An Italian court has convicted and sentenced more than 200 people of crimes including criminal association, extortion and bribery in what has been described as Italy’s largest mafia trial in three decades.
The verdicts mark the end of a three-year “maxi trial” held in a high-security courtroom in the southern Calabria region built specifically to hold up to 350 defendants, accommodate 400 lawyers and hear from the 900 witnesses providing testimony against an extensive network of members belonging to the notorious ’Ndrangheta.
Although more than 100 individuals were acquitted by the court in Lamezia Terme, the sentencing represents one of the most significant blows to date against the powerful organised crime syndicate, which enjoys a near-monopoly on the European cocaine trade.
Almost all of the defendants were arrested in December 2019 after a lengthy investigation that began in 2016 and covered at least 11 Italian regions. About 2,500 officers participated in raids focused on suspects in Vibo Valentia, Calabria, the heart of an area controlled mainly by the ’Ndrangheta’s Mancuso clan.
An elite carabinieri unit known as the Cacciatori, literally “the hunters”, arrested several suspects hiding in bunkers located behind sliding staircases, hidden trapdoors and maintenance-hole covers.
A police chief, local councillors and businessmen accused of aiding the mafia were also arrested in Germany, Switzerland and Bulgaria.
The former Forza Italia MP Giancarlo Pittelli was given a jail term of 11 years by a court for aiding a mafia clan.
Nicola Gratteri, an anti-mafia prosecutor who led the investigation, told the Guardian at the time of the raids that it was the biggest operation against the crime syndicates since the 1986-92 Palermo maxi trials, when Sicilian prosecutors put 475 people in the dock.
For the trial, Gratteri’s team had collected 24,000 wiretaps and intercepted conversations to back up their charges.
Investigators provided extensive evidence of the ruthless and oppressive tactics employed by the ’Ndrangheta in its control over the local community, including violent attacks, extortion, corruption in public contracts, weapon stockpiling, manipulation of elections and bribery.
The mobsters were members or affiliates of the leading ’Ndrangheta group operating in Vibo Valentia, an economically disadvantaged rural area where the mafia has exerted its influence for many years, stifling the local economy, infiltrating public institutions and terrorising the populace.
Notably, the trial marked a significant departure from previous cases, as it included non-mafia individuals among the defendants. These individuals comprised a high-ranking police official, mayors, other public servants and business people.
On Monday, Gratteri, who was nominated Naples’s chief prosecutor this year, said: “It is a very significant sentence, and we are very satisfied. We have finally demonstrated that there was a network of white-collar workers, entrepreneurs, and politicians doing business with the Calabrian clans.”
Most of those sentenced on Monday announced they would appeal against their convictions.
The’Ndrangheta of Vibo Valentia, its members known by their colourful nicknames such as “The Wolf”, “Fatty”, “Sweetie” and “Lamb Thigh”, is deeply entrenched in the local economy. The criminal group struck fear into the hearts of business owners and farmers, while enjoying protection from white-collar professionals and politicians.
Informants revealed harrowing details, such as weapons being concealed in cemetery chapels and drugs being transported in ambulances. They also disclosed instances of diverting municipal water supplies for marijuana cultivation.
Those who dared to oppose the ’Ndrangheta were met with violent acts, including the dumping of dead puppies, dolphins, or goats’ heads on their doorsteps, sledgehammer attacks on storefronts, or the arson of their vehicles. Some suffered physical assaults, disappeared without a trace, or were killed.
Luigi “The Supreme” Mancuso, the undisputed boss of the territory, was removed from the list of defendants last year to face a separate trial.
At the trial, codenamed Rinascita (Rebirth), all eyes were on his nephew Emanuele Mancuso,, who revealed the clan’s secrets after accepting police protection.
Vincenzo Capomolla, the deputy chief prosecutor of the Calabrian capital, Catanzaro, said: “The clans of Vibo Valentia are rooted in every aspect of life and the economic and social fabric of the province. This sentence demonstrates it and shows the absolute power of the Mancuso clan.”
At one time derided by the Sicilian Cosa Nostra and the Campanian Camorra mafias, the ’Ndrangheta is by far the most powerful criminal group in Italy and one of the richest in the world. A study by the Demoskopita Research Institute in 2013 estimated it was more financially powerful than Deutsche Bank and McDonald’s combined, with an annual turnover of €53bn (£44bn).
According to investigators, the secret of its success lies in the extent to which it is embedded in Calabria. Bosses rarely abandon their remote villages, despite running global operations worth millions.
To protect themselves, they build escape tunnels under their houses, sophisticated bunkers in mountains reachable only on foot and hideouts in the woods for when they are on the run. In the course of the investigation, police discovered a pizzino, a small slip of paper used by the mafia for top-level communications, containing a quote from three 17th-century knights who, according to legend, founded the Cosa Nostra in Sicily, the Camorra in Campania and the ’Ndrangheta in Calabria.
Despite living like hermits hidden in the Calabrian mountains, ’Ndrangheta bosses are capable of laundering millions of euros from the drugs trade through shell companies. Unlike the Sicilian mafia, the clans of the ’Ndrangheta are characterised by deep blood relations, a characteristic that, until recently, made this organisation virtually impenetrable.