Huge ‘Ndrangheta mafia trial involving 350 suspects begins in Italy

Italy’s largest mafia trial in more than 30 years got underway today as hundreds of alleged members of the ‘Ndrangheta – believed to be the world’s richest crime syndicate – took the stand.

The ‘maxi’ trial, which is expected to take at least a year to complete, will involve 355 defendants, 400 lawyers and 900 witnesses alleging crimes from murder, drug trafficking and extortion, to money laundering and abuse of office.

Among the accused are Mafia boss Luigi Mancuso, known as ‘The Uncle’, and his alleged accomplices who have a host of nicknames including ‘The Wolf’, ‘Fatty’, ‘Sweetie’, ‘Blondie’, ‘Little Goat’ and ‘The Wringer’.   

Prosecutors say the gang infiltrated almost every aspect of life in Italy’s Calabria region, where the trial is taking place, from city hall and hospitals, to cemeteries and even the courts – while their empire also spanned the globe from Australia to Canada, and Germany to the US where it did business with El Chapo’s Sinaloa Cartel.

An ex-senator from former premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, Giancarlo Pittelli, is also among the list of defendants after he was accused of being middleman between the ‘Ndrangheta and the world of politics, banking, and other powerful institutions.

At the centre of it all is Nicola Gratteri, 62, Italy’s top mafia prosecutor who defied threats that he is a ‘dead man walking’ as he strode into court on Wednesday.  

Italy's largest mafia trial in more than 30 years opened Wednesday as more than 350 suspects face a judge in a specially courtroom (pictured) in the southern Calabrian town of Lamezia Terme, in the heart of 'Ndrangheta territory

Italy’s largest mafia trial in more than 30 years opened Wednesday as more than 350 suspects face a judge in a specially courtroom (pictured) in the southern Calabrian town of Lamezia Terme, in the heart of ‘Ndrangheta territory

Anti-mob prosecutor Nicola Gratteri (centre) said it was an 'important day', telling reporters outside court that the trial would 'give the idea of what the Calabrian mafia is today - no longer a mafia of shepherds dedicated to kidnapping, but a major criminal corporation'

Anti-mob prosecutor Nicola Gratteri (centre) said it was an ‘important day’, telling reporters outside court that the trial would ‘give the idea of what the Calabrian mafia is today – no longer a mafia of shepherds dedicated to kidnapping, but a major criminal corporation’

Mob's your Uncle: Among the accused is Mafia boss Luigi Mancuso, known as 'The Uncle'

Mob’s your Uncle: Among the accused is Mafia boss Luigi Mancuso, known as ‘The Uncle’

Gratteri, who has spent the last 30 years living under police escort, said it was an ‘important day’, telling reporters outside court that the trial would ‘give the idea of what the Calabrian mafia is today – no longer a mafia of shepherds dedicated to kidnapping, but a major criminal corporation’. 

He added: ‘Decades ago, people would tremble when talking about Cosa Nostra or when using the word ‘Ndrangheta, something they would say only in a hidden room, around the fireplace, whispering. 

‘Today we are beginning to speak out in the open sunlight.’

‘In the last two years, we can say we have been seeing a spike in complaints by businessmen, bullied citizens, victims of usury, people who for years have been subject to the pall of the ‘Ndrangheta,’ Graterri, who who has spent more than 30 years fighting the mob, added.

He later sat in the front row of the courtroom as Judge Tiziana Macri began reading out the names of the defendants, none of whom attended in person but who participated via video conference, their faces shown on dozens of televisions fitted over lines of grey desks.   

Multiple television screens have been set up at the specially converted courtroom ahead of the trial

Multiple television screens have been set up at the specially converted courtroom ahead of the trial

Judge Tiziana Macri began reading out the names of the defendants, none of whom attended in person but who participated via video conference, their faces shown on dozens of televisions fitted over lines of grey desks

Judge Tiziana Macri began reading out the names of the defendants, none of whom attended in person but who participated via video conference, their faces shown on dozens of televisions fitted over lines of grey desks 

The trial, expected to last at least a year and likely longer, features 355 defendants, more than 900 prosecution witnesses

The trial, expected to last at least a year and likely longer, features 355 defendants, more than 900 prosecution witnesses

KEY PLAYERS IN THE TRIAL

Luigi Mancuso – ‘The Uncle’

The current trial grew out of an investigation of 12 clans linked to convicted ‘Ndrangheta boss, Luigi Mancuso.

