Expectations are high as the biggest mafia trial in decades opens. 

The trial of the ‘Ndrangheta, Italy’s most powerful crime syndicate, began in January and is expected to continue for over two years. Over 355 suspected gangsters and corrupt officials, including a former senator, police chief, and local councillors and businessmen, have been charged following a lengthy inquiry. The trial is taking place in a specially modified building in the southern region of Calabria, in the heart of ‘Ndrangheta territory. The high-security building contains courtrooms with a capacity of one thousand people and cages to hold the defendants. Extra measures have been put in place to ensure safety amidst the Coronavirus pandemic. 

The trial will contain over 700 lawyers and close to 1,000 witnesses expected to provide evidence, including mafia family members. The most notable witness is Emanuele Mancuso, son of mafia boss Luni Mancuso. He is set to testify against his uncle, 66-year-old mob boss Luigi Mancuso. Prosecutor Nicola Gratteri and his team have collected 24,000 wiretaps and intercepted conversations as part of the evidence to back up their charges. Gratteri, who has been living under police protection for three decades, has called this “the trial of all honest businesspeople and citizens, who for years have endured attacks and harassment from the bosses who intimidated them into paying the protection money”. He hopes that “these proceedings can signal a true rebirth for the people of Calabria who are tired of living with the ‘Ndrangheta”. 

In a pre-trial hearing, it took over three hours to read the names of the defendants. The charges include murder, drug trafficking, extortion and money laundering.

The trial has aimed its focus at one particular group, the Mancuso family, who forms a powerful section of the ‘Ndrangheta. Almost all of the defendants were arrested in December 2019 after an investigation that began in 2016 and spanned over eleven Italian regions. Nearly 2,500 officers participated in raids focused on suspects in Vibo Valentia, Calabria. Italy’s special forces unit, the Cacciatori, meaning ‘the hunters’, caught suspects hiding in bunkers behind sliding staircases, hidden trapdoors and manholes  Thanks to Coronavirus quarantine restrictions, mob boss Cesare Antonio Cordi, 42, was captured in Calabria after the empty streets allowed police to spot cigarette smoke coming from an abandoned house. 

The last time a trial of this scale took place in Italy was the 1986-1992 Palermo Maxi trial, when Sicilian prosecutors tried over 475 people connected to the Cosa Nostra mafia family.  The trial was a turning point in the fight against the family and sped up their subsequent downfall.

The ‘Ndrangheta is the Western world’s richest crime syndicate, controlling 80 per cent of the European cocaine trade and generating an annual income of over £45 billion. It is believed that the ‘Ndrangheta have effectively monopolised the cocaine flow entering Europe from South America and elsewhere. To put into perspective just how financially powerful the ‘Ndrangheta are, the group made € 60 billion in profit in 2013, more than the combined revenues of McDonald’s and Deutsche Bank that year. Francesco Fonti, a ‘pentito’, or turncoat, revealed that they have also been accused of being involved in radioactive waste dumping since the 1980s, giving rise to the term ‘ecomafia’. This involves discreetly dumping toxic waste for corporations by filling ships with barrels of contaminated materials, sailing them out to sea and sinking them. There could be as many as 32 of such ships at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. 

The ‘Ndrangheta started their operations in the 1960s, first making their name in the 1973 kidnapping of the sixteen-year-old grandson of Jean Paul Getty, the world’s richest man at that time. Though the oil tycoon refused to pay initially, he eventually gave them £1.7 million after receiving one of his grandson’s severed ears. 

One of the kidnappers was Saverio Mammoliti, the embodiment of  the gang’s immunity. Nicknamed ‘the playboy’, he first broke out of prison in 1972. Mammoliti had law enforcement so under his thumb that he lived openly, without fear of arrest, for the next twenty years.He even married  his fifteen-year-old girlfriend at a church adjacent to a police station. He was seized with shipments of heroin and cocaine in 1975 but avoided prison. After being charged with murder, his property was seized temporarily, only for the charge to be dropped and his property to be returned to him. He was eventually imprisoned for a litany of crimes and became an informant in 2003, collaborating with the Italian anti-mafia commission. 

Their invisible influence throughout countries keeps ‘Ndrangheta’s members immune from harm – and the people coming for them in permanent fear. Witnesses and prosecutors have become victims for speaking out. Australian detective Geoffrey Bowen was murdered by a parcel bomb in 1994 the day before he was due to give evidence in court, having investigated Italian organised crime in Australia after discovering that some immigrants showed extraordinary allegiance to two seemingly insignificant Calabrian villages called Plati and San Luca. The Sicilian Maxi Trial prosecutor Giovanni Falcone, his wife, and three accompanying police officers were killed by a remote-controlled bomb in an explosion so powerful it was picked up by earthquake monitors. His old school friend  and fellow prosecutor Paolo Borsellino was assassinated a few weeks later. 

A mural in honour of assassinated judges Falcone and Borsellino in Palermo

The Spartacus maxi trial from 1998-2008 saw five people involved in the case murdered, and a judge and two journalists threatened with death. Despite the intimidation, 115 people were prosecuted, 27 life sentences and 750 years in prison were handed out to the defendants – the heaviest penalties for organised crime ever. This showed a turning point of mafia members starting to be held accountable for their crimes, and a finger-by-finger loosening of their grip upon Italy. The Operation Pollina raids in 2018 coordinated by EU agency Eurojust led to mass arrests, with almost 4,000 kg of cocaine being seized and mass arrests. Perhaps the current trial can be another step in the right direction. 

The prosecutor determined to finally bring the ‘Ndrangheta to its knees describes himself as “a man in a cage”. His enemies describe him as a “dead man walking”. Nicola Gratteri has been under police protection for thirty years and is constantly risking his life. In 2005, police uncovered a weapons stockpile including a rocket launcher and Kalashnikov assault rifles which were believed to have been intended for use in killing him. To live such a life in fear would take a heavy toll on a person, but Gratteri was inspired from a young age to overcome the gang plaguing his hometown. Having spent his childhood in Calabria, at a time when dozens of people were killed, he recalled that “When I used to go to school from my village, several times I used to see dead people on the ground, and I thought that as an adult I wanted to do something to prevent this from happening”. The trial is expected to take two years, a long and arduous process, but Gratteri is not deterred, saying that “it is always worth doing what you believe in, sacrifices are made if you believe that you are on the right side and that you are doing something to the community. Therefore, it is never wasted time and we are always convinced that it was worth it”. 

While ordinary Italians have struggled during the pandemic, the mafia has only been strengthened. A stagnant economy, with high unemployment rates and slow economic growth, has affected many businesses. These businesses are particularly vulnerable to  visits from mafiosos who offer to buy them, take them over and use them to launder money. Gratteri worries that “if the state arrives late to give them subsidies, then the mafia will take care of them and when there will be the elections these people will remember the help and vote for the candidate chosen by the mafia boss”, thus maintaining their stronghold on the political landscape. 

The influence of the mafia is not only damaging to normal life in Italy but a threat to the country’s democracy. Federico Varese, a professor of Criminology at Oxford University told news agency AFP that “this trial shows how deeply rooted the ‘Ndrangheta is in society. It is shocking that you have a criminal group so rooted in the territory you have to put hundreds of people on trial”. However, he warns that this trial will not end the existence of the mafia: “you can throw them in jail but if you don’t take away the root causes of why they exist, they’ll just reproduce”. Ultimately, in impoverished regions such as Calabria, where unemployment is at 21% and the government is widely distrusted, people have to make choices to survive. All too often the mafia is knocking on their door before the government. 

Lily Shanagher

Lily is studying Spanish & Russian and is now in her third year at Teddy Hall.