Hundreds face sentencing in historic Italian mafia trial

The notorious crime syndicate enjoys a near-monopoly of Europe's cocaine trade


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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Published: Mon 20 Nov 2023, 8:25 AM

Hundreds of alleged mobsters will be sentenced Monday by an Italian court, the culmination of a historic, nearly three-year trial against Calabria's notorious 'Ndrangheta mafia.

Prosecutors are asking for guilty verdicts against 322 accused mafia members and their white-collar collaborators in what could mark the most significant blow to date against one of the world's most powerful organised crime syndicates, which enjoys a near-monopoly on the European cocaine trade.

The sentencing will cap Italy's largest mafia trial in decades, a "maxi-trial" in which vast numbers of defendants accused of being part of the same mafia criminal conspiracy face justice.

The court of Vibo Valentia -- a province in the poor southern region of Calabria that is the birthplace of the 'Ndrangheta -- has heard thousands of hours of testimony since the trial began in January 2021, including from more than 50 former mafia operatives turned state's witnesses.

They and others have detailed countless examples of the 'Ndrangheta's brutality and its stranglehold over the local population, whether carrying out violent ambushes, shaking down business owners, rigging public tenders, stockpiling weapons, collecting votes or passing kickbacks to the powerful.

The accused are members or affiliates of the top 'Ndrangheta "clan" in Vibo Valentia -- one of the region's many economically depressed rural areas where the mafia has suffocated the local economy, infiltrated public institutions and terrorised its people for decades.

The undisputed boss of the territory, Luigi "The Supreme" Mancuso, 69, was cut from the defendants list last year to be tried separately.

The heavily secured courtroom bunker in the city of Lamezia Terme where the trial has taken place is able to accommodate hundreds of lawyers and is outfitted with more than 20 television screens to connect it with incarcerated defendants by video link.

With nicknames straight out of Hollywood like "The Wolf", "Fatty", "Sweetie" and "Lamb Thigh", the 'Ndrangheta of Vibo Valentia was entrenched in the local economy, feared by business owners and farmers, and protected by white-collar professionals and politicians.

Informants -- a relatively rare phenomenon within the 'Ndrangheta due to blood ties between members -- recounted how weapons were hidden in cemetery chapels and ambulances used to transport drugs, and municipal water supplies diverted to marijuana crops.

Those who opposed the mafia found dead puppies, dolphins or goat heads dumped on their doorsteps, sledgehammers taken to storefronts or cars torched.

Less lucky were those beaten or fired at -- or those whose bodies were never found.

Long dismissed as mere livestock thieves, the 'Ndrangheta flourished under the radar for decades as authorities concentrated efforts against Sicily's Cosa Nostra, defendants in the first, now-legendary maxi-trial of 1986-1987 in Palermo.

Today, mafia experts estimate that the 'Ndrangheta, made up of approximately 150 Calabrian families and their associates, bring in more than 50 billion euros ($53 billion) annually around the world from drug trafficking, usury, syphoning public funds and extortion.

In Calabria, the 'Ndrangheta has crept into practically all areas of public life, from city hall and hospitals to the courts.

But its scope is much wider and the 'Ndrangheta now operates in more than 40 countries, experts say.

Relying on frontmen, shell companies and favours from the elite, the 'Ndrangheta reinvests illegal gains in the legitimate economy, cementing its power.

For the first time in such trials, the defendants list includes many non-mafia members, including a high-ranking police official, mayors and other public servants and businessmen.

Highest-profile is 70-year-old ex-parliamentarian and defence lawyer Giancarlo Pittelli, accused of being a fixer for the mafia and a go-between with the world of politics, finance and illegal Masonic lodges.


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