The southern Italian region of Calabria is almost completely controlled by the mafia and home to the 'NDrangheta clan. Now one man is defying death threats to prosecute more than 350 of its members – on Zoom.
Italy's biggest mafia trial in 30 years got off to a deceptively low-key start in Calabria last month as hundreds of lawyers filed into a converted call centre on an industrial estate to defend 355 'NDrangheta syndicate suspects. Covid restrictions on travel meant the cages set up to hold the accused were empty. Instead, video screens hanging from the ceiling of the huge room lit up as defendants stuck in jails across Italy were patched in for a very unusual Zoom conference.
As is customary on the first day of big Italian trials, no evidence was heard as judges and lawyers discussed court procedures, and by mid-afternoon bored journalists were taking shelter from the rain outside, smoking and knocking back espressos served at the makeshift café.
Then, suddenly, the atmosphere inside changed. Given the chance to address the court from his jail, one of the prisoners began to scream at the judge, ranting furiously about his arrest and refusing to stop despite repeated threats to switch off his audio. Everyone in the room froze, shocked at the rare public outpouring of raw aggression, arrogance and raging contempt the normally discreet 'NDrangheta holds for authority.
But the outburst was no surprise for Nicola Gratteri, 62, the prosecutor who shrugged off death threats from the Mob to organise the trial, which he hopes will cripple the Mancusos, one of the 'NDrangheta's major cocaine-trafficking families. The stern, unsmiling magistrate is a difficult man to distract as he pursues a lifetime ambition of cleaning up his home region after watching schoolmates lured into the clans.
"This is the most important trial of my career," says Gratteri, the son of a grocery store owner and father of two children whom he rarely gets to see thanks to a workload which has made him Italy's most respected mafia-buster. Now faced with a trial that will call 913 witnesses and use evidence from 24,000 wiretapped calls and bugged conversations, he insists he is "trained" to control his emotions, sounding rather like the ice-cold assassins he hunts down.
Days after the trial's first hearing, he was back in the headlines for a different investigation, this time focusing on a longtime Italian MEP, Lorenzo Cesa, for alleged ties to another 'NDrangheta family, just as rumours in Rome suggested Cesa was in line for a job as a government minister. Cesa, who denies all wrongdoing, is accused of lunching with a clan middleman who was offering thousands of votes in Calabria in return for public contracts.
"This is an 'NDrangheta that shoots less often and corrupts more often," was Gratteri's laconic response when told his latest probe jeopardised the Italian government's stability.
Its dominance in the world of drug smuggling means the 'NDrangheta has something to do with most of the lines of cocaine snorted in Europe. "Thanks to its family structure, the 'NDrangheta is the pure blood, the aristocrat of the drug trade, and they wrote the rules of the business – meaning the algorithms behind narcotics trafficking in Europe are Italian," explains clan expert Roberto Saviano.
The trial in Lamezia Terme is the result of a massive swoop in 2019 in Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Bulgaria that saw thousands of police round up suspected mobsters with nicknames such as the Wolf, Big Nose and Leg of Lamb, as well as lawyers, a former Italian senator and a Calabrian police chief with suspected mafia ties. Before the raids, police listening into wiretaps realised bosses had been tipped off, forcing Gratteri to advance the arrests by 24 hours. "We were going crazy – bringing forward an operation involving 3,000 officers was not easy."
He will now rely on 58 informers to help secure convictions for murder, extortion and drug trafficking in a trial that could last up to three years. Focusing only on one major clan – the Mancusos – Gratteri does not expect to take down the entire 'NDrangheta, but he can cripple one component.
Now boasting an army of 6,000 men from 150 families, the 'NDrangheta has come a long way since it specialised in kidnapping for ransom in the Seventies and Eighties – a run of more than 200 kidnappings that probably earned it the equivalent of ¤100 million. In a 2014 speech to the Italian parliament, Gratteri linked the 'NDrangheta to the 1973 kidnapping of American John Paul Getty III. Some of the cash it received, including from that case, was spent locally – it built a neighbourhood in the town of Bovalino that locals call "John Getty".
