Continually protected with heavy security, Nicola Gratteri leads the fight in Calabria against the world’s richest organized crime syndicate.
The ‘Ndrangheta, whose roots started right at the tip of Italy’s boot and now span the entire globe, is being taken on by Italian prosecutor Nicola Gratteri, 61.
In December, the prosecutor organized thousands of law-enforcement officers in raids that led to the arrest of more than 300 people. It was one of the biggest mafia arrests in history and certainly the largest against the ‘Ndrangheta.
For the regional elections on January 26, candidates’ posters line the streets in Catanzaro. “I thought of it as a war,” said Mr Gratteri, a native of Calabria who has needed police protection since becoming a prosecutor almost three decades ago. Several thwarted attempts have been made on his life in this time.
On his first day in 2016 as chief prosecutor for the regional capital, he began planning these recent raids. But this is just the beginning. 500 people, most in detention, are currently under investigation.
The trial, which is scheduled to start this summer will take place in a volleyball arena which will be converted into a high-security courtroom with a capacity of 3,200. Enough to accommodate all the defendants, witnesses, and lawyers.
The top echelon of the Mancuso family is in Mr Gratteri’s sights along with one of the most powerful ‘Ndrangheta clans, civil servants, businessmen, and politicians. They are charged with a variety of crimes including murder, corruption, money laundering, extortion, and belonging to and colluding with a criminal organization.
Mr Gratteri’s tactics and the high number of arrests have been criticized as excessive and unnecessary by some local politicians and media. The prosecutor has defended his actions saying that the flight risk and risk of evidence tampering were too high.
Not since the maxi trial in 1986 has anything happened on this scale. Sicily’s Cosa Nostra were greatly weakened at that time and Mr Gratteri is hoping the same thing will happen to the ‘Ndrangheta this time around.
As the Cosa Nostra weakened from the fallout of the trial, the ‘Ndrangheta went from strength to strength and is now the world’s richest criminal organization. They control about 80% of Europe’s drug trade estimated at $55 billion – bigger than the Mexican and Colombian cartels combined. According to the prosecutor’s estimate, there are approximately 20,000 ‘Ndrangheta members worldwide.
Most of their money is laundered in European capitals through dealings in hotels, real estate, and restaurants.
Calabria, one of the poorest areas in Western Europe and the ‘Ndrangheta’s home region, sees very little of its wealth. Unemployment there is the highest in Italy at 21.6%. It is out of this poverty and desperation that the ‘Ndrangheta’s numbers and network grew. Shaking down businesses for protection money and forging bonds with corrupt politicians and government officials. It is because of this intimidation and corruption why so much of the youth in the region turn to the mob for work and why there is hardly any outside investment in the area.
Mr Gratteri sees taking on the mob as something that is absolutely necessary if the region is ever going to recover. The landscape is dotted with unfinished buildings and closed down businesses. The crime syndicates are the main contributor to the stagnation of the entire southern Italy region.
Unfortunately, Mr Gratteri has paid a huge personal price for taking on the ‘Nddrangheta. In 1989, his girlfriend’s front door was hit with bullets followed by a phone call to her saying she was marrying “a dead man”. This didn’t scare her off. She married him anyway and now they have two adult sons.
Mr Gratteri rarely goes anywhere else except his home or office which he travels to in a bulletproof car. “I have no life,” he says. He can’t go to the beach which he loved to do. He hasn’t been to the cinema for 20 years. He can’t stroll around the town. He couldn’t even go to his father’s funeral.
“I am like a convict under house arrest. Despite this physical constraint, in my mind I feel very free” he said.
This hard-working prosecutor is a self-described insomniac and workaholic. He wakes up around 2:30 am and works in his kitchen until dawn. He finds time for a few pleasures like tending his vegetable patch; surrounded by security cameras and armed guards of course.
On January 18 in Catanzaro, military personnel guarded a rally in support of Mr Gratteri.
“It’s important to tame fear, to dialogue with death and to tell oneself that even if I die tonight or tomorrow it’s not a disaster because I’ve had a good life,” he said. “I’ve been a lucky man.”
The security risk was too great for Mr Gratteri to attend the rally.
The risk of losing his life is very real. In 2005, Italian police found a treasure trove of explosives and weapons that were to be used to kill him. Recently, police intercepted a phone call between 2 mobsters describing Mr Gratteri as a “dead man walking.”
Right now, the danger level is the highest it’s ever been as police say they are aware of a specific threat. The prosecutor has had his bulletproof car replaced with armored bomb-proof ones along with more armed security.
Mr Gratteri grew up in the small village of Gerace where one of his favorite things to do was play soccer – barefoot. Later in life, some of those same boys he played with crossed his path again when he questioned one of them in a Miami jail. He was caught on a sailboat with 800lbs of drugs. Another of his childhood friends was an ‘Ndrangheta member arrested in one of Mr Gratteri’s operations.
This latest wave of arrests has shaken up the local Calabrian political landscape pressuring the political parties to prove their candidates have no criminal links or ties to the mafia.
The current Democratic governor of Calabria, Mario Oliverio had to pull out of the race for reelection when Mr Gratteri announced that two of his closest aides are under investigation. Another well known conservative politician was swept up in the recent raid and is currently in detention awaiting trial.
These arrests have led to some pushback against Mr Gratteri. A democratic lawmaker, Enza Bruno Bossio says that the arrests are interfering with local politics and basically preventing Mr Oliverio from running again. Mrs Bossio’s husband, the former deputy governor is one of those under investigation.
In a Facebook post that has since been deleted, she said “Gratteri arrests half of Calabria! Is it justice? No, it’s just a show.”
For a significant number of Calabrians, Mr Gratteri is a hero. Thousands of people gathered in support of him at a rally on January 18 outside the prosecutor’s office in Catanzaro. Even students and their teachers showed up chanting “Don’t touch Gratteri.”
Pasquale Spina, 18, who wants to become a police officer believes that “The mafia is like an invasive cancer. It’s destroying our hopes and our rights. We are here to support Gratteri because he needs it.”
But this region offers few opportunities for young people. The mistrust of authorities runs so deep that joining the mafia is more often than not seen as their best option. Mr Gratteri says “On social issues, politicians are weak—the ‘Ndrangheta is much stronger. It offers hope.”
Sometimes, Mr Gratteri gives talks to local schoolchildren. He feels his message gets through to a few of them but that’s not always the case. He said that after one talk last year a student approached him to ask for tips on how to join the mob.
Mr Gratteri believes that the ‘Ndrangheta can never completely be defeated. “You can eliminate 80% of it” through law enforcement, he said. “But a small part remains, and that’s the mafioso mindset.”