively the top boss in Sicily since the others are all in jail,” said a senior Palermo law enforcement official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Unlike traditional mobsters such as Provenzano, who filled coded messages to affiliates with biblical references, Messina Denaro professes no religious belief.
“I don’t love life, and after that there is nothing,” he declared bluntly in a letter to a confidant, who later turned it over to authorities. In another he wrote, “I am only concerned with protecting my dignity and that of my family.”
By allegedly relying on close relatives to provide safe houses around Sicily, Messina Denaro has avoided the mistake of bosses betrayed by trusted associates from outside their families.
Respect and fear among local residents is also crucial, said Nicola Clemenza, 44, a teacher whose car was burned when he tried to set up a farming cooperative free of mob control.
“A trusted friend from school, who was one of the first to offer me sympathy, turned out to be the arsonist,” Clemenza said. “His respect for Messina Denaro was greater than his dignity.”
Four investigators have stepped forward this year to allege that Messina Denaro has been shielded by corrupt officials. A Carabinieri paramilitary police officer, Saverio Masi, has said he found himself pulled from the investigation after tracking the Mafia don to a rural address.
“Messina Denaro enjoys protection at a high level,” said Teresa Principato, the Palermo magistrate leading the manhunt.
The Italian judiciary’s self-governing body Wednesday accused Palermo’s chief prosecutor, Francesco Messineo, of not doing enough to allow the sharing of information among his staff, making it more difficult to run down Messina Denaro.
Investigators will not say whether they believe an arrest is imminent, but police have ramped up seizures of businesses they believe are fronting for Messina Denaro. Among them are firms that were involved in hosting America’s Cup races in Trapani in 2005; a chain of supermarkets that specialized in hiring mobsters fresh out of jail; and the business empire of Sicilian entrepreneur Vito Nicastri, who attracted foreign investment and European Union funding for wind farms he set up across Sicily.
In April, police concluded the seizure of 43 companies, 98 properties and dozens of accounts totaling $1.7 billion from Nicastri, nicknamed “The Lord of the Wind” and suspected of being at the Cosa Nostra’s disposal.
“The seizures do cut off Messina Denaro’s oxygen,” said Di Giralomo. “But the problem is that nine out of 10 companies seized from the Mafia here go bust because they cannot survive without mob backing. Then people get laid off, and the idea of a mafia as a benign provider of jobs is strengthened.”
Clemenza said Messina Denaro could yet be betrayed by otherwise loyal entrepreneurs exasperated by the growing number of seizures of their bank accounts, properties and businesses.
But removing Messina Denaro could prove just a temporary fix.
“The problem with that is another godfather will just step into the breach,” Clemenza said.
“What is really needed here is a switch from the mentality that accepts the Mafia, not just arrests and seizures.”
Kington is a special correspondent.