Other funds were parked in the Vatican's bank. But a large part was used to open an account with Colombia's Medellín cartel, allowing the 'NDrangheta to supplant Sicily's Cosa Nostra as the South Americans' preferred Italian partner. Calabrian gang members were sent out to seal huge cocaine deals, including Rocco Morabito, a member of the Morabito clan, who had 13 mobile phones and 12 credit cards on him when he was finally arrested in a luxury hotel in Uruguay in 2017 after 25 years dodging the police, only to escape from jail in Montevideo in 2019.
A profitable relationship with drug-dealing Colombian paramilitary Salvatore Mancuso – later extradited to the US – was facilitated by another 'NDrangheta middleman, Giorgio Sale, who described during a wiretapped phone call the trucking of 900 million pesos in drug money, packed into chests, through the streets of Bogotá. "If the police stop me, what the f*** am I going to tell them?" he complained.
When Mexican bosses moved in to take over the sale of Colombia's cocaine output from local cartels, the Calabrians quickly won them over with their trustworthy, on-time payments, prompting top Mexican trafficker Joaquín Guzmán – "El Chapo" – to claim, "They are the most reliable – they are like us."
Now purchasing cocaine from Colombia, Bolivia and Peru and using the port of Santos in Brazil as an embarkation point, the 'NDrangheta has reportedly pushed its revenue to a staggering €45 billion – $75.3 billion – a year, smuggling its powder to ports including Gioia Tauro in Calabria and Livorno, Naples and Salerno, as well as Spain, Romania and northern Europe. Its enormous wealth means it can afford to tip off police to decoy drug shipments, distracting attention just as larger quantities are sent in to the same port.
An investigation in 2018 which led to the seizure of four tonnes of cocaine found the mob was bribing port workers in Antwerp and Rotterdam, working with Albanian and Turkish gangs to dispatch cocaine throughout Europe. Drugs were hidden in secret compartments in trucks, using the Italian community in Belgium as cover. Profits were laundered through restaurants in Germany and the Netherlands.
"The Calabrians are a guarantee," says Saviano. "If one of the clans falls short on a payment to a supplier, other clans will step in to make good and maintain the 'NDrangheta's reputation. Whereas if a Corsican clan welches on a deal you have to go after them, and other Corsican clans will be happy to see a rival in trouble," he adds.
Luigi "The Uncle" Mancuso, 66, the head of the clan now on trial, reportedly made so much money from the cocaine trade he could afford to take a step back from the business and finance operations organised by fellow families. After 19 years in jail he got out in 2012 determined to use his good-humoured charisma to draw feuding clans together in the province of Vibo Valentia. Filmed in jail during one meeting with his children, he pressed his palms against theirs through the glass barrier and said, "Be good, study and treat everyone well, but trust no one."
His empire is a far cry from the cattle-herding life of his grandfather, Don Peppe Mancuso, who had 11 sons, some of whom were beaten by a local farmer in 1966 when they grazed family cows on his land. In revenge, the brothers murdered the farmer, kickstarting their ascent into the ranks of Calabria's toughest clans.
They were latecomers compared with the powerful De Stefanos, who have mixed crime with elected office in the city of Reggio Calabria for decades and were involved in fixing elections in the city as far back as 1869.
"A party backing Italian unification was up against a party sympathetic to Bourbon rule [the Spanish Bourbons ruled southern Italy in the 18th and 19th centuries], and a certain Francesco De Stefano used threats to ensure the first party won. To this day, the De Stefano clan runs Reggio Calabria," says 'NDrangheta expert Antonio Nicaso, who has co-authored a series of books with Gratteri.
Local legend has it the 'NDrangheta was founded by one of three 15th-century Spanish knights who fled Spain after killing a noble while defending the honour of a woman, who ended up on Favignana, an island off Sicily. Vowing together to defend the downtrodden, one of the knights headed for Calabria to start the 'NDrangheta, a second went to Sicily to launch Cosa Nostra and a third to Naples to found the Camorra.
The word 'NDrangheta, pronounced "Un-drang-getta", derives from the Greek word for courage, and recruits get the idea they are joining a force for good when they prick their finger at initiation ceremonies and drip blood on an image of St Michael, who led God's army against Satan in the Bible.
