A maxi lawsuit opened on Wednesday in southern Italy against the ‘ndrangheta crime syndicate, arguably the world’s richest criminal organization, quietly seizing power in Italy when the Sicilian mafia lost its influence.
The hearing against more than 300 defendants was opened in a specially constructed bunker on the large plot of land in an industrial park in Calabria, the “toe” of the Italian peninsula.
Prosecutors hope the trial will be a decisive blow to ‘ndrangheta, the Calabrian-based mob organization that has used tens of billions of billions of dollars in cocaine revenues to expand its criminal reach across Europe and across continents.
Anti-mafia prosecutor Nicola Gratteri told reporters when he arrived on Wednesday that the trial was a turning point that showed where ‘ndrangheta is now called out for his crimes and brought to justice.
“Decades ago, people were shaking when they talked about Cosa Nostra or when they used the word ‘ndrangheta, something they would only say in a hidden room, around the fireplace, whispering,’ he said.” Today we start talking in the open sunlight.
“In the last two years, we can say that we have seen an increase in complaints from business people, bullied citizens, victims of interest, people who have been exposed to ‘ndrangheta’ for years,” he said.
Investigators say ‘ndrangheta has established bases in much of western, northern and central Europe, Australia, North and South America and is also active in Africa.
The trial grew out of the investigation of 12 clans linked to a convicted ‘ndrangheta chief. This character is Luigi Mancuso, who served 19 years in Italian prison cells for his role in leading what investigators claim is one of ‘ndrangheta’s most powerful criminal families based in the city of Vibo Valentia.
The prosecution has stated that it hopes to call more than 900 witnesses and the trial is expected to last at least a year.
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Among the allegations the court is dealing with are drug and arms trafficking, extortion and mafia association, a term used in Italian criminal law for members of organized criminal groups. Others are accused of complicity in ‘ndrangheta without actually being a member.
About 325 defendants were ordered to stand trial in Lamezia Terme, while a further 90 defendants in the investigation chose to have a speedy trial starting later this month in Calabria. In yet another outgrowth of the same probe, a trial of five murders begins in February elsewhere in Calabria.
The Lamezia Terme bunker is so large that a score on video screens is anchored in the ceiling so participants can better see the procedure. There is a sea of rows of tables, where approx. 600 lawyers can work, with microphones and chairs that are securely spaced to comply with COVID-19 health regulations.
While the numbers are impressive, this week’s lawsuit is not Italy’s biggest against mobsters. In 1986, in Palermo, in a similar specially constructed bunker, 475 alleged members of the Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian mafia, went to court. This trial, which resulted in more than 300 convictions and brought 19 life sentences, helped reveal much of the brutal methods and murderous strategies of the island’s top mob bosses, including sensational killings that bled the Palermo area for years of power struggles.
In contrast, this lawsuit against ‘ndrangheta is largely aimed at getting convictions for allegedly engaging gangsters and local politicians, government officials, businessmen and members of secret filings in an indication of where the syndicate is rooted in the territory.
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Based almost exclusively on blood ties, ‘ndrangheta was for decades virtually immune to stretch coats. But their ranks are starting to get more extensive. Among those who reversed the state’s evidence in the Lamezia Terme trial was a relative of Mancuso. Several dozen informants in the case come from ‘ndrangheta, but others are from the earlier ranks of the Cosa Nostra in Sicily and could be called to testify.
Flooded in revenues from cocaine trafficking, ‘ndrangheta has eaten hotels, restaurants, pharmacies, car dealers and other businesses throughout Italy, especially in Rome and the wealthy north, criminal investigations have revealed.
The shopping spree in recent years spread widely across Europe as ‘ndrangheta tried to launder illegal revenue but also to make’ ‘pure’ money by running legitimate businesses, including in tourism and hospitality, according to investigators.