Politicians, businessmen and a former member of the Italian secret services were also convicted, showing the deep level of collusion between the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta Mafia and white-collar elements of the economy and the state.
“The infiltration of the criminal organisation in the province of Vibo Valentia was so deep-rooted and so widespread, so alarming, so disturbing that that there was no aspect of the social and economic fabric of the province that was not conditioned by … this dangerous criminal organisation,” said Vincenzo Capomolla, a deputy chief prosecutor from Calabria.
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‘Society of men of honour’
It took a panel of three female judges an hour and 40 minutes to read out the sentences against more than 330 defendants, who had been on trial since January 2021 accused of a wide range of crimes, from murder and arms trafficking to extortion, loan sharking, drug trafficking and money laundering.
Prosecutors had asked for prison sentences totalling 4,744 years. Around 130 defendants were acquitted.
The long-running trial offered unparalleled insight into the workings of the ‘Ndrangheta, a word derived from Greek which means “society of men of honour”.
The judges were told how mafiosi would intimidate rivals or victims of extortion by dumping on their doorstep goat heads, dead puppies and on one occasion, a dead dolphin.
The court heard how ambulances were used to transport drugs, council water supplies were diverted to irrigate fields of marijuana and weapons were hidden in cemeteries.
The defendants boasted a colourful assortment of nicknames, from The Wolf and The Musician to Fatty, Shorty, Sweety, Mimmo the Baron and Giuseppe the Stick.
Among those found guilty was a former lieutenant colonel in Italy’s paramilitary police force, the Carabinieri, and a former MP from Forza Italia, the centre-Right party that was founded by the late Silvio Berlusconi.
The politician, Giancarlo Pittelli, a lawyer and a Mason, was sentenced to 11 years behind bars.
Around a dozen Mafia dons were given prison sentences of up to 30 years.
They included Pasquale Bonavota, who was on the list of Italy’s most dangerous fugitives and who received a jail sentence of 28 years.
The investigation was spearheaded by Italy’s best-known prosecutor, Nicola Gratteri, who has lived under police protection for three decades.
“Today’s ruling means a whole province of Calabria has been liberated from the top brass of the criminal group,” he said.
‘This courtroom should be filled with citizens’
In the courtroom to see the sentences delivered was Rocco Mangiardi, 67, a local businessman and one of the first to denounce the ‘Ndrangheta for extortion, in 2009.
Mr Mangiardi, who has lived under police protection ever since, lamented the low turnout for the trial’s most important moment.
“This courtroom should be filled with citizens,” he said. “To show the judges that we’re on their side and then to tell the mafiosi with their presence: ‘We don’t want you’.”
The trial was so big that a special courthouse had to be constructed inside a former call centre in Lamezia Terme, a town in Calabria, the southern region which has been the ‘Ndrangheta’s stronghold for nearly two centuries.
The court complex was large enough to accommodate not just the defendants, but hundreds of prosecutors, defence lawyers, court officials and journalists.
The trial stemmed from raids conducted by elite police units in December 2019 in which around 300 suspects were arrested, not just in Italy but also in Germany, Switzerland and Bulgaria.
The operation involved a specialist, helicopter-borne Carabinieri regiment called the Cacciatori – the Hunters.
The trial largely involved members of the Mancuso family, one of many clans that make up the ‘Ndrangheta, which controls the province of Vibo Valentia on the west coast of Calabria.
The alleged head of the clan, Luigi “The Supreme” Mancuso, 69, was removed from the maxi-trial last year and is being tried separately.
Another 67 defendants in the original indictment opted for a fast-track trial and have already been sentenced.
While it will by no means mean the death of the ‘Ndrangheta, it was nevertheless significant, experts said.
Sons and daughters turned against their families
“The trial was very important because it gives a strong message that the state is willing to combat the ‘Ndrangheta,” said Antonio Nicaso, a mafia expert and author whose books include The Secret History of the ‘Ndrangheta.
Much of the evidence came from “pentiti”, the sons and daughters of Mafia dons who decided to turn against their families and collaborate with the authorities, despite knowing that such betrayal puts them under a death sentence from relatives.
“This had never happened before in Calabria,” Mr Nicaso told The Telegraph. “There were six or seven adult children of mafiosi who decided to collaborate. This is totally new.”
Until now, the ‘Ndrangheta has been hard to penetrate because of its reliance on blood bonds and family connections to maintain a system of omertà or silence, he said.
“The fact that this has happened will weaken the image and reputation of the ‘Ndrangheta. They would do anything to defend their criminal ‘brand’.”
One of the most important turncoats was Luigi Mancuso’s nephew, Emanuele Mancuso.
He told investigators he decided to do the unthinkable – inform on his family – after his girlfriend became pregnant.
He did not want his first child to grow up in the atmosphere of fear and criminality in which he had been raised. He now lives under state protection in a secret location.
“There were many pentiti who decided to collaborate with the state,” said Giuseppe Borrello from the anti-Mafia organisation Libera.
Renowned criminal organisation
“The ‘Ndrangheta has always been renowned as one of the strongest criminal organisations because there were so few collaborators with the judicial authorities. This trial was an important outcome.”
The ‘Ndrangheta has spread far beyond its Calabrian roots and now has interests across the world, from Canada and South America to Australia.
It is believed to have an annual income of around €50 billion (£44 billion), much of which is made from the cocaine trade and is said to control around 80 per cent of the cocaine trafficking business in Europe.
The profits from the drug trade are invested in legitimate businesses such as supermarkets, hotels, restaurants, food markets and car dealerships.
It is considered to have eclipsed Italy’s two other principal mafias – Cosa Nostra in Sicily and the Camorra of Naples.
And it is renowned for its brutality – a businesswoman from Calabria was reportedly murdered and fed to pigs in 2016 after refusing to sell her land to a man with ‘Ndrangheta connections.
Experts say the ‘Ndrangheta’s stranglehold on Calabria is explained in part by the chronic lack of economic development and neglect of the region, which forms the toe of the Italian boot.
The rate of unemployment among young people is 27 per cent, the highest of Italy’s 20 regions and worse than other deprived areas such as Campania, Sicily and Puglia.
A confidential briefing paper by the American embassy in Rome, which was leaked through WikiLeaks in 2011, declared: “If it were not part of Italy, Calabria would be a failed state.”
Region blighted by ‘ineffective’ politicians
American diplomats said the region was blighted by “ineffective” politicians, an acute lack of resources and an almost non-existent civil society.
“Much of the region’s industry collapsed over a decade ago, leaving environmental and economic ruin,” the report said.
The diplomats said that Calabria was “beset by seemingly intractable problems” and that in one province in particular, “organised crime seems to control almost every facet of society”.
Mafia organisations like the ‘Ndrangheta operate like a parallel state.
“If you need a job, the clan finds you one in half an hour,” Emanuele Mancuso told GQ magazine.
Convictions won’t bring down criminal network
“The state doesn’t find you one. If your car is stolen and you go to the police, they might find it in a month or two, in the very best-case scenario. With the clan, it’s a quarter of an hour. That’s the power that they have.”
The convictions will be a blow to the criminal network but will not bring it down, given its deep roots and its presence in more than 50 countries around the world.
“This was not a trial that will eliminate the ‘Ndrangheta. To do that you need to liberate the region of fear. It’s a cultural phenomenon, you need to change the mentality. You also need to invest in the region – you need better schools, lower unemployment, to restore people’s faith in the state. You can’t tackle the ‘Ndrangheta just by clapping them in handcuffs and putting them on trial,” said Mr Nicaso.
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