Police in Italy arrested “The Big Strawberry” (Fragolona) on Friday, that’s the code name for Rosalia Messina Denaro, older sister of the Sicilian mafia’s top boss, Matteo Messina Denaro, captured in January after 30 years on the run. She is being held in preventive custody and investigated for mafia association.
According to police, the 68-year-old sister spent her life protecting her powerful younger brother and handling the clan’s finances.
Continuing a long tradition of the Sicilian mafia, the family used “pizzini,” little notes written out by hand on small pieces of paper, to give instructions, send messages and handle business. They must be among the few people left on the planet who don’t use electronic devices to communicate.
It was some of these messages found rolled up and hidden inside a hollow chair leg in the home of “Fragolona” that led investigators to her brother.
Dozens of police wearing ski masks pounced on Matteo Messina Denaro on January 16th as he went to an appointment at a private medical clinic in Palermo where he was getting cancer treatments under a false name. They were able to locate him thanks to Fragolona’s notes, found in early December, indicating the cycles of chemotherapy her brother was undergoing and dates of treatment.
Messina Denaro was convicted in abstentia for dozens of murders and for being one of the masterminds behind the bombing deaths of two anti-mafia prosecutors. He is now being held in isolation in a maximum-security prison.
On Friday the police sent journalists a 58-page PDF from the office of the investigating magistrate in Palermo. It detailed the accusations against “Fragolona” complete with photos and transcriptions of the “pizzini,” found in the chair leg in the home of Rosalia Messina Denaro when they entered to place covert listening devices.
Among the messages was a sort of political manifesto written by hand by the mafia boss dated December 2013 saying:
“To be charged with being mafia, at this point, I consider it an honor. We are being persecuted as if we were scoundrels, treated as if we were not of the human race, we have become an ethnic group to be erased, and yet we are children of this land of Sicily, tired of being overpowered by a state, first from Piedmont then Rome, that we do not recognize. We are Sicilian and that is what we want to remain.”
Reading this, it seems the Sicilian Mafia has remained unchanged since the 19th century. If any blog readers are interested in learning more about the origins of the Sicilian mafia, while enjoying a good book, I highly recommend the novels by Sicilian author Simonetta Agnelo Hornby.
They have found the Big Strawberry and now prosecutors say they are trying to figure out who might be behind the other code names appearing in the “pizzini” – Cherry, Condor, Parmesan, and Rough, to name a few.
We have devoted most of this past week at AP in Italy to reporting on the horrific migrant shipwreck that has left at least 70 dead on the Calabrian coast in Southern Italy. The ship, packed with an estimated 170 migrants, sailed from Izmir, Turkey and smashed to pieces near the Italian shore in rough seas on February 26th. The Turkey-Italy route takes about 5 days and bypasses Greece. It is popular with Afghans, Pakistanis, Iraqis and Iranians who pay about 8,000 euros for the voyage. The traffickers offer lower prices for children and there were many on this boat. This week my AP colleagues Gigi Navarra and Paolo Santalucia filmed the shoes of young children in the sand, amid the detritus from the ship lying on the beach. Survivors wailed over the small white coffins of the children laid out in a gym the Calabrian town of Crotone. It is heart-breaking. There is so much to say about this shipwreck and migration to Europe, but I don’t want to do it in this blog post.