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A trial has begun with more than 320 defendants in the south Italy against the ‘ndrangheta crime syndicate, possibly the richest criminal organization in the world that quietly accumulated power when the Sicilian mafia lost influence.

The test is expected to last at least a year and takes place in a specially built high-security bunker on the vast grounds of an industrial park in Calabria, the “toe” of the Italian peninsula.

Prosecutors hope the trial will deal a serious blow to the ‘ndrangheta, the Calabria-based mafia organization that has exploited tens of billions of dollars in cocaine revenue over decades to extend its criminal reach in Europe and across several continents.

A view of a specially built bunker for the first hearing of a maxi-trial against more than 300 defendants from the 'ndrangheta crime syndicate.
A view of a specially built bunker for the first hearing of a maxi-trial against more than 300 defendants from the ‘ndrangheta crime syndicate. (AP)

Anti-Mafia prosecutor Nicola Gratteri told reporters when he arrived at the bunker that the trial, targeting suspected members of a dozen crime clans, as well as local officials, businessmen and politicians who were allegedly in cahoots with mobsters, marked a turning point. .

“Decades ago, people trembled when talking about Cosa Nostra or when using the word ‘ndrangheta, something they only said in a hidden room, around the fireplace, whispering,” said Gratteri, who was born in Calabria and who has remembered how he played and attended school with children who later grew up to be ‘ndranghetisti, as the ranks of the union are known. “Today we are beginning to speak in the sunlight.”

For him and others in Italy who are fighting the ‘ndrangheta, as well as for other Italian criminal groups, it is the growing deviations from the past, when few dared to provoke retaliation from mobsters by denouncing attempts to demand money for “protection” large and small companies and other forms of bullying.

“We have seen an increase in complaints from businessmen, harassed citizens, victims of usury, people who for years have been under the cloak of the ‘ndrangheta,” Gratteri said.

The researchers say that ‘ndrangheta has established bases in much of western, northern and central Europe, Australia, North and South America, and is also active in Africa.

The first three hours of the trial opening day were consumed by the court’s formal list of defendants and their lawyers. Defendants who are incarcerated, due to convictions in other cases, could follow the process through a video conference.

The trial stemmed from an investigation of 12 clans linked to a convicted ndrangheta chief. That figure is Luigi Mancuso, who served 19 years in an Italian prison for his role at the helm of what investigators allege is one of the most powerful crime families in the ‘ndrangheta, based in the city of Vibo Valentia.

The prosecution has indicated that it expects to call more than 900 witnesses.

Among the charges the court is considering are drug and weapons trafficking, extortion and association with the mafia, a term used in the Italian penal code for members of organized crime groups. Others are accused of complicity with the ‘ndrangheta without actually being members.

Some 325 defendants were ordered to stand trial in the Lamezia Terme court, while another 90 defendants in the investigation opted for a fast-track trial, which begins later this month in Calabria. In yet another consequence of the same investigation, a trial involving five murders begins in February in another part of Calabria.

Alleged head of the 'Ndrangheta, Luigi Mancuso.
Alleged head of the ‘Ndrangheta, Luigi Mancuso. (Supplied)

The Lamezia Terme bunker is so large that about twenty video screens have been anchored to the ceiling for participants to watch the proceedings. There are a sea of ​​tables for 600 lawyers to work, with microphones and chairs at a safe distance to respect the health rules of COVID-19.

While the numbers are impressive, this week’s trial is not Italy’s largest against gangsters.

In 1986 in Palermo, in a similarly constructed bunker, 475 suspected members of the Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian mafia, were tried, resulting in more than 300 convictions and 19 life sentences. That trial helped reveal much of the brutal methods and murderous strategies of the island’s top mafia bosses, including sensational murders that bloodied the Palermo area during years of power struggles.

In contrast, this trial against the ‘ndrangheta is aimed at obtaining convictions for alleged collusion between mobsters and local politicians, public officials, businessmen and members of secret lodges in an indication of how deeply rooted the union is in the territory.

Based almost entirely on blood ties, the ‘ndrangheta for decades was practically immune from traitors. But their ranks are beginning to become more important. Among those who changed the state tests in the Lamezia Terme trial is a relative of Mancuso. Several dozen informants in the case come from the ‘ndrangheta, but others are from the former ranks of Cosa Nostra in Sicily and could be called to testify.

Flooded with revenue from cocaine trafficking, the ‘ndrangheta has eaten up hotels, restaurants, pharmacies, car dealerships and other businesses across Italy, especially in Rome and the affluent north, criminal investigations have revealed.

The shopping spree in recent years spread strongly across Europe, as the ‘ndrangheta sought to launder illicit income but also earn “clean” money by running legitimate businesses, including the tourism and hospitality sectors, according to the researchers. .

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