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Italy faces down ‘ndrangheta, its most feared crime group

At a long and complex trial in Calabria, Italian prosecutors are making their case against more than 325 people accused of taking part in the criminal operations of the 'ndrangheta, Italy's most powerful crime group.

LAMEZIA TERME, Italy (CN) — On dozens of television screens overhead in the maxi-courtroom assembled inside a former industrial warehouse, the ex-'ndranghetista-turned-police-informant confesses for hours on end in his clipped and hard-to-understand Calabrese accent.

This is the second day of testimony inside the heavily fortified courtroom from the man in the TVs overhead: Bartolomeo Arena.

Arena is a 45-year-old 'ndranghetista close to the mafia bosses fighting for control over Vibo Valentia, the provincial capital here and a port town. He is the third key witness whom prosecutors flipped to their side who’s spoken so far at this historic trial against Italy's most feared criminal organization, the 'ndrangheta of Calabria, the tapered southern tip of the Italian peninsula.

Getting Arena and other top 'ndranghetisti to testify against their former comrades in crime was a major coup for Italian prosecutors and the trial's success will rely largely on their testimony. The 'ndrangheta is based around exclusive family bonds, even more so than Sicily's old mafia families, so getting some members to switch sides and become informants was crucial.

“The 'ndrangheta compared to the mafia is different because the 'ndrangheta is founded on a solidity begotten through blood ties, family ties; and this is why today the 'ndrangheta is considered much more difficult to defeat than the mafia,” said Caterina de Luca, a prosecution lawyer for one of the police informants, Andrea Mantella, who admitted to numerous killings on behalf of the ’ndrangheta. De Luca sat with a colleague outside the gigantic bunker drinking a coffee.

The magnitude of these proceedings cannot be overstated and they are compared to a trial in Palermo against Sicily's Cosa Nostra mafia between 1986 and 1987. That maxi-trial put about 460 Sicilian mafiosi on trial and many were convicted, delivering a severe blow to what was then the world's most feared crime group.

The hope is this trial will do the same for Calabria. The defendants include hardened criminals, businessmen, politicians, police, middlemen and hired guns.

In a fundamental way, this trial can be linked to the Palermo trial: The defeat of the Sicilian mafia opened the way for Calabria's crime families to fill the void.

The 'ndrangheta's global business and profits are estimated to be worth about $72 billion a year – much more than McDonald's, according to Demoskopika, an Italian financial analysis firm. Its study was based on information provided by Italy's interior ministry.

The crime syndicate is most famous for cornering cocaine markets, but it is moving into other less dangerous businesses, such as real estate. Its “cosche” – a term to describe a close-knit group of mafiosi – are working on all five continents. In 2010, Italy outlawed the 'ndrangheta.

This is Calabria's biggest legal battle yet against the mafia.

An army vehicle is stationed outside the bunker courtroom in Lamezia Terme, Italy, where the 'ndrangheta crime group is on trial. (Courthouse News photo/Cain Burdeau)

In December 2019, the decisive attack was launched when about 2,500 police officers and military agents stormed Calabria. In a single night, they raided its most secretive hideouts and made mass arrests of individuals, including some public officials, suspected of being part of the 'ndrangheta. The sting's success was built on years' worth of secret police wiretaps.

Since the trial started in January, the court has heard informants talk about how the crime group functions and listened to them confess to crimes, including extortion and a number of homicides authorities weren't aware of.

Instead of a jury of private citizens, three judges will adjudicate the guilt or innocence of each defendant. Italian trials often take place without a public jury, unlike what happens for most U.S. criminal cases.

Arena and the other informants are technically “collaborators of justice” and they have been placed under tight security in a witness protection program. Obviously, they are seeking lighter sentences in exchange for their testimony.

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“We hope this trial will have the same effect” as the one in Palermo, said Antonella La Monica, a lawyer for the prosecution. She was on the coffee break with fellow prosecutor De Luca. “Time will tell.”

Still, it's unlikely to be as transformative as the Palermo trial. The convictions in 1987, which were upheld on appeal in 1992, led Cosa Nostra to declare war on the Italian state. Its war climaxed with the blowing up of two lead anti-mafia magistrates in Sicily, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino.

The bombings shocked Italy. Two years later, an angry and fed up public forced the fall of the so-called First Republic, a political period when two dominant parties, the Christian Democrats on the right and the Socialists on the left, controlled virtually every aspect of Italian society. Investigations revealed endemic corruption in Italian politics, especially in the two mainstream parties.

For now, it's far from clear what will happen if Italian prosecutors are successful at convicting this new crop of crime bosses.

The trial is expected to continue for up to two years. Then there will likely be appeals to Italy's two higher courts.

A sign indicating the direction to the bunker courtroom in Lamezia Terme, Italy, for the 'ndrangheta trial – “aula bunker” in Italian. (Courthouse News photo/Cain Burdeau)

Getting to this point is already a big success, and that success is embodied by the massive bunker courtroom that was erected in the industrial zone of Lamezia Terme, a lovely coastal area popular with tourists and the ‘ndrangheta.

Inside, there is seating for about 1,000 people. Due to concerns over the novel coronavirus, the edifice was amplified to allow for more physical distancing.

