One of Italy’s largest-ever mafia trials kicked off on Wednesday, with more than 320 suspected mobsters and their associates facing an array of charges, including extortion, drug trafficking and theft.
The case targets the ‘Ndrangheta clan, which is based in Calabria, the toe of Italy’s boot, and is considered by prosecutors to be the most powerful mafia group in the country, easily eclipsing the more famous Cosa Nostra gang in Sicily.
The trial is being held in a converted call-centre in the Calabrian city of Lamezia Terme, with defendants placed in metal cages and rows of desks set up for the hundreds of lawyers, prosecutors, journalists and spectators expected to attend.
Many of the accused are white-collar workers, including lawyers, accountants, business people, local politicians and policemen, who chief prosecutor Nicola Gratteri says willingly aided the ‘Ndrangheta in building its crime empire.
Speaking to reporters as he entered the courthouse, Gratteri said the investigation had encouraged locals to speak out.
“In the last two years we have seen a surge in lawsuits from oppressed entrepreneurs and citizens, victims of usury, people who for years have lived under the threats of the ‘Ndrangheta,” said the prosecutor, who has spent more than 30 years fighting the mob.
The state will call on 913 witnesses and draw on 24,000 hours of intercepted conversations to support the myriad charges. Gratteri said he expected the trial would take a year to complete, with the court due to sit six days a week.
Another 92 suspects have opted for a fast-track trial in the same case, with their hearings due to start later in January, while a much smaller group of defendants will stand trial in February over five murders — including the killing of a mafia hitman who was shot dead because he was gay, prosecutors say.
The last time Italy tried hundreds of alleged mafiosi simultaneously was in 1986 in Palermo in a case which represented a turning point in the fight against Cosa Nostra, marking the beginning of the group’s sharp decline.
That trial had a huge impact because it targeted numerous mob families. The Calabrian trial focuses primarily on just one group — the Mancuso clan from the province of Vibo Valentia — leaving much of the ‘Ndrangheta’s top hierarchy untouched.
“The road ahead is still very long, but we mustn’t give up because there are thousands of people who believe in us. We can’t let them down,” Gratteri said.
Gratteri has spent the past three decades battling the ‘Ndrangheta, renouncing any semblance of a normal life as he seeks to break its grip on his native Calabria.
Calabria is a rugged backwater from where the ‘Ndrangheta operates its multi-billion dollar crime syndicate, controlling chunks of Europe’s cocaine trade and laundering vast sums through a network of front businesses.
The case has evoked memories of the so-called maxiprocesso that severely weakened the more storied Cosa Nostra mafia group on the island of Sicily, off the tip of Calabria, in the 1980s.
Infamously, the mafia murdered in 1992 two of the leading prosecutors in that case, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, as a reprisal for putting hundreds of mobsters behind bars.
Gratteri, 62, has had an armed escort ever since he first started probing ‘Ndrangheta in 1989, but is taking even more care now as the stakes get ever higher.
“I am being more careful than usual at present. I don’t go 10 metres (yards) without my armoured car,” he said.
“I haven’t been to a restaurant for more than 20 years and haven’t gone to the cinema for more than 30 years. I am always closed away. I eat in the office. My house is essentially a bunker. I have a good team of bodyguards.”
No amount of protection could save him from the sort of bomb blasts that killed Falcone and Borsellino, but Gratteri said he does not let the thought unsettle him.
“I am trained to deal with fear. You look death in the face, you rationalize death, otherwise you cannot carry on doing this job for so many years.”
The ‘Ndrangheta prospered hugely as Cosa Nostra faltered in the wake of the maxiprocesso take down, and prosecutors say it is now the most powerful mafia group in Italy, ruthlessly crushing anyone standing in its way.
Police said last week that they believe a woman farmer, who vanished in 2016, was killed and fed to pigs after she had refused to sell her land to one ‘Ndrangheta boss.
The Calabrian trial is expected to lay bare how the crime gang recruited an army of white collar workers — lawyers, accountants, public officials and court clerks — to enable their operations.
“Mafias change and evolve along with the rest of society. They get to look increasingly like the rest of us,” said Gratteri, adding that the ‘Ndrangheta had put down roots across the wealthy north of Italy and in much of Europe, as well as Canada, the United States and as far away as Australia.
Underscoring their reach, a court ruled last month that two out of the last five governors in the region of Valle d’Aosta in northwest Italy two had been elected with ‘Ndrangheta support, while a third governor had his request for help turned down.
Gratteri acknowledges that Wednesday’s trial, which is expected to last a year, will not kill off the crime empire, but he hopes it will mark an important step towards its demise by encouraging victims to come forward and denounce the mobsters.
“It will open the path to yet more trials and allow us to make even deeper inroads into the group. I want people to believe in us and begin to collaborate and have ever great trust in us,” he said.