Mancuso, 66, served 19 years in an Italian prison for drug trafficking and his role in leading what investigators allege is one of the ‘Ngrangheta’s most powerful crime families, based in the town of Vibo Valentia.

He allegedly continued to run drug trafficking operations whilst in prison.

In 2019, Mancuso was one of 334 people arrested by Italian police in an operation targeting the ‘Ndrangheta families based in the southern Italian city of Locri in the Calabria region.

Emanuele Mancuso

Emanuele, the son of mafia boss Luni Mancuso ‘the Engineer’, is a key figure in the trial as he will testify against his uncle Luigi Mancuso.

He was given police protection after he said he would reveal the mafia clan’s secrets.

Former senator Giancarlo Pittelli

Among the accused is former parliamentarian Giancarlo Pittelli, a renowned defence lawyer, Freemason and ex-senator from former premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party.

He denies accusations he acted as middleman between the ‘Ndrangheta and the world of politics, banking, and other powerful institutions, including the courts.

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The first three hours of the trial’s opening day were consumed by the court’s formal rollcall of the defendants and their lawyers. 

Among the defendants are boss Luigi Mancuso ‘The Uncle’ and others with nicknames including ‘The Wolf’, ‘Fatty’, ‘Sweetie’, ‘Blondie’, ‘Little Goat’ and ‘The Wringer’.

Defendants who are jailed, due to convictions in other cases, could follow the proceedings by a video conference. 

The trial grew out of an investigation of 12 clans linked to a convicted ‘Ndrangheta boss. That figure is Luigi Mancuso, who served 19 years in Italian prison for his role in leading what investigators allege is one of the ‘Ndrangheta’s most powerful crime families, based in the town of Vibo Valentia.

The trial, expected to last at least a year and likely longer, features 355 defendants, more than 900 prosecution witnesses, and an unprecedented number of collaborators, given the close family ties within the ‘Ndrangheta that discourage turncoats.

In Italy, so-called ‘maxi-trials,’ which include scores of defendants and countless charges, are seen as the best judicial resource against the country’s various organised crime groups, of which the ‘Ndrangheta is now considered the most powerful, controlling the bulk of cocaine flowing into Europe.

The most famous ‘maxi-trial’ of 1986-7 dealt a major blow to Sicily’s Cosa Nostra, resulting in 338 guilty verdicts, but prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were later assassinated by the mob.    

The ‘Ndrangheta has expanded well beyond its traditional domains of drug trafficking and loan sharking, the crime syndicate now uses shell companies and frontmen to reinvest illegal gains in the legitimate economy.  

In many parts of Calabria, it has infiltrated practically all areas of public life, from city hall and hospitals, to cemeteries and even the courts, experts say.

Authorities believe there are some 150 ‘Ndrangheta families in Calabria and at least 6,000 members and affiliates in the region. That swells to thousands worldwide, although estimates are unreliable.

In Italy, so-called 'maxi-trials,' which include scores of defendants and countless charges, are seen as the best judicial resource against the country's various organised crime groups

In Italy, so-called ‘maxi-trials,’ which include scores of defendants and countless charges, are seen as the best judicial resource against the country’s various organised crime groups

The current trial, expected to last at least a year and likely longer, features 355 defendants, more than 900 prosecution witnesses, and an unprecedented number of collaborators. Pictured: A police officer walks inside the High Security Courtroom today ahead of the trial

The current trial, expected to last at least a year and likely longer, features 355 defendants, more than 900 prosecution witnesses, and an unprecedented number of collaborators. Pictured: A police officer walks inside the High Security Courtroom today ahead of the trial

Nicola Morra, President of the Italian Parliamentary Anti-Mafia Commission, arrives at the courthouse today for the Mafia trial

Nicola Morra, President of the Italian Parliamentary Anti-Mafia Commission, arrives at the courthouse today for the Mafia trial

The organised crime group generates more than 50 billion euros ($61 billion) per year, according to Gratteri, who called it the world’s richest such organisation.

