350 alleged 'Ndrangheta mobsters face 'maxi-trial' in Italy

Call centre is converted into a huge courtroom as 350 alleged ‘Ndrangheta mobsters including ‘The Wolf’, ‘Fatty’ and ‘The Uncle’ face Italy’s biggest Mafia ‘maxi-trial’ in 30 years

  • 355 suspected members of the ‘Ndrangheta will take part in a ‘maxi-trial’
  • The trial, held in a specially converted court, is the largest in Italy for 30 years
  • An unprecedented 58 state witnesses will break their code of silence in the trial
  • The trial taking place in heart of ‘Ndrangheta territory seen as show of strength 

Hundreds of suspected members of Italy’s most powerful mafia group will face a judge this week, with a dedicated converted courtroom being used for the country’s biggest ‘maxi-trial’ of the last three decades.

The trial against the ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate and its accomplices – which includes politicians, civil servants, police and businessmen – is expected to last for more than two years. 

In total, 355 defendants, more than 900 prosecution witnesses and 400 lawyers will feature in the trial, as well as 58 state witnesses ready to break their ‘omerta’ – code of silence. 

The ‘maxi-trial’ will be held in a specially outfitted building in the heart of ‘Ndrangheta territory in Calabria.

355 suspected members of Italy’s most powerful mafia group, the ‘Ndrangheta, will face a judge this week, with a dedicated converted courtroom (pictured) being used for the country’s biggest ‘maxi-trial’ of the last three decades 

More than 900 prosecution witnesses and 400 lawyers will feature in the trial, as well as 58 state witnesses ready to break their ‘omerta’ – code of silence. Pictured: Italy’s Minister of Justice Alfonso Bonafede (fifth from right) inspects the building that has been specially converted into the courtroom for the trial, on December 15, 2020

The trial starting on Wednesday focuses on just the Mancuso family and its affiliates. 

It took almost three hours to read the names of each defendant at a recent hearing – with boss Luigi Mancuso ‘The Uncle’ among a host of nicknames which included ‘The Wolf’, ‘Fatty’, ‘Sweetie’, ‘Blondie’, ‘Little Goat’ and ‘The Wringer’ that held up proceedings.

The state is putting forward a show of strength by holding the trial right in the heart of ‘Ndrangheta territory – with the gang controlling tonnes of cocaine flowing into Europe.

To take on the gang, Italy’s most famous anti-mafia prosecutor, Nicola Gratteri, will rise to the occasion.

Gratteri, 62, has spent the last 30 years living under police escort, but as a child he played football with many of those he has already put in prison. 

The only bigger ‘maxi-trial’ in Italy’s history, was its first ever one in 1986-87 in Palermo against Sicily’s Cosa Nostra. That trial saw 338 people convicted and prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were later assassinated by the mob

A call centre in the heart of ‘Ndrangheta territory has been specially converted into a courtroom to fit all 355 defendants

He has now vowed to take down ‘this asphyxiating ‘Ndrangheta, which truly takes the breath and the heartbeat from the people’.

The only bigger ‘maxi-trial’ in Italy’s history, was its first ever one in 1986-87 in Palermo against Sicily’s Cosa Nostra. 

That trial saw 338 people convicted and prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were later assassinated by the mob. 

Federico Varese, professor of criminology at Oxford University, said: ‘It makes the point that there’s a society outside the criminal organisation that’s colluding and helping.

‘Obviously it’s shocking that you have a criminal group so rooted in the territory you have to put hundreds of people on trial,’ Varese said.

Italy’s most famous anti-mafia prosecutor, Nicola Gratteri, 62, (pictured) will take on 355 suspected members of the ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate this week

Gratteri, 62, (pictured) has spent the last 30 years living under police escort, but as a child he played football with many of those he has already put in prison

‘This trial shows how deeply rooted the ‘Ndrangheta is in society.’

Although 355 defendants will be on trial, the number of accused swelled to more than 400 when those who opted for speedy trials are included.

Among the accused is former parliamentarian Giancarlo Pittelli, a renowned defence lawyer, Freemason and ex-senator from former premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party.

He denies accusations he acted as middleman between the ‘Ndrangheta and the world of politics, banking, and other powerful institutions, including the courts.

Most of the defendants were arrested in a series of pre-dawn raids in December 2019 which occured throughout Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Bulgiaria.

Allegations include mafia association, murder and attempted murder, drug trafficking, extortion, loan sharking, disclosure of official secrets, abuse of office, possession of stolen goods and money laundering.

The fact that the trial, which is expected to last for more than two years, is being held in the heart of ‘Ndrangheta territory is seen as a show of strength from the state

Most of the defendants were arrested in a series of pre-dawn raids in December 2019 which occured throughout Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Bulgiaria

Among the multiple murders, some of which date back to 1996, is that of the 2002 disappearance of Filippo Gangitano, murdered by his cousin because of his homosexuality.

