ROME – In a huge makeshift courtroom in the Calabria region, the toe of the boot-shaped peninsula of southern Italy, 350 people were tried this month in the largest and most important trial of organized crime in more than 30 years.
It took more than three hours to read the names of the defendants.
In the seminal case, one of Europe’s most feared criminal syndicates, the Ndrangheta, takes on a man who has dedicated his life to mining.
Nicola Gratteri, the lead prosecutor who has become the public face of the trial, led the four-year investigation that preceded it. For Gratteri, a Calabrian with 30 years of fighting the mob behind him, it’s personal.
“I was born in Calabria, I love my country and I want to see it free from the mafia,” he said. “And that’s exactly what I’ve been doing as a judge since 1986: fighting the ‘Ndrangheta.”
Gratteri said the massive investigation gathered 15,000 pages of evidence and intercepted 24,000 hours of conversations.
Mob association, murder, attempted murder, drug trafficking, extortion, loan shark, disclosure of official secrets, abuse of office, possession of stolen goods and money laundering – these are just some of the charges brought during an expected trial that will last at least a year with the court in the city of Lamezia Terme six days a week.
“And although there are hundreds of defendants in the process, this is only the beginning,” said Gratteri.
On Thursday, 370 Italian police officers carried out multiple raids across the country against the ‘Ndrangheta, resulting in dozens of arrests and the seizure of property, vehicles and bank accounts valued at € 300 million.
Gratteri said the group was “by far the most powerful, toughest and most violent mafia there is” – more so than the Sicilian mafia. The ‘Ndrangheta, he said, is the only mafia group on every continent, including America.
62-year-old Gratteri has spent much of the past three decades with bodyguards and police escorts nearby, protecting him from credible threats to his life. He drives in an armored car and says he hasn’t been to a restaurant in more than 20 years.
The courtroom, a converted call center in Lamezia Terme, has cages for defendants and space for 1,000 people. Around 900 witnesses will testify with 400 lawyers over the next 12 months.
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The ‘Ndrangheta – the name is derived from a Greek word meaning “Society of Men of Honor” – has been associated with kidnappings, murders and international drug trafficking.
Authorities connected the group on the murders of six Italians in the German city of Duisburg in 2007, when the popularity of ‘Ndrangheta eclipsed that of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, which was the subject of the last major mob trial in Italy in 1986.
The nation shocked when a drug-related dispute over the ‘Ndrangheta in the Calabrian town of Cassano all’Ionio in 2014 resulted in the murder of a 3-year-old boy. Pope Francis visited the city and comforted the boy’s father before condemning the criminal group.
Among the defendants are several members of the Mancuso family, including the man suspected of being the kingpin, Luigi Mancuso, also known as “The Uncle”, who spent 19 years in prison for leading one of the most powerful of the Ndrangheta had families.
Other defendants, according to prosecutors, have a number of colorful nicknames, including “The Wolf”, “Fatty”, “Sweetie”, “Blondie”, “Little Goat” and “The Wringer”.
Gratteri said the ‘Ndrangheta started out as a “group of shepherds” specializing in ransom kidnapping. The cocaine trafficking started in the 1990s and became the largest drug trafficker in Europe, he said.
The group invested and laundered drug sales by buying up legitimate businesses across Europe, he said. The reach of the group goes much further, however.
“They also used the money to penetrate public administration by corrupting civil servants, professionals, politicians and lawyers,” Gratteri said.
These officers are also among the defendants, Gratteri said.
Antonio Nicaso, a senior lecturer at Queen’s University in Ontario, an expert on Italian crime groups, said, “The ‘Ndrangheta is one of the richest, most powerful and ruthless criminal organizations in the world, with an impact on the world. Yet it is one of the least known . “
According to the Italian research group Demoskopika, Ndrangheta earned 53 billion euros in 2013, more than Deutsche Bank and McDonald’s combined.
The trial is significant because it addresses not only the criminal family themselves, but also the people who “attract” and enable it, said Nicaso, including senators, police chiefs, lawyers and councilors.
“One of the ‘Ndrangheta’s greatest strengths is its ability to connect the underworld with the outside world,” he said.
Claudio Lavanga reported from Rome; Patrick Smith reported from London.