The truth is less chivalric, says Nicaso. "Garibaldi's men employed them as enforcers, which is very different to helping the poor. They learnt their secret rites in jail during the Bourbon period from political dissidents who also taught them killing can be honourable if you believe you are protecting your organisation," he says.
Try telling that to the relatives of the 600 or more victims of an inter-clan war which raged in the late Eighties, or to Giuseppe Grimaldi, who got caught up in a feud between families in 1991 and was decapitated by assassins who threw his head in the air, then shot at it until it was pulp. The following year, one clan killed policeman Salvatore Aversa and his wife, subsequently desecrating their graves for good measure.
The same fate is risked by magistrate Gratteri, who has been unable to go to a restaurant or a cinema since he was given an armed escort in 1989, as he started cracking down on the clans. When not tending the vegetable garden in the heavily guarded walled compound he calls home in Calabria, Gratteri drives 95km to get to work every day, risking the fate of Sicilian magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, who were killed in car bombings in 1992.
But if 'NDrangheta bosses are unwavering in their hatred of sbirri – the police – they can be just as cruel to their own relatives when they violate family omertà, the code of silence. A Mancuso clan wife who was considering giving evidence against the family reportedly committed suicide in 2011 by drinking hydrochloric acid, raising suspicions she was forced to drink it as punishment.
So it took some courage for one up-and-coming Mancuso to spill his secrets to Gratteri and become a key informant in the trial. Emanuele Mancuso, 33, studied law in Rome, becoming one of many mafia sons given a college education to help them manage the 'NDrangheta's vast business empire. Returning to Calabria he became an expert at setting up cannabis plantations, but the birth of his daughter convinced him he needed to abandon crime. Now he has a reported €1 million price on his head and is alleging that his partner – who is still loyal to the clan – is holding their daughter hostage.
"It is typical to use kids as blackmail against turncoats," says Roberto Di Bella, the former head of Reggio Calabria's juvenile court. "We had one minor accused of six murders, others accused of killing police officers and some who were ordered to murder their mothers because they took a new partner while their husband was in jail. By the age of nine or ten, boys are taught to shoot and made to watch pigs being slaughtered to accustom them to death. Some have images of police officers tattooed on the soles of their feet so they can feel they tread on the law with every step."
What then follows is a kind of brainwashing, argues Gratteri. "The family sets down what is right and wrong, and [who is a] friend and enemy. Whoever is outside the family is worth nothing, is a non-person, a thing, and can therefore be eliminated."
According to Di Bella, "The 'NDrangheta exerts the same psychological control you see in the Russian mafia and in Isis. The kids are cold, accustomed to hiding their emotions."
Rules on family loyalty are rigid, but the way clans co-operate is far more flexible.
"Sometimes they work together, sometimes they don't – it's a bit of a mess," says Calabria-born criminologist Anna Sergi, who teaches at the University of Essex. Small local groups, known as 'ndrine, will come together with other groups to form an umbrella organisation called a locale or a società, like the locale in the Vibo Valentia province led by the Mancusos.
That position of leadership has given the Mancusos the right to break bread with the historic De Stefano, Piromalli, Pesce and Pelle clans, who traditionally struck deals and forged strategy at a remote shrine to the Virgin Mary in Calabria's Aspromonte mountains, the area where they once hid kidnap victims in caves.
A key strategy pursued by Reggio Calabria bosses over the past 30 years has been to join the city's masonic lodges, turning them into clandestine meeting places where contracts can be obtained from corrupt civil servants, trials influenced with crooked judges and elections arranged with politicians who are in their pocket. "It's thought the clans created a special group of at least six or seven 'Invisibles', only known to each other," says Sergi.
"Lawyers, judges, investors and masons who helped them run Reggio Calabria."
The idea of the 'NDrangheta hiding away, just below the surface of normal life, came vividly to life in the Aspromonte town of Plati, where they built an underground network of passages and bolt holes underneath the streets to conceal fugitives, accessible through hidden entrances in the houses above.