‘These things can’t exist inside the ‘Ndrangheta,’ the cousin, now a state witness, said he was told by the bosses.

Gangitano’s body was buried in a spot where a road was later built, the witness said, according to news reports.

‘Maxi-trials’ are controversial, given the need to give each suspect a fair hearing and prosecutors argue that it is difficult to separate and prosecute each individual crime.

Nicola Lo Torto, a defence lawyer, said that the stakes are high for Gratteri because ‘if it doesn’t manage to convict a lot of people, it will be considered a flop.’

However, Oxford’s Varese said that even if the trial is successful, the ‘Ndrangheta won’t be eliminated because they will ‘just reproduce’.

How the ‘Ndrangheta cocaine crime network extends around the world

In December 2019 an operation targeted the ‘Ndrangheta families based in the southern Italian city of Locri in the Calabria region – the rural, mountainous and under-developed ‘toe’ of Italy’s boot and the heartland of the worldwide crime group. 

As a result of the swoop, Italian police arrested 334 people, including a police colonel and a former MP from Silvio Berlusconi’s party. 

Despite intense police attention and frequent arrests, the ‘Ndrangheta – which derives its meaning from the Greek word for ‘heroism’ – has continued to extend its reach. 

Notoriously ruthless, the ‘Ndrangheta has surpassed Sicily’s Cosa Nostra and the Naples-based Camorra to operate on all continents thanks to the wealth it has amassed as the principal importer and wholesaler of cocaine produced in Latin America and smuggled into Europe via north Africa and southern Italy.

That trade is worth billions and previous police operations have indicated that the ‘Ndrangheta has well-established links with Colombian producer cartels, Mexican crime gangs and mafia families in New York and other parts of North America.


In 2016, a suspected ‘Ndrangheta boss, Ernesto Fazzalari (left), was arrested after two decades on the run, fleeing a life sentence for murder. A year later, another suspected boss of the crime clan, Santo Vottari (right), was detained in Calabria having been on the run for a decade

The organisation’s tight clan-based structure has made it hard to penetrate but police have made some in roads in recent years. 

In 2015, 163 people were arrested in a major crackdown on the notorious mafia gang, which by that time had become the most powerful crime organisation in the country.

In another sting that year, police snatched assets worth £1.4billion from the ‘Ndrangheta, which included more than 1,500 betting shops, 82 online gambling sites and almost 60 companies.  

In 2016, one of Italy’s most wanted mafia bosses Ernesto Fazzalari was arrested after two decades on the run, fleeing a life sentence for murder. 

The ‘Ndrangheta member was captured in an apartment in a remote part of the southern region of Calabria.

On the run since 1996, he was convicted in absentia in 1999 of mafia association, kidnapping, illegal possession of weapons and a double homicide linked to a bloody 1989-91 feud which left 32 people dead in his home town of Taurianova.

His arrest was hailed by the government as a significant victory for the state in its battle against the powerful mafia group.

In 2018, another suspected boss of the crime clan, Santo Vottari, was detained in Calabria having been on the run for a decade.

He was arrested hiding behind a trap door of a bunker having gone to ground over a 2007 massacre in Germany.  

Vottari was convicted in absentia in 2009 of being one of the heads of an ‘Ndrangheta clan whose feud with local rivals culminated in the Duisburg killings.

He was given a prison term of 10 years and eight months, two years after he went on the run.

Vottari was one of 31 people sentenced to prison terms in 2009 in connection with the Duisburg killings, which happened after a vendetta between two clans based in the same village, San Luca, spiralled out of control.

The feud between the Nirta-Strangio and Pelle-Vottari clans reportedly began with an egg-throwing prank in 1991. 

Reprisals escalated after the killing, on Christmas Day, 2006, of Maria Strangio, the wife of clan leader Giovanni Nirta.

The feud was blamed for at least 16 deaths in total, with the killings in Germany bringing it to international attention.

Giovanni Strangio was convicted in 2011 of being the mastermind and one of the authors of the Duisburg killings.

He was sentenced to life in prison. Seven others were given life sentences linked to the feud at the same trial.

Notoriously ruthless, the ‘Ndrangheta has surpassed Sicily’s Cosa Nostra and the Naples-based Camorra in influence thanks to its control of Europe’s cocaine trade.

The organisation is made up of numerous village and family-based clans based in the rural, mountainous and under-developed ‘toe’ of Italy’s boot.

The name ‘Ndrangheta comes from the Greek for courage or loyalty and the organisation’s secretive culture and brutal enforcement of codes of silence have made it very difficult to penetrate.

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