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January 17, 2023

Are there connections to Becchina enterprises? Questions surrounding the enterprise of Matteo Messina Denaro's fiancheggiatore, Giovanni Luppino

Police standing watch outside Messino Denaro's
residence in Campobello di Mazara

Following the arrest of fugitive mafia super boss Matteo Messina Denaro, there are some interesting avenues worth exploring regarding the diversification of mafia holdings. One of which may, or may not, strike close to home with regards to the  economic activities of 83-year-old former antiquities dealer Gianfranco Becchina in his later years.  Messina Denaro was captured yesterday after 30 years on the run.

Back in May 2022 Italy's Direzione Investigativa Antimafia, the country's anti-mafia investigation division, issued a confirmation confiscation decree on Gianfranco Becchina's property holdings, based upon a request from the Public Prosecutor's Office of Palermo.  As per that decree, the DIA's action finalised the confiscation of a significant portion of Becchina's movable, real estate and corporate assets "attributable to a well-known international trader of works of art art and artefacts of historical-archaeological value suspected of links with the mafia gangs, in particular in the province of Trapani." While the DIA's final seizure announcement didn't name Becchina as the businessman living in Castelvetrano, whose assets were seized, the regional and National newspapers did.   

But back to yesterday's arrest of the mafia crime boss

According to searches coordinated by the Deputy Prosecutor Paolo Guido, fugitive Matteo Messina Denaro had been staying, at least for the most recent period of his time on the run, at a residence located on a secluded street, Vicolo San Vito, in the heart of Campobello di Mazara.  This is the same town where his driver and fiancheggiatore (flanker), Giovanni Luppino, also resided.  Campobello di Mazara, in the province of Trapani, is a short 7.7 km from Castelvetrano where Gianfranco Becchina resides and where Messina Denaro was born in 1962 building an empire of Cosa Nostra controlled business enterprises which included waste disposal, wind energy, retail and agricultural sectors. 

A municipality in a strategic position, Campobello di Mazara is a town of 11 thousand inhabitants closely rooted to the mafia, with some residents in these days even lamenting his arrest, saying the Trapani cosca put food on the tables. The city is also home to Alfonso Tumbarello, the physician now under investigation for having treated Andrea Bonafede, alias Matteo Messina Denaro, who is also the doctor of the real Andrea Bonafede. Tumbarello, it is reported wrote prescriptions in Bonafede's name for the cosa nostra boss.

It is also home to mafia boss Francesco Luppino and loyalist Raffaele Urso, AKA Cinuzzo.  Wire interceptions confirmed that Luppino, arrested in September 2022, was in close contact with Messina Denaro for land management.  While Urso, the boss's ambassador to business in Italy's capital, was arrested in April 2018, and sentenced to 18 years and 4 months in prison for his involvement in the Trapani clan.  

Other interesting Campobello di Mazara residents include the former city councillor, Calogero Jonn Luppino, who had 6 million euros in assets seized for mafia association, including 10 companies and related business complexes, 6 parcels of land, 14 bank accounts, 1 motor vehicle, 1 racehorse, cash, and gold bars.  That Luppino was involved in mafia rackets and extortion which forced various businesses in the Trapani area to install gambling devices in their businesses or risk threatening retaliation.  

Even the city's former mayor Ciro Caravà, was indicted in 2012 for mafia association as part of the Campus Belli anti-mafia operation.  Following his arrest the Municipality was dissolved for mafia infiltration on July 27, 2012.  Strangely, after  Caravà's sentence was overturned and he was released from custody, he died by suffocation, at age 58, purportedly trying to swallow a piece of bread. 

All this to say that Campobello di Mazara is not your typical bucolic Sicilian town, making it not at all surprising that this boss was able to hide in plain site here. 

But who is Giovanni Luppino, aside from being Messina Denero's driver?  