In an interview with AFP before the trial opened, the prosecutor described the ‘Ndrangheta as a network of families, each of which wield power over subordinates’.

‘I have to start with the idea that there’s an organisation, as in a business, as in a large multinational, with a boss and then down, like a pyramid, to all the other members,’ he said, explaining the need for the ‘maxi-trial’.

Gratteri had spent decades trying to bring the mafia to justice – and throughout the years he has faced scores of threats. 

Italian police intercepted a phone conversation between two members of the mafia who described Gratteri as a ‘dead man walking’, the Wall Street Journal reported.  

Authorities believe there are some 150 'Ndrangheta families in Calabria and at least 6,000 members and affiliates in the region. That swells to thousands worldwide, although estimates are unreliable. Pictured: The specially converted courtroom today

Authorities believe there are some 150 ‘Ndrangheta families in Calabria and at least 6,000 members and affiliates in the region. That swells to thousands worldwide, although estimates are unreliable. Pictured: The specially converted courtroom today

Among the accused is former parliamentarian and ex-senator Giancarlo Pittelli

Among the accused is former parliamentarian and ex-senator Giancarlo Pittelli

The prosecutor has been the subject of a series of assassination attempts – in 2005, police found explosives and assault rifles that were were to be used to kill him.  

The current trial focuses on one family, the Mancuso group, and its network of associates who control the Vibo Valentia area of Calabria.

Although 355 defendants will be on trial, the number of accused swelled to more than 400 when those who opted for speedy trials are included.

Among the accused is former parliamentarian Giancarlo Pittelli, a renowned defence lawyer, Freemason and ex-senator from former premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party.

He denies accusations he acted as middleman between the ‘Ndrangheta and the world of politics, banking, and other powerful institutions, including the courts.

Although 355 defendants will be on trial, the number of accused swelled to more than 400 when those who opted for speedy trials are included

Although 355 defendants will be on trial, the number of accused swelled to more than 400 when those who opted for speedy trials are included

Most of the defendants were arrested in a series of pre-dawn raids in December 2019 which occured throughout Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Bulgaria.

Allegations include mafia association, murder and attempted murder, drug trafficking, extortion, loan sharking, disclosure of official secrets, abuse of office, possession of stolen goods and money laundering.

Among the multiple murders, some of which date back to 1996, is that of the 2002 disappearance of Filippo Gangitano, murdered by his cousin because of his homosexuality.

‘These things can’t exist inside the ‘Ndrangheta,’ the cousin, now a state witness, said he was told by the bosses.

Gangitano’s body was buried in a spot where a road was later built, the witness said, according to news reports.

The town of Lamezia Terme, where the trial is taking place, was cited in a 2008 parliamentary organised crime report as a public safety emergency zone where the region’s ‘greatest increase in serious bloodshed has been recorded’.

Defendants include a high number of non-clan members, including an ex-parliamentarian, a high-ranking police official, mayors and other public servants and businessmen.

‘The impressive thing is… the power the Mancuso gang has shown in rubbing shoulders with state apparatuses, which were literally at their disposal,’ Gratteri said following a wave of arrests in December 2019 throughout Italy and Europe that led to the trial.

Criminologist Federico Varese of Oxford University said the trial reflects the wide reach of the ‘Ndrangheta, who are embedded in the community and involved in every legal and illicit activity.

‘The real strength of these mafia families is they have control of the territory and within the territory they do everything,’ said Varese.

‘If you want to open a shop, if you want to build anything, you have to go through them. They are the authority.’

