Messina Denaro was reportedly held in a private clinic in Sicily’s capital Palermo, where he was receiving treatment for cancer.
An alleged boss of the notorious Cosa Nostra mafia, he was tried and sentenced to life in prison in absentia in 2002 for numerous murders.
More than 100 members of the armed forces participated in his arrest.
Italian media reported that Messina Denaro was arrested just before 10:00 (09:00 GMT) and taken to a secret location by the Carabinieri. He was reportedly visiting the clinic under an assumed name to receive a course of chemotherapy.
A video circulated by Italian media shows people standing in the street applauding the Italian police as Messina Denaro is being led away.
Here are some of the murders for which he was convicted:
- The murder of anti-mafia prosecutor Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in 1992,
- The fatal attacks of 1993 in Milan, Florence and Rome
- Kidnapping, torturing, and murdering the 11-year-old son of a mafia witness-turned-state
Messina Denaro once boasted that he could “fill a graveyard” with his victims.
The Mafia boss also oversaw racketeering, illegal dumping, money laundering and drug trafficking for the powerful organized crime syndicate Cosa Nostra.
He was reportedly under the protection of Toto Riina, chief of the Corleone clan, who was arrested in 1993 after 23 years on the run.
The clans called Messina Denarau “Diabolik”—the name of a thief who could not be seen in a comic book series—and “Yu Seiko” (Thin).
He is believed to be the last “keeper of the secret” of the Cosa Nostra. Many informants and prosecutors believe he holds all the information and names of those involved in several high-profile crimes committed by the Mafia, including the bomb attacks that killed Judges Falcone and Borsellino.
Although Messina Denaro has been on the run since 1993, he is still believed to be issuing orders to his subordinates from various secret locations.
For decades, Italian investigators often came close to capturing Messina Denaro by observing those close to him.
This led to the arrest of his sister, Patricia, and several other accomplices in 2013. The police also seized valuable companies linked to Messina Denaro, leaving him increasingly isolated.
However, there were few photographs of Messina Denaro and the police had to rely on digital collages to reconstruct his appearance in the decades following his escape. A recording of his voice was not released until 2021.
In September 2021, a Formula 1 fan from Liverpool was arrested at gunpoint in a restaurant in the Netherlands after he was mistaken for Messina Denaro.
Italians were plastered to their screens on Monday morning when news of the Mafia boss’ arrest broke.
For years, Messina Denarau has been a symbol of the state’s inability to reach the upper echelons of organized crime syndicates.
His arrest would be an unexpected sign of hope that the mafia could be eradicated even in the southern regions of the country, where the state is seen as largely absent and ineffective.
Anna Sergi, professor of criminology at the University of Essex, told the BBC that Messina Denaro’s arrest was “symbolic not only because he was the boss of Cosa Nostra, but because he represented the last fugitive the Italian state really wanted to have”.
She said the reason people were applauding in Palermo and the country feeling “triumphant” was because the news seemed like a closure.
However, questions are likely to be raised about the timing of the arrest.
It remains unclear, Professor Sergi noted, how the morning raid on the clinic took place, who informed the authorities and, crucially, how it was possible for Messina Denaro to “run around Sicily, supposedly protected, for 30 years”.
Messina Denaro was being treated for cancer so she was “extremely ill”, the professor said, adding that people speculate that someone in the underworld had decided he was no longer useful.
She explained that “It means that it was still probably part of the structure where there is an exchange of interests between the mafia and the state, and where one could be given away in exchange for something.”
But at a news conference on Monday afternoon, the Carabinieri appeared to deny having received a tip-off about Messina Denaro’s whereabouts and emphasized the hard work of the investigators who had tracked down the mafia boss in a “very difficult and delicate” operation.
The authorities said that Messina Denaro did not attempt to escape when he realized the operation was taking place, and that he confessed to being the man the Carabinieri were looking for once they approached him.
They also said that the deserter was “good-looking, and well-dressed”: “We certainly did not find a dashing man…we found a good-looking man and in good economic condition.”
Gen. Pasquale Angelosanto of the ROS special forces unit in the Carabinieri added that Messina Denaro was wearing a €35,000 ($37,880, £31,067) watch when officers detained him.
“It is clear that the mafia has not been defeated, and it would be wrong to think so,” said Palermo prosecutor Maurizio de Lucia.
De Lucia also told reporters that Messina Denaro had spent the past three decades hiding in many parts of Italy, most recently in Sicily.
After the arrest, tributes to the armed forces’ work poured in from across the political spectrum.
Gian Carlo Caselli, a former judge and public prosecutor, said Messina Denaro’s arrest was “extraordinary…just a historic event” that could lead to important developments in the ongoing investigations into the 1993 bombings that killed 10 people across Italy. .
The Italian President, Sergio Mattarella, whose brother Persanti was killed by Cosa Nostra in 1980, congratulated the Minister of the Interior and the Military Police.
Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni traveled to Sicily today and visited the memorial to Giuseppe Falcone and other victims of the 1992 bombing near Palermo, where she observed a minute’s silence.
Meloni also thanked the armed forces for their work in arresting “the most important member of the criminal mafia gang,” adding, “This is a great victory for the state.”