‘Ndrangheta: Major Italian mafia ‘maxi-trial’ kicks off with over 350 defendants

Italy's largest mafia trial in more than 30 years begins on Wednesday, as prosecutors hope to strike a blow to the 'Ndrangheta crime syndicate

'Ndrangheta: Major Italian mafia 'maxi-trial' kicks off with over 350 defendants
Catanzaro's public prosecutor Nicola Gratteri addresses reporters outside the specially-built courtroom. Photo: AFP

More than 350 alleged members of the mafia and the politicians, lawyers, businessmen and others accused of enabling them face a judge in a huge, specially converted courtroom in the southern Calabrian town of Lamezia Terme, in the heart of 'Ndrangheta territory.

READ ALSO: Meet Nicola Gratteri, the prosecutor leading Italy's battle against the mafia

With over 900 prosecution witnesses and 400 lawyers, the trial also features an unprecedented 58 state witnesses ready to break their code of silence and expose the clan's long-buried secrets.

Held inside a specially outfitted building in the heart of 'Ndrangheta territory in Calabria, Italy's poorest region, the trial beginning Wednesday targets just one group, the Mancuso family and its affiliates.

Photo: AFP

During a recent hearing, it took three hours just to read the names of the defendants, which include boss Luigi Mancuso, “The Uncle” – who has previously spent nearly 20 years in prison – and dozens of others with nicknames like “The Wolf”, “Fatty”, “Sweetie”, “Blondie”, “Little Goat”, and “The Wringer”.

Prosecutors are seeking to prove a web of crimes dating back to the 1990s,both bloody and white-collar, including murder, drug trafficking, extortion,
money laundering and abuse of office.

The trial “is a cornerstone in the building of a wall against the mafias in Italy”, anti-mob prosecutor Nicola Gratteri told AFP.

He later sat in the front row of the courtroom as Judge Tiziana Macri began reading out the names of the defendants, none of whom attended in person but
who participated via video conference, their faces shown on dozens of televisions fitted over lines of grey desks.

In Italy, so-called “maxi-trials,” which include scores of defendants and countless charges, are seen as the best judicial resource against the country's various organised crime groups, of which the 'Ndrangheta is now considered the most powerful, controlling the bulk of cocaine flowing into Europe.

Maxi-trials are controversial, given the need to give each suspect a fair hearing.Prosecutors argue the 'Ndrangheta's extensive operations mean crimes cannot be easily separated and prosecuted piecemeal.

The most famous “maxi-trial” of 1986-7 dealt a major blow to Sicily's Cosa Nostra, resulting in 338 guilty verdicts, but prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were later assassinated.

READ ALSO: The life and death of Sicilian anti-mafia judge Paolo Borsellino

Catanzaro's public prosecutor Nicola Gratteri (R) has lived under police protection for 30 years. Photo: AFP

The upcoming trial differs partly because its scope is more limited, targeting one of the estimated hundreds of 'Ndrangheta families whose tentacles spread globally.

The number of accused swells to over 400 when including the more than 90 defendants who opted for speedy trials.The current trial, expected to last at least a year and likely longer, features 355 defendants, more than 900 prosecution witnesses, and an unprecedented number of collaborators, given the close family ties within the 'Ndrangheta that discourage turncoats.

The 'Ndrangheta has expanded well beyond its traditional domains of drug trafficking and loan sharking, now using shell companies and frontmen to
reinvest illegal gains in the legitimate economy.

In many parts of Calabria, it has infiltrated practically all areas of public life, from city hall and hospitals, to cemeteries and even the courts,
experts say.

'Like a multinational'

Authorities believe there are some 150 'Ndrangheta families in Calabria and at least 6,000 members and affiliates in the region. That swells to thousands more when including those worldwide, although estimates are unreliable.

The organised crime group generates more than 50 billion euros ($61 billion) per year, according to Gratteri, who called it the world's richest such organisation.

The prosecutor explained the 'Ndrangheta as a network of families, each of which wield power over subordinates.

“I have to start with the idea that there's an organisation, as in a business, as in a large multinational, with a boss and then down, like a pyramid, to all the other members,” Gratteri told AFP, explaining the need for the “maxi-trial”.

The current trial focuses on just one family, the Mancuso group, and its network of associates who control the Vibo Valentia area of Calabria.

READ ALSO: 'Ndrangheta: It's time to bust some myths about the Calabrian mafia

A holding cell for defendants at the upcoming maxi-trial. Photo: Gianluca Chininea/AFP

The town of Lamezia Terme, where the trial will take place, was cited in a 2008 parliamentary organised crime report as a public safety emergency zone where the region's “greatest increase in serious bloodshed has been recorded”.