This Luppino is not believed to be a relation to  Messina Denaro loyalist Franco Luppino.  Nor, it is claimed, is he a relation to an olive oil producer of the same name.  However, the driver, Giovanni Luppino also worked in the olive oil biz and reportedly had storage warehouses in Campobello di Mazara and Castelvetrano and worked with wholesalers buyers from the Bay of Naples as well as local growers of Nocellara del Belìce olives, a protected denomination of origin (PDO) olive varietal, consumed as table olives and used for the production of extra-virgin oil.

If this olive sounds familiar to ARCA's blog readers it is because Gianfranco Becchina also invested in this money-making olive.   Beginning in 1989, one of Becchina's companies produced his own Nocellara del Belìce olive oil, harvested from the olive trees on Tenuta Pignatelli, a one-hundred-acre expanse of olive groves and lemon trees with a historic main villa from the early 1800s on the outskirts of Castelvetrano, once owned by the Princess Pignatelli of Spain.  

Sold in upscale boutiques, Becchina's olive oil was marketed to USA-based customers for an eye-popping $36 a bottle and is known to have medalled in the New York International Olive Oil Competition over the course of three years, 2018, 2019, and 2021.  

Patrizia Messina Denaro - Sister of the Boss, and Capodonna representative of the Castelvetrano, family also had an olive-oil company belonging to her and her husband impounded.

Nocellara del Belìce olives are cultivated in a fertile area which encompasses the municipalities of Castelvetrano, Campobello di Mazara, Partanna, Poggioreale, Salaparuta and Santa Ninfa, all towns in the province subject to the heavy influence of the Trapani mandamento of the Cosa Nostra.  With some 5,000 olive growers who produce this kind of olive, the province of Trapani in the west of Sicily is a lucrative agricultural market, known for its mafia infiltration, as well as an important stop in the seasonal labor cycle, with the majority of harvesters being sub-Saharan Africans who are all too often exploited, treated as human farming tools, no different than tractors. 

Whether there is a connection between the mafia boss, his driver the olive oil merchant, or the former antiquities dealer has not been proven. But what is known is that in November 2017 Italy's Anti-Mafia Investigative Directorate, through the Court of Trapani's penal and preventive measures section, filed a seizure order for all movable assets, including real estate and corporate enterprises attributable to Gianfranco Becchina on the basis of an order issued from the District Attorney of Palermo based upon investigations conducted by Italy's anti-mafia DIA, under the coordination of the Palermo Public Prosecutor's Office.  That order resulted in the seizure of not only Becchina's cement trade business, Atlas Cements Ltd., Demetra srl., and Becchina & company srl., but also his olive oil venture, Olio Verde srl.   

Much like antiquities, olive oil is a highly lucrative and diversified, income stream making it appealing to Italy’s organised-crime syndicates

Police data shows that there is a known and profitable agromafia active in Italy related to olive cultivation.  Data also shows that all of Italy’s major crime syndicates — the Neapolitan Camorra, ’Ndrangheta, and Cosa Nostra have profited from  farming investments.  

The economic importance of agriculture for mafia organisations like Messina Denero's can be deduced from the frequency of ongoing trials and the confiscation sentences of agricultural, or agro-industrial assets, in and around the province of Trapani.  Many of which have been tied to trials and seizure orders relating to  individuals found to have been associated with Messina Denaro or his enterprises. 

With respect to olives specifically, it has long been the common view that the Neapolitans control the distribution of olives and the olive oil market in Sicily, via a price fixing of sorts, tacitly condoned, if not formally agreed upon, between the Cosa Nostra and the Camorra.  And studies have shown that members of both organised crime organisations have profited from the selling of counterfeit extra virgin olive oil, controlling farmlands, price fixing, and in some cases labor exploitation.   

How important, olive holdings are to the mechanisations of Messina Denaro's Trapani cosca has never been publicly disclosed. But we do know that this syndicate's reach extends beyond the underworld and into diversified revenue streams, like Italy’s illicit antiquities trade and the very path our food travels before reaching our supermarket trolleys and our dinner tables.  

And with margins as high as 700 percent, profits from olive oil are higher than cocaine — making it an appealing channel for money laundering.