How the ‘Ndrangheta cocaine crime network extends around the world

In December 2019 an operation targeted the ‘Ndrangheta families based in the southern Italian city of Locri in the Calabria region – the rural, mountainous and under-developed ‘toe’ of Italy’s boot and the heartland of the worldwide crime group. 

As a result of the swoop, Italian police arrested 334 people, including a police colonel and a former MP from Silvio Berlusconi’s party. 

Despite intense police attention and frequent arrests, the ‘Ndrangheta – which derives its meaning from the Greek word for ‘heroism’ – has continued to extend its reach. 

Notoriously ruthless, the ‘Ndrangheta has surpassed Sicily’s Cosa Nostra and the Naples-based Camorra to operate on all continents thanks to the wealth it has amassed as the principal importer and wholesaler of cocaine produced in Latin America and smuggled into Europe via north Africa and southern Italy.

That trade is worth billions and previous police operations have indicated that the ‘Ndrangheta has well-established links with Colombian producer cartels, Mexican crime gangs and mafia families in New York and other parts of North America.

In 2016, a suspected 'Ndrangheta boss, Ernesto Fazzalari (pictured), was arrested after two decades on the run, fleeing a life sentence for murder

Santo Vottari was detained in Calabria having been on the run for a decade

In 2016, a suspected ‘Ndrangheta boss, Ernesto Fazzalari (left), was arrested after two decades on the run, fleeing a life sentence for murder. A year later, another suspected boss of the crime clan, Santo Vottari (right), was detained in Calabria having been on the run for a decade

The organisation’s tight clan-based structure has made it hard to penetrate but police have made some in roads in recent years. 

In 2015, 163 people were arrested in a major crackdown on the notorious mafia gang, which by that time had become the most powerful crime organisation in the country.

In another sting that year, police snatched assets worth £1.4billion from the ‘Ndrangheta, which included more than 1,500 betting shops, 82 online gambling sites and almost 60 companies.  

In 2016, one of Italy’s most wanted mafia bosses Ernesto Fazzalari was arrested after two decades on the run, fleeing a life sentence for murder. 

The ‘Ndrangheta member was captured in an apartment in a remote part of the southern region of Calabria.

On the run since 1996, he was convicted in absentia in 1999 of mafia association, kidnapping, illegal possession of weapons and a double homicide linked to a bloody 1989-91 feud which left 32 people dead in his home town of Taurianova.

His arrest was hailed by the government as a significant victory for the state in its battle against the powerful mafia group.

In 2018, another suspected boss of the crime clan, Santo Vottari, was detained in Calabria having been on the run for a decade.

He was arrested hiding behind a trap door of a bunker having gone to ground over a 2007 massacre in Germany.  

Vottari was convicted in absentia in 2009 of being one of the heads of an ‘Ndrangheta clan whose feud with local rivals culminated in the Duisburg killings.

He was given a prison term of 10 years and eight months, two years after he went on the run.

Vottari was one of 31 people sentenced to prison terms in 2009 in connection with the Duisburg killings, which happened after a vendetta between two clans based in the same village, San Luca, spiralled out of control.

The feud between the Nirta-Strangio and Pelle-Vottari clans reportedly began with an egg-throwing prank in 1991. 

Reprisals escalated after the killing, on Christmas Day, 2006, of Maria Strangio, the wife of clan leader Giovanni Nirta.

The feud was blamed for at least 16 deaths in total, with the killings in Germany bringing it to international attention.

Giovanni Strangio was convicted in 2011 of being the mastermind and one of the authors of the Duisburg killings.

He was sentenced to life in prison. Seven others were given life sentences linked to the feud at the same trial.

Notoriously ruthless, the ‘Ndrangheta has surpassed Sicily’s Cosa Nostra and the Naples-based Camorra in influence thanks to its control of Europe’s cocaine trade.

The organisation is made up of numerous village and family-based clans based in the rural, mountainous and under-developed ‘toe’ of Italy’s boot.

The name ‘Ndrangheta comes from the Greek for courage or loyalty and the organisation’s secretive culture and brutal enforcement of codes of silence have made it very difficult to penetrate.

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