Italy’s largest mafia trial in more than 30 years begins Wednesday, as prosecutors hope to strike a blow to the ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate, whose tentacles reach worldwide.
More than 350 alleged members of the mafia and politicians, lawyers, businessmen and others accused of enabling them will face a judge in a huge, specially converted courtroom in the southern Calabrian town of Lamezia Terme, in the heart of ‘Ndrangheta territory.
Criminologist Federico Varese of Oxford University said the trial reflects the wide-reaching control of the ‘Ndrangheta, who are embedded in the community and involved in every legal and illicit activity.
“The real strength of these mafia families is they have control of the territory and within the territory they do everything,” said Varese. “If you want to open a shop, if you want to build anything, you have to go through them.”
“They are the authority.”
Prosecutors are seeking to prove a web of crimes dating back to the 1990s, including murder, drug trafficking, extortion, money laundering and abuse of office.
The trial “is a cornerstone in the building of a wall against the mafias in Italy”, anti-mob prosecutor Nicola Gratteri told the AFP news agency.
In Italy, so-called “maxi-trials”, which include scores of defendants and countless charges, are seen as the best judicial resource against the country’s various organised crime groups, of which the ‘Ndrangheta is now considered the most powerful, controlling the bulk of cocaine flowing into Europe.
The most famous maxi-trial of 1986-87 dealt a significant blow to Sicily’s Cosa Nostra, resulting in 338 guilty verdicts, but prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were later assassinated by the mob.
The current trial, expected to last at least a year and likely longer, features 355 defendants, more than 900 prosecution witnesses, and an unprecedented number of collaborators, given the close family ties within the ‘Ndrangheta that discourage turncoats.
Antonella Massaro, a professor of criminal law at the University of Rome 3, told Al Jazeera the trial was “very important” and could help prize open the secretive ‘Ndrangheta syndicate.
“The Ndrangheta, compared to Cosa Nostra [the Sicilian Mafia], is founded on a tight family network,” Massaro said.
“Up to now, it has been difficult to get them on trial as the logic of collaboration from insiders has [not been] effective – within the family you tend to protect.
“Potentially, you are uncovering a Pandora’s box so striking that it could have an effect on the consciousness of the people living in those lands.”
However, she did not expect things to change in this “historical moment” in southern Italy amid the coronavirus pandemic, because those with economic difficulties were likely to turn to organised crime for support.
The ‘Ndrangheta has expanded beyond its traditional domains of drug trafficking and loan sharking, now using shell companies and frontmen to reinvest illegal gains in the legitimate economy.
In many parts of Calabria, it has infiltrated practically all areas of public life, from city hall and hospitals to cemeteries and even the courts, experts say.
Authorities believe there are some 150 ‘Ndrangheta families in Calabria and at least 6,000 members and affiliates in the region. That swells to thousands more when including those worldwide, although estimates are unreliable.
“When the mafia … developed throughout Europe, especially in Germany, its structure changed and became more recognisable,” Massaro said.
The organised crime group generates more than 50 billion euros ($61bn) per year, according to Gratteri, who called it the world’s richest such organisation.
The prosecutor explained the ‘Ndrangheta as a network of families, each of which wield power over subordinates.
“I have to start with the idea that there’s an organisation, as in a business, as in a large multinational, with a boss and then down, like a pyramid, to all the other members,” Gratteri said.
The current trial focuses on one family, the Mancuso group, and its network of associates who control the Vibo Valentia area of Calabria.
The town of Lamezia Terme, where the trial is taking place, was cited in a 2008 parliamentary organised crime report as a public safety emergency zone where the region’s “greatest increase in serious bloodshed has been recorded”.
Defendants include a high number of non-clan members, including an ex-parliamentarian, a high-ranking police official, mayors and other public servants and businessmen.
State apparatuses were “literally” at the Mancuso gang’s disposal, Gratteri said, following a wave of arrests in December 2019 throughout Italy and Europe that led to the trial.
But Al Jazeera’s Stefannie Dekker, reporting from Rome, said even if there were convictions when it comes to this particular family and their associations, there are still “far more powerful” entities within the ‘Ndrangheta that can continue to operate.
“We are not going to see even a dent in the operations of the organisation, but certainly the trial … shows people are starting to talk, or have a little bit more confidence in the legal system,” she said.
Additional reporting by Al Jazeera’s Virginia Pietromarchi.