Defendants include a high number of non-clan members, including an ex-parliamentarian, a high-ranking police official, mayors and other public
servants and businessmen.

Criminologist Federico Varese of Oxford University said the trial reflects the wide-reaching control of the 'Ndrangheta, who are embedded in the
community and involved in every legal and illicit activity.

“This trial shows how deeply rooted the 'Ndrangheta is in society.” 

“The real strength of these mafia families is they have control of the territory and within the territory they do everything,” said Varese. “If you want to open a shop, if you want to build anything, you have to go through them.”

“They are the authority.”

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Ilaria Salis: Italian activist goes on trial in Hungary assault case

An Italian teacher accused of attacking alleged neo-Nazis in Hungary was to go on trial in a Budapest court on Friday, in a case that has sparked tensions between Rome and Budapest.

Ilaria Salis: Italian activist goes on trial in Hungary assault case

The case of Ilaria Salis, 39, has been front-page news in Italy after she appeared in court in January handcuffed and chained, with her feet shackled.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni enjoys cordial relations with Hungary’s Viktor Orban but the case has caused bilateral tensions, with Rome making official complaints on behalf of Salis.

The teacher from Monza, near Milan, was arrested in Budapest in February last year.

Prosecutors allege Salis travelled to Budapest specifically to carry out the attacks against “unsuspecting victims identified as or perceived as far-right sympathisers” to deter “representatives of the far-right movement”.

She was charged with three counts of attempted assault and accused of being part of an extreme left-wing criminal organisation in the wake of a counter-demonstration against an annual neo-Nazi rally.

Salis denies the charges – which could see her jailed for up to 11 years – and claims that she is being persecuted for her political beliefs.

A defiant Salis told Italian newspaper La Stampa via her father in an interview published last week that she was “on the right side of history”.

On Friday, one of the victims and witnesses of one of the attacks are scheduled to testify, according to one of Salis’s Hungarian legal representatives.

Lawyer Gyorgy Magyar complained to AFP ahead of the trial that Salis has not yet received all the case documents in “her native language”.

“The translators promised to finish translating the documents in November, but until that (is done) she will not give any substantial testimony, and rightfully so,” he added.

Salis spent more than 15 months behind bars, but on Thursday was moved to house arrest on a 16 million forints (around 41,000 euros) bail, according to her father Roberto Salis.

Protesters in Milan hold a banner reading “Bring Ilaria Salis home” during a demonstration demanding Salis’s release from prison and against detention conditions in Hungary. (Photo by Piero CRUCIATTI / AFP)

She might be freed before any verdict is rendered on her case, if she is elected as a Member of the European Parliament.

Last month, the Italian Green and Left Alliance (AVS) nominated her as their lead candidate for the upcoming European elections.

If the party garners enough votes at the ballot, Salis might be eligible to access parliamentary immunity, leading to the suspension of the criminal proceedings against her.

Politicised case

The case of Ilaria Salis has been highly politicised, with the Hungarian government frequently commenting on it.

Salis’s father has accused the Hungarian authorities of double standards, claiming that they treated neo-Nazis, who allegedly assaulted anti-fascist activists around the same time, much more leniently.

“In this country, those people are considered patriots while anti-fascists are enemies of the state,” Roberto Salis told AFP.

He claims that his daughter was kept in inhumane prison conditions until January when her case received significant media coverage.

“For eight days, she was kept in a prison in a solitary cell, without being provided with toilet paper, sanitary towels, and soap.

“During that period, she would have needed the sanitary towels… in Italy, we would consider this torture,” Roberto Salis said.

The Council of Europe has criticised Hungary’s overcrowded prisons.

According to Eurostat, Hungary in 2022 recorded the highest prisoner rate per 100,000 people in the EU, followed by Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Hungarian officials have denied accusations of ill-treatment.

Prime Minister Orban’s nationalist government has repeatedly denounced the media for allegedly depicting Salis as a “martyr”, instead pointing to what it called the “brutality” of her alleged crimes.

“What we see here, in a quite outrageous case, is someone committing a brutal and public crime, and the European far-left is standing up for her and even trying to make her an MEP,” Orban’s chief of staff Gergely Gulyas said on Thursday.

“It is incompatible with everything we see as European values, human decency and the necessity of punishing crimes,” he added.

Salis’s father has complained that the Italian government has provided only “limited” help to his daughter.

Italy’s Ambassador to Hungary is expected to attend the trial on Friday, the embassy told AFP.