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“My life is an armoured life, like I am in jail,” says state prosecutor Teresa Principato, who lives under 24-hour protection.Francesco Faraci/The Globe and Mail

Italian state prosecutor Teresa Principato has devoted her career to hunting down the Sicilian Mafia and has paid a terrible price for it. She has lost her freedom.

Her latest quarry is Matteo Messina Denaro, the last of the Cosa Nostra godfathers, a killer of monstrous brutality and one of the world's most wanted men. In 2014, Sicilian police surveillance exposed a Mafia plot to blow her up with dynamite. Since then, she has been under 24-hour protection. The cruel irony is that she lives like a prisoner while Mr. Messina Denaro, who has been on the lam since 1993, remains a free man.

"My life is an armoured life, like I am in jail," she said while smoking a Rothmans cigarette, the first of many she would consume in a rare, hour-long interview.

Ms. Principato lives in a faded but still elegant 16th-century apartment building, a former prince's palace, behind Palermo's enormous cathedral. When my photographer and I arrived, we were greeted by three police cars parked outside. The small army of officers knew we were coming. We were not carrying bags and so were allowed to pass through the enormous wooden doors of the main gate with perfunctory security checks.

The walls of Ms. Principato's self-imposed prison are garnet red and covered in Impressionist-era paintings and others that are much older. The sofas and chairs are red too. The evening was warm and the doors to the small balconies were open, allowing a breeze to sweep away the cigarette smoke but also ensuring that our conversation was drowned out every few seconds by the incessant din of scooters.

Ms. Principato, who is 64, was tired and looked war-weary, though still glamorous. At first, she seemed annoyed by my imperfect Italian and demands on her time. But she soon seemed to relax. Her laugh was hearty and infectious.

In effect, Ms. Principato has been under siege for most of her career. Born in Agrigento on Sicily's southern coast, she graduated from the University of Palermo in 1974 and, six years later, became a deputy chief prosecutor in Palermo.

Her big break came in 1989, when she joined the famous anti-Mafia squad led by Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, the two Italian prosecuting magistrates whose crackdown on the Sicilian Mafia – the Cosa Nostra – resulted in the so-called Maxi Trial in the late 1980s. With 475 indictments, it was the biggest anti-Mafia prosecution the world had ever seen. "It was Falcone who urged me to take up anti-Mafia work," she said. "I was the first woman among the Mafia prosecutors."

The Maxi Trial also made Mr. Falcone and Mr. Borsellino marked men. In what was one of the highest-profile murders in postwar Italy, Mr. Falcone, along with his wife and their bodyguards, were killed on May 23, 1992, by the detonation of almost half a tonne of explosives as their car passed over a culvert outside Palermo. Two months later, Mr. Borsellino was assassinated by a car bomb in front of his mother's apartment in Palermo.

The Mafia had its "excellent cadavers" and Ms. Principato's life disintegrated. Her professional friends and mentors were dead and she considered quitting her job. But she decided that she could not let their killers live free. Sicilian crime journalists said she launched a "vendetta" against the top Mafiosi, even if it meant risking her own life. One of those Mafiosi was Matteo Messina Denaro.

Mr. Messina Denaro did not order the murders of Mr. Falcone and Mr. Borsellino – that was done by Salvatore (Toto) Riina, known as "the Beast" – who was arrested in 1993 and sent to prison for life for more than 100 counts of murder, including those of Mr. Falcone and Mr. Borsellino. But Mr. Messina Denaro, then the young local boss of the Trapani-area Mafia, on the western tip of Sicily, would have been part of the Cosa Nostra-wide council of Mafiosi who approved the assassinations of the magistrates.

After the arrest of Mr. Riina, his successors Bernardo Provenzano and Salvatore Lo Piccolo, and hundreds of their henchmen during the 1990s and though the last decade, Mr. Messina Denaro emerged as last of the godfathers, even though he was never the boss of bosses. He vanished into thin air, "like Bin Laden," Ms. Principato said.

Mr. Messino Denaro ("denaro" in Italian translates into "money") is not a typical Cosa Nostra mobster. Now 54, he was known during the years he lived free as the playboy Mafioso, a notorious womanizer with a fleet of Porsches, flashy clothes, aviator-style sunglasses and Rolex watches. He travelled outside of Italy often, which was unusual for a Cosa Nostra boss. "He is not the classic Mafioso, like Provenzano, who you would find in the country eating his ricotta cheese and apple," Ms. Principato said.

Known as "U Siccu" – the skinny one – or Diabolik, the name of an Italian comic book criminal, he is the son of Mafioso and is thought to have earned billions over the years from the usual Mafia rackets – the drug trade, extortion, rigged public contracts. He also earned fortunes from wind-energy farms, waste projects and the effective control of a large supermarket chain.

He was convicted in absentia of murder in 2002 after a gruesome string of attacks that terrorized all of Italy. According to pentiti – state witnesses who generally provide evidence in exchange for lighter sentences – Mr. Messina Denaro murdered a rival boss and strangled the man's pregnant girlfriend. He murdered a hotel manager who complained about Mr. Messina Denaro's affair with an Austrian receptionist. He masterminded the bombing of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, killing five people and destroying paintings by Giotto and Rubens.

He was also said to be a member of the cabal that kidnapped the 11-year-old son of a turncoat Mafioso. After the boy was held captive for two years, he was strangled and his body dissolved in acid. "With all the people I have killed, you could fill a graveyard," is the line attributed to him by the pentiti.

Mr. Messina Denaro leaves almost no trail. He does not use computers or mobile phones and has communicated by leaving coded messages on little pieces of paper, wrapped in cellophane tape, left on the farms of associates. Prosecutors assume he went overseas for plastic surgery to change his appearance. There are virtually no photos of him.

One theory is that he is protected by paid-off politicians, bankers and police officers. "How else do you explain the fact that Denaro has been on the run for almost 20 years," wrote Giacomo Di Girolamo, the author of a 2010 book about Mr. Messina Denaro called The Invisible. "He has a network of allies and is always on the move."

The Italian prosecutors, led by Ms. Principato, have used a scorched-earth policy to deprive him of his protective ring of friends and relatives, and to choke off his money supply. Assets where evidence pointed to him as an investor have been seized. The campaign against him has been relentless. In late 2013, even his sister Patrizia Messina Denaro was arrested.

"We hear he is living like a parasite off other people's money," Ms. Principato said. "All of his family is incarcerated, sister, cousins, in-laws – more than 100 relatives and people who were close to him."

Every once in a while, rumours sweep through Sicily that Ms. Principato is close to arresting Mr. Messina Denaro. But he has yet to make a mistake that would end his status as the most-wanted man in Italy and one of the five most-wanted in Europe, according to Europol.

The rumours that she is close to nabbing him have surfaced again if only because she faces a deadline. Under the Italian law that governs state investigations, prosecutors' cases are rotated every eight years; in February, she will be assigned to another case.

It is safe to assume that Ms. Principato will make every effort between now and then to nab her man. I asked whether she knows if Mr. Messina Denaro is even in Italy. She responded with a laugh, as if to imply that I was an idiot to ask and that she would be an idiot to tell me.

"I love my job," is all she would say, taking a drag on another cigarette.

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