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Explained: Why Italy’s largest trial in 30 years, against ‘Ndrangheta mafia, is significant

Italian authorities believe that the 'Ndrangheta are responsible for controlling the supply of massive amounts of cocaine that enters Europe from South America and other regions.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: January 18, 2021 10:41:32 am
Some of the defendants in a trial against 355 suspected members of the 'Ndrangheta mafia, accused of an array of charges, are seen on screens as they join via video link on the first day of their trial, in a High Security Courthouse in Lamezia Terme, Italy, January 13, 2021. (Source: Reuters/Yara Nardi)

Italy on Wednesday began its largest mafia trial in three decades, targeting the ‘Ndrangheta group, the country’s most powerful organised crime syndicate based in the southern region of Calabria.

At the mega trial, prosecutors will try to prove a lengthy chargesheet, which includes offences ranging from murder, extortion, drug trafficking, money laundering and corruption, against over 350 defendants, who include politicians and officials suspected to be members of the notorious mafia.

Who are the ‘Ndrangheta?

Italian authorities believe that the ‘Ndrangheta are responsible for controlling the supply of massive amounts of cocaine that enters Europe from South America and other regions.

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As per a 2013 study by Demoskopika Research Institute, the ‘Ndrangheta was estimated to be richer than Deutsche Bank and McDonald’s put together, with an annual turnover of €53 billion. Using shell companies, the mafia group has the capacity to launder millions earned through the drug trade, and has used the money to buy hotels, restaurants, car dealerships and other businesses across Italy, especially in Rome and the affluent northern regions. The group’s reach is known to extend into several continents.

The syndicate, which is known to rely on blood ties, is deeply embedded in the Calabria region, where clan members reside in remote villages despite being involved in multimillion dollar transactions around the world. As per investigators, the bosses build tunnels under their homes and sophisticated bunkers to escape to when they are on the run.

How did the police arrest members of the mafia group?

In 2016, Italian authorities launched a sweeping investigation into the ‘Ndrangheta, covering 11 regions of Italy. As per the Guardian, over 2,500 officers carried out raids on suspects in Vibo Valentia, Calabria, the heart of ‘Ndrangheta’s operations. An elite Italian paramilitary unit arrested suspects from bunkers concealed behind staircases, trapdoors and manholes, the report said.


In December 2019, several alleged mobsters were arrested in pre-dawn raids in Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Bulgaria. The arrests included a member of the Italian Senate, a police chief, local elected representatives and businesspersons.

Prosecutor Nicola Gratteri gestures as he arrives at the High Security Courthouse for a trial of 355 suspected members of the ‘Ndrangheta mafia accused of an array of charges, in Lamezia Terme, Italy, January 13, 2021. (Source: Reuters)

How is the trial taking place?

At the trial, which began on Wednesday, more than 900 witnesses will be testifying against 355 suspected members of the ‘Ndrangheta group. The proceedings are expected to last more than two years.


The trial is taking place in a specially modified building in Lamezia Terme town of Calabria region. The building, a former call centre, has been converted into a fortified courtroom with cages, and can accommodate 1,000 persons.

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So, who has been put in the dock?

Among those charged, the one with the highest profile is 66-year-old clan leader Luigi Mancuso, who is also called “The Uncle”. Other nicknames among the defendants are “Fatty”, “Blondie” and “The Wolf”, the BBC reported. As per an AFP report, at a pre-trial hearing, it took over three hours to read the names of all the defendants.

Apart from drug trafficking offences, the charges against the ‘Ndrangheta include murder, attempted murder, extortion, belonging to a mafia syndicate, loan sharking, disclosure of official secrets and abuse of office.

At the trial, prosecutors are also hoping to prove a nexus between the mafia and politicians, police officers and civil servants, both in Calabria and the rest of Italy. As many as 92 suspects have been charged in a separate fast-track trial, among whom is Giancarlo Pittelli, a former legislator from former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party.


The chief prosecutor of the case is 62-year-old Nicola Gratteri, who is known as Italy’s most famous anti-mafia figure, and who has been provided police protection for the past three decades.

Why is the ‘Ndrangheta trial significant?

The previous mafia trial that was this huge took place in Italy between 1986 to 1992, when several organised crime families based in the island region of Sicily were targeted. Called the Maxi Trial, it was held in a specially built bunker-style courthouse inside a prison in Sicily, and led to the convictions of over 300 mobsters and 19 life sentences.


Unlike the Maxi Trial, the current trial focuses only on one group, the Mancuso family, which currently dominates the ‘Ndrangheta. With the trial, experts say that Italy will have the opportunity to expose the secrets of the mafia group, which has silently grown over the years to become the most powerful crime organisation in Italy and among the richest in the world.

Prosecutors hope that the trial would deal a major blow not just to ‘Ndrangheta but to organised crime in general in southern Italy, where it has affected social and economic life for centuries.

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First published on: 16-01-2021 at 12:30:55 am
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