Hundreds face sentencing in historic Italian mafia trial

Hundreds face sentencing in historic Italian mafia trial

The trial is to take place in a heavily secured courtroom bunker.
The trial is to take place in a heavily secured courtroom bunker.

LAMEZIA TERME, Italy: Hundreds of alleged mobsters were being sentenced on Monday by an Italian court, the culmination of a historic, nearly three-year trial against Calabria's notorious 'Ndrangheta mafia.

Prosecutors have asked for guilty verdicts against 322 accused mafia members and their white-collar collaborators, in what could mark the most significant blow to date against one of the world's most powerful organised crime syndicates.

The 'Ndrangheta has moved beyond its roots in the poor southern Italian region of Calabria to exercise near-monopoly on the European cocaine trade, with a presence in more than 40 countries worldwide.

The sentencing will cap Italy's largest mafia trial in decades, a "maxi-trial" in which vast numbers of defendants accused of being part of the same mafia criminal conspiracy face justice.

The court of Vibo Valentia, in Calabria, has heard thousands of hours of testimony since the trial began in January 2021, including from more than 50 former mafia operatives turned state witnesses.

They and others have detailed countless examples of the 'Ndrangheta's brutality and its stranglehold over the local population.

They include carrying out violent ambushes, shaking down business owners, rigging public tenders, stockpiling weapons, collecting votes or passing kickbacks to the powerful.

The accused are members or affiliates of the top 'Ndrangheta "clan" in Vibo Valentia -- one of the region's many economically depressed rural areas where the mafia has suffocated the local economy, infiltrated public institutions and terrorised its people for decades.

The undisputed boss of the territory, Luigi "The Supreme" Mancuso, 69, was cut from the defendants list last year to be tried separately.

The heavily secured courtroom bunker in the city of Lamezia Terme where the trial has taken place has space for hundreds of lawyers and is outfitted with more than 20 television screens to connect it with incarcerated defendants by video link.

The 'Ndrangheta of Vibo Valentia -- whose members have nicknames straight out of Hollywood like "The Wolf", "Fatty", "Sweetie" and "Lamb Thigh" -- were entrenched in the local economy, feared by business owners and farmers, and protected by white-collar professionals and politicians.

Informants -- a relatively rare phenomenon within the 'Ndrangheta due to blood ties between members -- recounted how weapons were hidden in cemetery chapels and ambulances used to transport drugs, and municipal water supplies diverted to marijuana crops.

Those who opposed the mafia found dead puppies, dolphins or goat heads dumped on their doorsteps, sledgehammers taken to store fronts or cars torched.

Less lucky were those beaten or fired at -- or those whose bodies were never found.

- 'Freeing the territory' -

Long dismissed as mere livestock thieves, the 'Ndrangheta flourished under the radar for decades as authorities concentrated efforts against Sicily's Cosa Nostra -- defendants in the first, now-legendary maxi-trial of 1986-1987 in Palermo.

Today, mafia experts estimate that the 'Ndrangheta, made up of approximately 150 Calabrian families and their associates, bring in more than 50 billion euros ($53 billion) annually around the world from drug trafficking, usury, syphoning public funds and extortion.

In Calabria, the 'Ndrangheta has crept into practically all areas of public life, from city hall and hospitals to the courts.

But its scope is much wider and the 'Ndrangheta now operates in more than 40 countries, experts say.

Relying on frontmen, shell companies and favours from the elite, the 'Ndrangheta reinvests illegal gains in the legitimate economy, cementing its power.

For the first time in such trials, the defendants list includes many non-mafia members, including a high-ranking police official, mayors and other public servants and businessmen.

The most high-profile is 70-year-old former parliamentarian and defence lawyer Giancarlo Pittelli, accused of being a fixer for the mafia and a go-between with the world of politics, finance and illegal Masonic lodges.

Mafia expert Antonio Nicaso told AFP the trial was important in targeting one of the most powerful 'Ndrangheta families.

"(But) I don't think with one police operation you can destroy the 'Ndrangheta," he said ahead of the verdicts.

"It's about freeing the territory. The need to provide jobs, invest more money in education, challenging the mentality of people, building a sense of trust in institutions.

"That's what you need to challenge a criminal organisation."

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