Matteo Messina Denaro/AFP
Sicilian mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro (C) was arrested in January 2023. AFP

Mobster Matteo Messina Denaro, who died Monday aged 61, was a ruthless assassin who spent 30 years on the run after a campaign of violence that helped forge the bloody reputation of the Sicilian Mafia.

"With the people I have killed myself, I could fill a cemetery," he is said to have boasted, a claim impossible to confirm but which speaks to the legend that surrounded him.

Messina Denaro helped wage terror on the state on behalf of the Cosa Nostra and over the years was handed six separate life sentences, including for his role in the murder of anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone in 1992 and deadly bombings in Rome, Florence and Milan in 1993.

He was a loyal lieutenant of top boss Salvatore "The Beast" Riina, who led the Corleonesi clan immortalised in the Godfather films, and who died in jail in 2017.

Messina Denaro was based in the Trapani province of western Sicily, but his influence stretched as far as the capital Palermo by the time of his arrest on January 16, 2023.

He had been on the run since 1993, fleeing what became a decades-long crackdown by the Italian state that would dramatically erode the Cosa Nostra's power.

Police finally caught up with him during a visit to a health clinic for cancer treatment in Palermo.

At the time, anti-Mafia journalist Roberto Saviano told AFP he was "the king... the last of the mass murderers, the man who carried out the violent massacres of the Cosa Nostra".

A fan of Rolex watches and designer clothes, comic books and video games, Messina Denaro had a reputation as a playboy and was once featured on an Italian magazine cover in dark glasses, looking like a rock star.

Godfather movie memorabilia was found among his belongings following his arrest, including a magnet showing a mob boss in a tuxedo, with the words, "The Godfather, that's me".

But his crimes were horrific and the list of his victims long, including both a child whose body was dissolved in acid, and a pregnant woman.

Born on April 26, 1962, in Castelvetrano in southwest Sicily, Messina Denaro grew up in the heart of organised crime.

His father, Don Ciccio, was the head of the local clan and his godfather was also a member of the mob.

Messina Denaro's first run-ins with the law began in 1989, when he took part in a bloody struggle between two clans.

In 1992, he was part of a group sent to Rome by Riina to try and kill Falcone. They were recalled as the mob boss decided on another approach.

Falcone was eventually murdered in a car bomb near Palermo on May 23, 1992, a crime for which Messina Denaro was in 2020 sentenced in absentia to a life in jail.

Other crimes marked him out as particularly ruthless even by Mafia standards.

In July 1992, after taking part in the murder of Vincenzo Milazzo, the head of the rival Alcamo clan, he strangled Milazzo's partner, who was three months pregnant.

After Riina's arrest in January 1993, Messina Denaro continued his strategy of all-out terror, providing logistical support to bombings in Florence, Milan and Rome which killed 10 people and wounded around 100.

In November 1993, a court later found, he was one of the organisers of the kidnapping of Giuseppe Di Matteo, then 12, whose father had given testimony about the murder of Falcone.

The boy was held for 779 days before being strangled and his body dissolved in acid.

Messina Denaro had disappeared from public view in the summer of 1993, but in subsequent years, statements from turncoats shed some light on his activities.

In 2000, after a maxi-process against the Sicilian Mafia in Trapani, he was sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment for murder and mafia association.

During his decades as a wanted man, Messina Denaro managed his affairs by communicating through the pizzini system, where messages were left on tiny bits of paper.

He had numerous sources of revenue, from drug trafficking to gambling, both in Italy and abroad.

In 2015, an Italian prosecutor on his trail, Teresa Principato, said authorities had confirmed his presence in Brazil, Spain, Britain and Austria.

She said he likely eluded capture for so long because he was protected "at a very high level", without saying whether this was the Mafia, politicians or institutions.

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