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Top Mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro, centre, leaves an Italian Carabinieri barrack soon after his arrest at a private clinic in Palermo, Sicily, on Jan. 16.Carabinieri/The Associated Press

One of the world’s most wanted men and savage killers, Sicilian Mafia godfather Matteo Messina Denaro, has been arrested, ending one of the longest manhunts in Europe.

He was apprehended by the Carabinieri, Italy’s paramilitary police, in Palermo Monday morning during a visit to a private health clinic for what the police said was cancer.

Mr. Messina Denaro, Italy’s No. 1 fugitive, had been on the lam for 30 years. He has been accused of dozens of murders, including complicity in two of the highest-profile killings in postwar Italian history – those of prosecuting magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in 1992. The duo became marked men after their crackdown on the Sicilian Mafia – the Cosa Nostra – resulted in the so-called Maxi Trial in the late 1980s, which saw 475 indictments. In 1993, Mr. Messina Denaro was convicted in absentia for his role in their deaths.

Among other grisly crimes, he was convicted of the murder of a Mafia turncoat’s young son, Giuseppe Di Matteo, who was strangled. His body was then dissolved in a vat of nitric acid.

And in 2002, Mr. Messina Denaro was convicted in absentia and handed a life sentence for his role in bomb attacks in Florence, Rome and Milan that killed 10 people in 1993, including the bombing of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, which killed five people and destroyed paintings by Giotto and Rubens.

His whereabouts became an obsession for Sicilian police and state prosecutors, who thought they were close at times to capturing the man – only to see his trail vanish. Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the right-wing Brothers of Italy party, called the arrest “a great victory for the state.”

The details of Mr. Messina Denaro’s capture were not immediately known, though the police may have been tipped off about his disguises, and it is now known that he had been visiting the oncology clinic under a false name for a year or so.

He tried to escape but, once surrounded by the Carabinieri, did not put up a fight and came clean about his identify. “What’s your name?” the police asked him. “I’m Matteo Messina Denaro,” he replied, according to Italian news agency ANSA.

The Carabinieri took him to a secret location immediately after his arrest, Italian media reported. On a rainy day, the 60-year-old was wearing dark glasses, a white wool hat and a brown leather jacket. He looked frail.

His list of alleged crimes is long, obscene and shocking. “With all the people I have killed, you could fill a graveyard,” he has reportedly said, according to state’s witnesses.

State prosecutor Teresa Principato devoted much of her career to hunting down him down. In an interview with The Globe and Mail at her home in Palermo in 2016, she revealed that her effort to capture him and other high-profile members of the Sicilian Mafia came at a huge cost to her personal life.

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Teresa Principato, photographed at her home in Palermo in 2016.

In 2014, Sicilian police exposed a Mafia plot – allegedly directed by Mr. Messina Denaro – to blow up Ms. Principato with dynamite, after which she went into 24-hour police protection.

“My life is an armoured life. I am in jail,” she said.

In 2019 it was revealed that, four years earlier, when she led the pool of investigators trying to find the mafioso, a laptop and two pen drives containing information about his possible whereabouts – and, crucially, his protection network – were stolen from her office.

Mr. Messina Denaro began his crime career as a local boss in the Trapani area, on the western tip of Sicily. After the arrests of Cosa Nostra boss Salvatore “The Beast” Riina, who ordered the murders of Mr. Falcone and Mr. Borsellino, and his successors Bernardo “The Tractor” Provenzano and Salvatore “The Baron” Lo Piccolo in the 1990s, Mr. Messina Denaro emerged as the last of the godfathers.

From 2007: Killing and kidnapping - it's all in the family

He was not a typical Cosa Nostra mobster. He was known during the years he lived freely as the playboy mafioso, a notorious womanizer with a fleet of Porsches, flashy clothes, aviator-style sunglasses and Rolex watches. He travelled outside Italy often, which was unusual for a Cosa Nostra boss.

He is alleged 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 farms, waste projects and the effective control of a large supermarket chain.

According to state’s witnesses, he murdered a rival boss and strangled the man’s pregnant girlfriend.

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

One theory is that he was protected by politicians, bankers and police officers on the take. “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.”

Italian prosecutors, including Ms. Principato, used a scorched-earth policy to deprive him of his ring of friends and relatives and choke off his money supply. Assets linked to him were seized. 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.”

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