By David Amoruso for Gangsters Inc.
“This is a man's world. But it wouldn't be nothing, nothing. Without a woman or a girl.” - It’s a Man’s World by James Brown
Since its beginnings, the Sicilian Mafia was led by and comprised of men. Cosa Nostra was the ultimate “Man’s World.” Men went out to commit crimes while wives sat at home. Sons followed in their fathers’ footsteps, while sisters stayed at home. As the men killed each other, the women grieved. But times change.
Last week, on March 3, Italian police arrested the eldest sister of Matteo Messina Denaro, the man dubbed the boss of bosses of the Sicilian Mafia. 67-year-old Rosalia Messina Denaro allegedly was an active member of the Mafia and acted as its treasurer, authorities say. She also helped her fugitive mob boss brother communicate with underlings.
She is described as a woman with “origins and traditions all inspired by an orthodox and rock-hard Mafia culture.”
Photo: Rosalia Messina Denaro.
That culture is dominated by men. Men like her brother. And before him men like Salvatore Riina and Bernardo Provenzano. Before them other men followed in the footsteps of the men before them. Women were not part of that equation. They were there to support the men and raise the children. Cosa Nostra came first. Before family. The men had no choice. The woman had no say.
Yet here was Rosalia. Up to her neck involved in Cosa Nostra business. Allegedly. Her son is Matteo Messina Denaro’s lawyer. A portrait of her brother wearing a crown hangs inside her house in the town of Castelvetrano, in the west of Sicily. Despite her brother being convicted of heinous crimes, she not only supports him, she idolizes him.
She wasn’t the only sister who did so.
“I pay for the surname I carry”
Anna Patrizia Messina Denaro (right) was the same. She too did everything for her brother. So much so that she was found guilty of being an official “made” member of Cosa Nostra and sentenced to 14 and a half years in prison in 2016. She controlled the family affairs, oversaw the extortion racket, and passed on her brother’s orders.
She’d been caught up in a large Mafia bust that netted 30 people in December of 2013. Several of her firms and those owned by her and her husband were seized by authorities, including an olive-oil company. Her bank accounts were frozen.
“I'm not part of Cosa Nostra,” Anna Patrizia told an Italian court. “I pay for the surname I carry, but of which I am proud. I haven't had contact with my brother Matteo for 20 years.”
Authorities disagreed, claiming she was still in contact with her brother after being locked up, passing on his orders, though it was unclear how she was able to do this. Currently 52 years old, she remains loyal.
Her arrest stemmed from Italian law enforcement’s focus on the circle of exactly this type of loyalists surrounding Matteo Messina Denaro. His last line of defense.
The fugitive mob boss
Matteo Messina Denaro had gone on the run in 1993. Mafia boss Salvatore “Toto” Riina’s Corleonesi, which included Messina Denaro and his family, had taken on the Italian State and were feeling the heat. They massacred anti-Mafia prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in 1992 and planted bombs in Milan, Florence and Rome, which cost the lives of 10 people. Messina Denaro was tried and sentenced in absentia to life in prison in 2002 for these crimes.
While a fugitive, he still managed to lead his troops. He oversaw large-scale criminal activities such as fraud, construction, drug trafficking, illegal waste dumping, and money laundering.
Police felt they could locate Messina Denaro through his most trusted lieutenants. One by one they were arrested and carted off to prison. His circle of loyalists grew smaller and smaller.
It is relatively common in the underworld for criminals to rely on relatives for assistance – in whatever way. Sometimes as full fledged hitmen other times as support, finding a safehouse or clean car. But in the male-dominated world of Cosa Nostra, fugitive Mafiosi usually relied on other men.
With many of these men sitting in a cell it was only logical that women began filling up the gaps. They were trusted first and foremost. That they were female was easily overlooked at this point. Necessity knows no law.
The “pizzini” of “big strawberry”
This is how police caught up with Anna Patrizia. And it is how police ended up secretly entering Rosalia’s home in December of 2022 to plant a listening device. They meticulously searched her house for clues about her fugitive brother’s whereabouts.
