TIME Italy

Meet the ‘Iron Prosecutor’ Hunting Sicily’s Top Godfather

Teresa Maria Principato, known as the "iron prosecutor," sits on the sofa in her living room in Palermo, Italy, July 14, 2014.
Roberto Salomone—Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images Teresa Maria Principato, known as the "iron prosecutor," sits on the sofa in her living room in Palermo, Italy, July 14, 2014.

Teresa Principato is braving assassination attempts to bring down one of the world's most wanted men. And she only has a year left to do it.

In the heart of Palermo, the picturesque capital of Sicily, a handsome old apartment building has become a virtual fortress. In front of a massive bulletproof front door, two cars and four police officers guard the road. Inside lives the most protected woman in Italy: Teresa Principato, the so-called “iron prosecutor” bent on catching one of the most wanted men in the world: the top godfather of the Sicilian Mafia, Matteo Messina Denaro.

Principato has lived under constant police surveillance since 2014, when a plot to assassinate her with dynamite was uncovered by police. When I arrive to interview her, I am searched for 10 minutes and my documents checked before bodyguards bring me through armored doors to meet the 64-year-old prosecutor in her quarters. “Forgive the checks,” she says in Italian. “It is the tragicomic fate of us anti-Mafia prosecutors in Sicily. I, who represent the state, am forced to live like a prisoner, while Denaro, who boasts of having filled a cemetery with the men he has killed, is still on the loose.”

Denaro, known as U Siccu, ”the skinny one”, was born in 1962 in Castelvetrano, a town on the southern west coast of Sicily where his father Francesco was a powerful Cosa Nostra boss. Matteo thrived in the family business, building a $5 billion empire of illicit business in the waste and wind energy sectors, and even retail.

He has been convicted in absentia of more than 20 murders, including women and children, but he has always eluded arrest. Using false documents, he has moved from city to city and country to country, taking advantage of supporters who gave him hospitality and protection. Few photographs of him exist and his current whereabouts are unknown. European law enforcement authorities recently named him the second most wanted man in Europe, after the Belgian-born fugitive Salah Abdeslam, who is suspected of helping plan last year’s Paris attacks.

By contrast, the woman who describes herself as Denato’s “nemesis” has spent her life in the law. Principato graduated from the University of Palermo in 1974 and, six years later, became deputy chief prosecutor. She was immediately assigned investigations into murders and corruption, and in 1991, became part of the special anti-Mafia team led by the anti-Mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, the first woman on their team.

This was a challenge, she says. “It was not easy coming up in the environment of the judiciary system and police force, characterized by an almost total presence of men, when I started. I had to set aside my femininity to make myself respected by colleagues and get them to call me ‘Prosecutor’ and not ‘Signora’ “.

At the time, the Cosa Nostra was waging a war against the state and their main targets were the judges and prosecutors. From the late seventies to the early nineties, they killed nearly one a year, using guns or dynamite. On May 23, 1992, Falcone, a mentor and friend of Principato, was murdered along with his wife and bodyguards on the highway outside Palermo. Three hundred pounds of dynamite was used to blow up his car.

”That day, my world fell apart,” Principato remembers. “I even thought about abandoning this job. Many of my colleagues did just that.” As she mourned Falcone at his funeral she was approached by his friend and colleague Borsellino, her surviving boss. “He said, ‘Teresa, if we want to keep doing this work, to the end, we have to get it into our heads that we will end up killed like him. Are you up to it?’ I said yes. We could not let the Mafia win this war.”

Read next: The Sicilian Mafia Hitman Who Killed 80 People and Will Be Free in 5 Years

The Mafia did not want to lose its war either. Just two months later, Borsellino was killed by a car bomb during a visit to his mother in Palermo. As she recalls the murders, the prosecutor’s eyes moisten. ”I had spoken to Borsellino the day before,” she says. “I was supposed to leave with him to go to Germany the next day, to meet an arrested Mafioso who had decided to cooperate with the Justice Department.”

Many of the Mafiosi who ordered these murders — which caused outrage across Italy — are now behind bars for life. Denaro, however, managed to cover his tracks and consolidate his place at the top of the Mafia’s food chain. When she was appointed prosecutor in charge of the case in 2009, Principato’s institutional duty to catch him became a vendetta against the man responsible for the deaths of her colleagues and friends.

“We had two strategies to find him,” she says. “The first was to confiscate all the goods that could be traced to him. The second was to arrest the men who revolved around him.” Over seven years, the plan worked. Denaro’s empire slowly crumbled. His hundreds of businesses, managed by nominees, were confiscated. One company controlled by Denaro was the supermarket chain, Despar, which alone was worth 860 million euros. More than 100 of his confederates have been arrested, and almost all his family, including cousins, nephews and his sister.

”We scorched the earth around him,” says Mrs Principato. “We cut off all his contact with his family and his supporters who protected him in hiding. Denaro is still very much protected, but there are many bosses who seem to have started to distance themselves from him.”

But time is running out; Principato has exactly one year to catch Denaro before February 2017, when she will be assigned to another case. The Italian law that governs the allocation of investigations stipulates a rotation of prosecutors every eight years.

Principato says she will keep tightening the screws on Denaro while she still can, even while her life remains at risk. “Death threats, for those in our line of work, are par for the course,” she says. “The fear is there — we are not robots — but I have learned how to manage it. If you get intimidated, they win and I cannot allow Denaro to do so.”

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