For years anti-mafia prosecutor Nicola Gratteri, 62, has been preparing for an upcoming ‘historic’ trial against Italy’s infamous ‘Ndrangheta. Gathering together an enormous amount of evidence against hundreds of suspects.
The first round of this court battle happened on Friday at a preliminary hearing in Rome. A case like this has not been seen since the “Maxiprocesso” trial in the mid-1980s against the Sicilian Cosa Nostra.
For three decades Gratteri has been under strict police protection because of the dangerous work he does. He lives in the southern Italian town and ‘Ndrangheta stronghold of Catanzaro and receives death threats on a regular basis. Gratteri’s police protection is now more important than ever as he hopes to convict over 450 suspected clan members for belonging to a ruthless criminal organization known for money laundering, extortion, drug-trafficking, kidnapping, and many turf wars. They are also Italy’s only mafia organization that is active on every continent.
After the conclusion of Friday’s preliminary hearing in Rome, Gratteri commented saying, “It’s a war. We are talking about violence, about death”.
Gratteri says he described the case as “historic” because he firmly believes this will be Italy’s most important court battle against the mafia since the “Maxi” trial which concluded with the convictions of hundreds of Cosa Nostra members. That trial was tainted with violence though, including the 1992 murder of the prosecuting magistrate Giovanni Falcone, his wife, and three police officers.
A fortified courthouse is currently under construction in Calabria, and once finished and the formalities wrap up in Rome, the hearings will move there where it is expected there will be at least 600 lawyers and 200 civil parties participating.
Most of the suspects on trial were arrested in December in what was one of the biggest police raids on the ‘Ndrangheta in many years capturing bosses, underbosses, and soldiers.
The raids also extended as far as Bulgaria, Germany, and Switzerland and, among others, resulted in the arrest of the boss of the Calabrian mayors association and a member of parliament.
The charges range from loansharking to murder with special circumstances under Italy’s Article 416-bis criminal code which makes it illegal to associate with or be a member of any part of a mafia-style organization.
For a long time, the ‘Ndrangheta were thought of as inferior to other gangs such as the Camorra and La Cosa Nostra, but over time they have exceeded them to become Italy’s most powerful criminal organization.
Nowadays the ‘Ndrangheta control a significant portion of the world’s narcotics trafficking with an especially strong grip in Colombia, New York, and Brazil. They are also heavily involved in the construction industry and even funeral contracts which is a booming business at the moment due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
According to Gratteri, the ‘Ndrangheta is “much feared for its ferocity and its cruelty. Yet at the same time, it is very modern — and ready to flood Europe’s markets with tons of narcotics”.
Italian authorities estimate there are about 20,000 ‘Ndrangheta members around the world and the organization has an annual revenue of more than $59 billion.
Although the arrests and upcoming trial have been a significant blow to the ‘Ndrangheta, it will not have the same impact as the 1986 Palermo-based Maxi trial.
“During the Cosa Nostra Maxi trial they brought down the heads of all the major families, in this operation it is not the case,” said criminologist Anna Sergi, an associate professor at the University of Essex. “Some major people… will go on trial but I would not go and say that this will have the same significance, should they all be jailed.”
Gratteri doesn’t expect to rid Italy of the mafia but hopes to significantly reduce its membership and business dealings. Quoting the late judge Falcone, Gratteri said “The mafias are not external bodies to our otherwise well-functioning society, they are the mirror of our functioning”.
“Italy is unable to admit it, it makes an enemy of it, forgetting that the mafia is part of who we are. “In each of us there is a little ‘Ndranghetist”.