After decades of hunting the most elusive Mafia figures, the agents had quite some experience finding the best hiding places. That is how they turned one of the chairs in Rosalia’s home upside down and found a tiny note inside the leg of one of the chairs.
The note was a “pizzino,” a small piece of paper with a message on it written in code. Cosa nostra members used this method to communicate with each other. The agents photographed the note and put it back in its place.
Back at their headquarters, investigators began deciphering the “pizzino”. It was a mix of words, signs, and letters that made no sense. After analysis, however, it became clear that it documented a man's struggle with colon cancer. Rosalia communicated with her brother using the code name “Fragolone,” or “big strawberry”. The numbers referred to dates. Some letters referred to diseases, surgeries, and hospitals.
Photo: Pizzino found at Rosalia's home.
This was what authorities hunting Messina Denaro had been waiting for.
“I am Matteo Messina Denaro”
Matteo Messina Denaro had been on the run for 30 years. He mystified investigators looking for him. Yet now they were able to pinpoint his location and fake identity. He wasn’t far away in some remote corner of the world. Nope, he was living right in Sicily.
Under the name Andrea Bonafede, the nephew of deceased Mafia boss Leonardo Bonafede, Messina Denaro owned an apartment in Campobello di Mazara in Trapani, Sicily. But he frequently traveled to Palermo where he received cancer treatment at a private clinic.
That is where police caught him. On January 16, 2023, “Andrea Bonafede” arrived at La Maddalena clinic for his appointment. Over 100 police and members of the armed forces were watching him. When he walked to a café he was approached by a cop who asked him for his name.
“You know who I am,” the man replied. “I am Matteo Messina Denaro.”
After 30 years, they finally had their man.
Photo: Matteo Messina Denaro posing for a photo with his doctor.
Viagra, designer clothes, and a manifest
Immediately, investigators dived into Messina Denaro’s life on the run. They searched his apartment in Campobello di Mazara and found a modest hideout that resembled a bachelor pad. Expensive sneakers and designer clothes filled his closets, Viagra pills and condoms were ready for action and his fridge was loaded with food. A poster of Marlon Brando as The Godfather adorned one wall.
Two more hideouts were found in the same town. One was located a few hundred meters from the first and contained jewelry, but no documents. It also had a secret compartment in a wardrobe closet. The third hideout was empty and up for sale.
Last week, authorities went through Rosalia’s home the same way they searched Messina Denaro’s three hideouts: in full force. Countless hand-written “pizzini” between brother and sister and others were found.
Rosalia was tasked with paying for lawyers of Mafia members and accounting for money going out and coming in. Some “pizzini” contain technical terms which, authorities believe, refer to corrupt contacts in the world of government and business. One person, nicknamed “Parmigiano,” is believed to a be a successful businessman.
Her brother also wrote plenty of instructions on the notes. About how she could detect and avoid police surveillance, how she could use a colored piece of cloth and hang it outside her home to signal to visiting Mafiosi whether it was safe or not.
He also entrusted her with his ramblings and deeper thoughts. Like one “pizzino” which reads more like a manifest. In it, he writes: “We have been prosecuted like we are bandits. Treated like we were not part of the human race. Like an ethnic group that needed to be cleansed. Still, we, children of this land of Sicily, are done with being overwhelmed first by a Piedmont and then a Roman state we don’t recognize. We are Sicilian and we wanted to stay that way. They created a big lie for the people. We are the bad ones, they are the good ones.”
Countless innocent victims would disagree with that assessment, as would any right-minded individual. Many Mafiosi dream up such theories to come to terms with their own troubled and guilty conscience. How else can they live with their crimes?
Messina Denaro currently receives his cancer treatments in L’Aquila prison where they set up a special chemotherapy room. He will serve his life sentence under the harsh 41-bis regime created for Italy’s most dangerous criminals.
After Rosalia’s arrest, a 57-page arrest warrant detailing some of the circumstances leading to her brother's capture was released. In it, the judge wrote: “[The] historic result of the capture... originated from a note, imprudently kept, albeit hidden, by [Rosalia].”
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