In his recent book, The Network of the Invisibles, again written with Antonio Nicaso, Gratteri describes how the Farao-Marincola clan quietly gained control of the entire economy near Crotone in Calabria, taking over the fishing industry, food deliveries, the local laundry, waste disposal and plastic container industries, the migrant welcome centre, the wine, funeral and pizza businesses and the local slot machine and forestry companies, as well as the beach resorts.However much money bosses are making in global narco-trafficking, they remain obsessed about holding total power on their home turf.
But Calabria has proved too small for their appetites. In Italy's rich northern industrial heartlands, where the 'NDrangheta was long dismissed as a southern plague, clans have spent the past few decades setting up shop and infiltrating local economies as politicians looked the other way.
In 2010, when Roberto Saviano went on Italian TV to denounce the phenomenon, he earned the wrath of Italy's powerful Northern League party. "People in the north were ready to accept the mafia might buy up a few pizzerias, but I talked about the 'NDrangheta buying up politicians," he says. Il Giornale, a newspaper owned by the family of Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's prime minister at the time, even launched a petition against Saviano.
It was not the first time Saviano found an audience unprepared to hear about the mobsters in its midst. "In 2016, when I was invited to speak at the House of Commons about money laundering, I assumed there would be great interest since London is the world centre for the activity. But very few MPs showed up."
German police made the same mistake, playing down warnings from Italian colleagues that clans like the Grande Aracri from Cutro in Calabria were sending their extortion profits to contacts in Germany to buy up shops and restaurants. They paid attention on August 15, 2007, when six Calabrians were gunned down outside a Mob-owned pizzeria in Duisburg, the denouement of a feud that had started 16 years earlier in the tiny Calabrian town of San Luca. In 1991, during a festival in the town, a gang of kids linked to the Strangio family hurled rotten eggs at a member of the rival Pelle family, sparking a string of tit-for-tat murders climaxing in Duisburg, when six men connected to the Pelle clan walked out of the Da Bruno restaurant. Killers waited for them to get into two cars then closed in, spraying both vehicles with 70 bullets and finishing off each of the six with a shot to the head. Police found an image of a saint in the pocket of one of the victims suggesting the group had just initiated him into the 'NDrangheta.
Massacres like that convinced Di Bella, the judge at the juvenile court in Reggio Calabria, he could no longer watch generations of 'NDrangheta kids being sucked into a life of extortion, drugs, murder and jail time. "It got to the point where I was judging minors whose fathers I had sentenced years earlier, when they were teenagers," he says.
In 2012, he won approval for a controversial plan to remove children from mafia families and spirit them out of Calabria to live in care homes or with foster families. "They were breathing death and violence from birth, but I could see a light in the eyes of some of them, and knew they could choose another path," he says. After 80 cases, results have been "extraordinary", with 25 mothers opting to join their children in their new lives. "Women in their twenties we call 'white widows', who are married to a jailed mafioso and are closely guarded by his family, have come to me in tears, imploring me to take them and their children far away. It's a big blow for the 'NDrangheta, which bases its strength on the family," says Di Bella, who has written a book, Free to Choose.
"We had a 12-year-old girl who was sent to a family when her parents were jailed. She cried all the way, reducing the police officer accompanying her to tears, and at first she had nightmares about assassins arriving to kill her and her parents. She's now 17 and she came to see me, gave me a hug and said she wants to become a psychologist."
The most surprising praise came from a jailed mobster whose child Di Bella had taken. "He wrote to thank me for the opportunity I had given his child and said, 'If I had had that chance 25 years ago, I wouldn't be in jail, in this living cemetery.' "
As Gratteri's trial of the Mancuso clan gets fully under way this month, the magistrate says the chance of convictions will be boosted by evidence given by his 58 pentiti or turncoats – the most seen at any 'NDrangheta trial and a sign that cracks are appearing in the mob's legendary omertà.
"We will have them give evidence first, since they are allowing us to make great strides in the battle against the 'NDrangheta," he says.
"The mafia evolves. Right now the Mancusos are a state-of-the-art clan and this trial will give us a chance to understand just how far they have infiltrated government institutions and the business world," he adds.
But when Emanuele Mancuso, the man who betrayed his family, takes the stand, Gratteri says he is hoping for something extra. "What he can do is take us right inside the soul of the family."
Written by: Tom Kington
© The Times of London