Most of the courtroom was empty on the day when a Courthouse News reporter visited in July. Arena spoke from an undisclosed location and was seen on TV screens with his back to the camera.

The front of the gigantic courtroom is where the action takes place. Black-robed lawyers from both sides exchange looks, rifle through papers, write on computers and take notes.

Amidst them, a lead prosecutor stood and asked Arena questions. The three judges – in this case, all women – sat facing the lawyers, the words “All Are Equal Before the Law” emblazoned on the wall behind them. Occasionally the judges intervened on matters of law and ruled on objections brought by defense teams.

The sheer size of the courtroom is breathtaking. The banks of multi-screen televisions overhead add to the room's oversized feeling. Everyone inside the bunker can follow the proceedings by TV. In the TVs, Arena was seen talking while groups of jailed defendants were also visible in split screens; they watched Arena on TVs set up inside jails.

At the entrance a large seating section is set aside for defendants who remain free on bond. On this day, only a handful were in attendance. Lawyers said much of the 1,000-person room can fill up on more important days.

Far in the back of the courtroom sat journalists working for local newspapers and national broadcasters. At the very back was seating for the general public and on this day it was empty except for a single man watching the proceedings on an overhead TV screen.

The bunker courtroom is guarded by Italian soldiers and armored vehicles.

While the importance of this trial may be as significant as that against the mafia in Palermo, the media attention and the public's appetite is far less, though it remains of national interest.

The person at the center of the trial is Nicola Gratteri, a Calabria-born investigator and top prosecutor in Catanzaro, another provincial capital. He doggedly pursued the 'ndrangheta for years and he's considered the mastermind behind the trial. He's written several books and worked alongside the FBI.

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On this day, Gratteri was not in the courtroom. Sometimes he shows up to see how the prosecution is going. A frequent commentator in Italian media, he's called the proceedings a “rebirth trial” for Calabria. Since it opened, other investigations have been spun off, the most recent linked to illicit profits from oil sales.

Lawyers work and talk at the front of the courtroom in Lamezia Terme, Italy, where three judges are presiding over the long criminal trial against the 'ndrangheta crime syndicate. (Courthouse News photo/Cain Burdeau)

“So, let's talk about this new group you were with and how it was involved in extortion,” the lead prosecutor, dressed in a long black lawyer's robe, said to Arena.

Arena picked up where he left off and prattled on in a mumbling Calabrese accent.

"This is a complex trial. It is based both on the testimonies of collaborators but also on wiretaps,” La Monica said. “Prosecutors have worked hard for many years to arrive at this point to hold a trial of such import.”

De Luca said a solid “castello accusatorio,” as she put it in Italian, or good “accusatory castle,” has been constructed. There are roughly 90,000 pieces of evidence.

She said the trial was termed “rebirth” because Italy's legal system thinks it can “give the territory a new face” and “clean it up from many underworld activities” that have damaged the region's economic well-being.

While these proceedings are focused on criminal charges involving extortion, dirty money and financial irregularities, some defendants are facing separate criminal proceedings for violent crimes, such as murder and kidnapping.

Between hearings, defense lawyers who spoke with Courthouse News expressed frustration with the trial's slow speed and they called into question the prosecution's wide-net approach in arresting so many people who they said had only tangential ties to the 'ndrangheta.

Francesco Leone, who represents 10 individuals, rejected the notion that the prosecution was building a strong case. He said they were relying on what he called shaky informants with old and outdated information.

He argued there are innocent people among those accused and they are unfairly languishing in jails and under house arrest. There are about 200 detained defendants.

“It's a long trial with lots of people who are involved in this matter, and unfortunately they are suffering mightily,” Leone said. “Life has stopped for them and all their family members.”

He contended the charges were too broad.

“The 'ndrangheta exists, we don't say that it doesn't,” Leone said. “But it's necessary to understand who really is a 'ndranghetista, what he does and what he doesn't do.”

Defense lawyer Enzo Gennaro talks about the 'ndrangheta trial in a cafe set up outside the courtroom in in Lamezia Terme, Italy. (Courthouse News photo/Cain Burdeau)

Enzo Gennaro, another defense lawyer with several clients on trial, said the prosecution was wasting time with its witnesses.

“When one talks about the 'ndrangheta, of organized crime, one needs to be very careful because these are matters that can destroy a person's life,” Gennaro said. “Criminality exists in Calabria, as it exists everywhere. But the majority of people here are good, they work, they are dutiful.”

He said the real problem is how poor the region is and this makes many Calabrians turn to crime.

“You don't defeat criminality simply with punishment,” he said. “Criminality is defeated when you give people the chance to pick between an honest life or become easy prey for delinquents.”

To truly get rid of the “head of the serpent,” the top criminals, he said Italy must lift Calabria up. Southern Italy is historically the poorest part of Italy.

And Calabria, a narrow mountainous passageway that links Sicily with the mainland of the Italian peninsula, is among the very poorest. It also has a long history of brigands operating in its steep and wild mountains. Kidnappings were long a danger for travelers passing through the region on their way north and south.

“We shouldn't take away young people's hopes [for Calabria] by saying this is a 'land of criminals,'” Gennaro said.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Follow Cain Burdeau on Twitter

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