Sicilian Mafia ‘in crisis’ as Godfather who dissolved 12-year-old in acid dies

Matteo Messina Denaro was described as the "last Godfather" of the Sicilian Mafia.

He had been on the run for 30 years after orchestrating some of the most horrifying crimes in the gang's history, but was finally arrested in January this year. He has now died in custody from a long-term illness.

The removal of a crime boss, particularly one of such infamy, typically leads to a violent power struggle as underlings scrap to become the new top dog. But that won't be the case for the Sicilians, who have been "in crisis" long before Denaro's death.

READ MORE: 'Last godfather' of Sicilian mafia who 'filled a cemetery all by himself' dies

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Federico Varese, an Oxford university criminology professor and author of Mafia Life, explained that Denaro's notoriety far outstrips his influence and power. He told the Daily Star: "The impact will be next to zero. He's really a man from the past."

Denaro's time came in the early 1990s when he worked executing the Sicilian Mafia's strategy on behalf of Salvatore 'Toto' Riina – the real boss of the bosses. That strategy was "terrorism against the Italian state", Varese said.

Denaro's family is "marginal" in the grand scheme of the Sicilian Mafia, centred in Trapani some 100km away from the mafia's central power base of Palermo. Although the family still has significant influence in Trapani, especially in the little town of Castelvetrano where Denaro is from, Denaro's position down the pecking order might lead one to wonder why he is so well-known.

Varese explained: "He was very famous for two main reasons. One because he was responsible for some of the most heinous crimes ever committed by the Sicilian Mafia. And second of course is that he was a fugitive for 30 years, which is quite extraordinary."

Perhaps most disturbingly of all, Denaro was responsible for the death of 12-year-old Giuseppe Di Matteo. He was held captive for more than 700 days before being dissolved in acid, apparently in a bid to stop his father from testifying against Denaro.

Denaro was also behind the Sicilian Mafia's deadly bombings in the early 1990s when the mob decided to take on the Italian state. He once famously boasted: "I filled a cemetery all by myself."

But today the Sicilian Mafia doesn't wield the power it once did. Varese said: "The Sicilian Mafia is a mafia in crisis. In the 80s and early 90s they were in the international drugs trafficking business – which of course is very profitable and puts them in touch with people around the world.

"That ended in the 1990s really, and you can almost see the point from which it switches from Sicily to Calabria, which is the next door region. Refineries that were in Sicily moved to Calabria so they were refining heroin. And then the Calabrese got very good contacts around the world, especially in Colombia but also in North America, in Germany. So they took off in a sense, and the Sicilian Mafia was left behind."

The 'Ndrangheta – as the mafia families in Calabria are known – are the top dogs now.

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