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.
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.