CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) — The largest mafia trial in three decades kicked off on Wednesday against hundreds of people prosecutors say are connected to the cocaine empire run by the 'ndrangheta, Italy's most powerful and feared organized criminal group based in the poor southern region of Calabria.
A heavily fortified massive courtroom was set up in Calabria specifically for this “maxitrial,” a term used in Italy to describe its wide-ranging and complex trials into criminal groups and corruption.
This judicial bunker was a former call center in an industrial zone of Lamezia Terme in Calabria, a region that makes up the “toe” of the Italian peninsula. It has seating for more than 1,000 people and it is equipped to handle 150 video links at one time. Lamezia Terme is a city at the center of the 'ndrangheta's territory in Calabria.
Some 325 suspects are on trial and they include 'ndrangheta bosses, politicians, businessmen and others who allegedly enabled the crime group's activities. The trial is expected to last a year or more. The media has been forbidden from taking video and photographs of the trial.
Most of those standing trial were arrested during a massive raid involving about 2,500 officers on Dec. 19, 2019. Suspects were found in secret hideouts and arrested in Germany, Switzerland and Bulgaria. Among those arrested were a former senator, a police chief, local politicians and businessmen.
The raid grew out of an investigation into 12 clans linked to Luigi Mancuso, a convicted 'ndrangheta boss who served 19 years in Italian prison for his role in leading what investigators allege is one of the 'ndrangheta's most powerful crime families, based in the town of Vibo Valentia.
At the center of the trial is Emanuele Mancuso, the son of a Mancuso family boss whose uncle is Luigi Mancuso. He is expected to testify against Luigi Mancuso and reveal 'ndrangheta secrets. Until recently, the 'ndrangheta was largely impenetrable as its bosses rarely left Calabria even as they conducted millions of dollars in illicit business around the world. Based around deep family ties, the 'ndrangheta slowly amassed power and wealth.
Defendants are accused of drug and arms trafficking, extortion and mafia association, a term used in Italy's penal code for members of organized crime groups. Others are charged with complicity with the 'ndrangheta without actually being a member.
Due to restrictions to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, many defendants will be linked to the proceedings via video from their jails. Prosecutors hope to bring more than 900 witnesses to the stand.
It's the largest trial against crime syndicates in Italy since Sicily's mafia clans were raided and tried between 1986 and 1992. That maxitrial saw 475 people brought to the dock in Palermo, the capital of Sicily. The Palermo maxitrial helped neuter the Sicilian mafia, known as Cosa Nostra, and revealed the bloody inner workings of the mafia to a stunned Italy. The killings of two anti-mafia prosecutors in Palermo, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, also helped spark a massive public backlash against the mafia.
Italian prosecutors hope the same will happen to the 'ndrangheta with this new maxitrial, which has been dubbed the “Rebirth" trial. The 'ndrangheta gained power partly due to the Sicilian mafia's decline following the Palermo maxitrial.
“The 'ndrangheta is the most dangerous mafia and it is operating in every continent,” Nicola Gratteri, the anti-mafia prosecutor who led the investigation against the 'ndrangheta, said recently. “It's the richest and has a near monopoly on the import of cocaine into Europe.”
On Wednesday, Gratteri, speaking to reporters at the start of the trial, expressed confidence the 'ndrangheta is being brought down. Gratteri was born in Calabria and speaks about growing up with boys who went on to become 'ndranghetisti, as members of the group are known, and seeing the bodies of people murdered by the crime syndicate on Calabria's streets.
“Decades ago, people would tremble when talking about Cosa Nostra or when using the word 'ndrangheta, something they would say only in a hidden room, around the fireplace, whispering,” Gratteri said, according to the Associated Press. “Today we are beginning to speak out in the open sunlight.”
On RAI, an Italian public broadcaster, Gratteri said dismantling the mafia helps regions in the grip of organized crime prosper. He said crime syndicates “take away the breath, the heartbeat of people.”
Investigators say the 'ndrangheta has used billions of dollars in cocaine trafficking revenues to buy up hotels, restaurants, pharmacies, car dealerships and other businesses throughout Italy and Europe.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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