From attacks to crime in the shadows: the Mafia reorganizes after the death of boss Messina Denaro | International

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The historic Mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro, who died this week in prison, had become an elephant in the room for the Sicilian mafia. He was the last boss still alive from the most bloodthirsty era of attacks, public massacres, bombs or open wars between clans. And he was a figure with a lot of media magnetism that dangerously attracted the spotlight. Nobody doubted that he was a problem for the criminal organization, even though they did not let him fall and helped him spend three decades in hiding, in which he continued operating until his arrest last January.

Things began to change in Cosa Nostra with the entry of Messina Denaro, almost a mythological figure for the Mafia, into the maximum security prison of L'Aquila. But now, after his death, he has once again questioned the situation of the historic Sicilian mafia organization. It seems that she is reorganizing to return to the shadows and avoid the radars of the authorities, although she is still “alive and still strong,” as the Carabinieri general who arrested the capo, Pasquale Angelosanto, has warned.

Pietro Grasso, former national anti-mafia prosecutor, has also warned that the Sicilian organization has entered a new phase, but is still active. “With the death of Matteo Messina Denaro ends a life full of violence, conspiracies and mysteries. He also ends an era of Cosa Nostra, but not Cosa Nostra. It did not end with Salvatore's death Toto Riina, nor with that of Bernardo Provenzano, nor does it end today. “Cosa Nostra changes, evolves, transforms, but remains the main obstacle to a Sicily and an Italy free from the yoke of violence, blackmail, and poverty,” he said.

The researcher and writer Antonio Nicaso, specialized in mafias, explains, in conversation with this newspaper, that Cosa Nostra is going through “an important moment,” because it is in the midst of reorganization and “it is leaving behind the long period of massacres and attacks” against judges, representatives of institutions, journalists and even against artistic heritage, typical of the period in which the Corleonese group dominated in Sicily, in the eighties and nineties of the last century, with Riina at the helm, of whom Messina Denaro was a disciple. “The Sicilian mafia is going back to doing what it has always done: using violence only when strictly necessary. The phase of the Corleoneses was an exception, an anomaly in the history of the criminal organization,” considers Nicaso.

And he points out that the Sicilian mafia is focusing again on dirty deals and corruption. “It is noticeable, for example, because the authorities have recently intercepted huge shipments of cocaine in Palermo and Catania,” he adds. The expert, who is a consultant to governments and different organizations that study organized crime, believes that Cosa Nostra is trying to recover the ground it lost during the period of the attacks in the 1990s, and that was won by the 'Ndrangheta, the Calabrian mafia, currently the most powerful in Italy, which “was able to overtake the rest of the mafias, because it grew economically in silence while the State concentrated on the fight against Cosa Nostra,” according to Nicaso.

“Now Cosa Nostra is re-weaving relationships with politics, with institutional environments, with the high spheres of the economy and finance, to return to the levels before the attacks, now it is more interested in making money and acquiring power.” than in using violence or challenging the State,” adds the expert. And he clarifies that, traditionally, “mafias do not challenge the State, but rather infiltrate it.” “They try to infiltrate the economic fabric, they forge relationships with politics and finance, because this type of violence, based on corruption and power relations, is much more difficult to detect and defeat,” explains Nicaso, who recalls that the Mafia was always “one of the first in economic power,” especially thanks to international heroin trafficking and its huge network of laboratories, which allowed it to send the drug to the United States and half of the world.

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Now, Cosa Nostra “is focusing more on its economic dimension and less on the military,” says Nicaso. Messina Denaro himself already moved away from bloody methods in his last stage and focused more on business, which even brought him criticism from his mentor, Riina. He “he created a network of relationships that allowed him to spend 30 years in hiding, next to his house; if it's not because of his illness [padecía un cáncer terminal]"It would have been difficult for them to have arrested him," says the expert. And he concludes: “It is premature to write the obituary of the Sicilian mafia, which has a great capacity to regenerate and adapt to new situations.”

Although the authorities do not know exactly what the reorganization consists of nor do they have all the pieces of the criminal puzzle, they are clear that the end of the Mafia is still far away. The latest report from the Anti-Mafia Directorate (DIA) maintains that the capture of Messina Denaro deprived the organization of a “historical and relevant figure of reference and aggravated its long-standing difficulties in finding respectable leaders”, after the death of Totò Riina in 2017. and Bernardo Provenzano in 2016. But, at the same time, he considers that “this circumstance did not affect the operation of the organization nor is it believed that it could mitigate criminal pressure” in Sicily.

Messina Denaro was the most wanted mafia member in Italy since 1993 for his multiple crimes and for participating in the bloody wave of attacks in the 1990s, in which, among others, the anti-mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were murdered in 1992. The Police arrested him last January in the Sicilian town of Campobello di Mazzara, near his hometown, Castelvetrano, where he led an almost normal life thanks to a false identity and a network of cover-ups. He died in prison unrepentant for his crimes and took all of his secrets to the grave.

A distributed photograph shows Matteo Messina Denaro, Italy's most wanted mafia boss after being arrested in Palermo, Italy, on January 16, 2023.CARABINIERI (via REUTERS)

Investigators are now clear that Messina Denaro led the important clan of the mafia province of Trapani, one of the several branches into which the organization is divided, but was never boss of bosses (capo de capos) in Sicily, the man at the top of the entire mafia pyramid, like Totò Riina, who was the last great leader of a hierarchical structure that probably disappeared with him. Although his power was undoubtedly enormous and the rest of the criminal families “saw his figure as a symbol,” as Angelosanto has pointed out.

The chief prosecutor of Palermo, Maurizio De Lucia, has explained that the boss was “a very important figure in the mafia dynamic because he was raised by Totò Riina, so he knew well not only the rules of the organization, but also many of the secrets, especially from the years 1992-1993, the years of the massacres.” And he has clarified that the Palermo clans would never place themselves under the command of someone who is not a Palermo native. Investigators know that the Trapani clan “continues to develop its own criminal activities, infiltrating the legal economic fabric,” that is, corrupting politicians and businessmen, and participating in drug trafficking.

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