A village in Calabria, Italy’s southern province that is the heart of ‘Ndrangheta operations. Within the region is the city of Vibo Valentia, former home of clan boss Luigi Mancuso.
Proceedings began on January 13 in the trial of over 320 members of the ‘Ndrangheta mafia, a highly secretive crime syndicate that has operated out of Italy for over 150 years. The ‘Ndrangheta is Italy’s largest mob trial in over three decades. The defendants are bosses, foot soldiers, and local and national politicians. Charges include murder, extortion, usury, money laundering, drug trafficking, and corruption. Although investigations of the ‘Ndrangheta began as early as 2016, almost all suspects were arrested in a December 2019 raid of Vibo Valentia, a city in the southern Italian province of Calabria. Vibo Valentia is controlled by the Mancuso family, a powerful section of the ‘Ndrangheta whose boss and patriarch Luigi Mancuso is among the defendants.
Italian law categorized the ‘Ndrangheta as a mafia eleven years ago, but their activities date as far back as the 1880s.
In Calabria, the ‘Ndrangheta used violence to ensure their chosen candidate was successful in local elections. As a result, the ‘Ndrangheta was quickly able to infiltrate the government and establish territorial and political control of Calabria. However, the group’s operations remained restricted to areas in and around the province until the 1970s, when the ‘Ndrangheta consolidated its power and began a new criminal venture: kidnappings. Over the next two decades, the syndicate captured and held for ransom almost 700 people, with a single year peak of 75 kidnappings during 1977. The construction industry also proved profitable to the ‘Ndrangheta, as connections made by the mafia’s bosses to such companies earned millions by skimming contracts for bridges, buildings, and other infrastructure. In the 1970s, the ‘Ndrangheta controlled over $1 billion worth of infrastructure.
January’s trial marks the Italian government’s most decisive action to curb mafia activity since the landmark “maxi-trial” against one of the ‘Ndrangheta’s fellow syndicates in Sicily over 30 years ago. In 1986, over 400 members of Cosa Nostra (also known as the Sicilian Mafia) were charged for operating a criminal syndicate financed by heroin trafficking largely to areas of the American East Coast. For the first time, Cosa Nostra was prosecuted as a whole organization, and the trial ended with 338 of the 452 defendants sentenced for crimes ranging from criminal conspiracy to homicide. Dubbed the “maxi-trial” by the Italian press, the proceedings were seen as a major win for the state and showed Italy’s willingness to retaliate against illegal mafia activity.
The trial weakened Cosa Nostra’s power in Italy yet inadvertently opened the space for the ‘Ndrangheta to expand their illicit activities. In the 1980s and 1990s, the syndicate took control of their continent’s cocaine market; the ‘Ndrangheta are the drug’s leading importer in Europe. The ‘Ndrangheta also pursue international trafficking operations, which today earn the syndicate over $300 million a week, according to data from Italy’s Eurispes institute. These activities have made the ‘Ndrangheta mafia one of the wealthiest criminal syndicates in the world. Investigators believe strict codes of honor and secrecy have allowed the mafia to successfully operate unperturbed by law enforcement. For example, the ‘Ndrangheta is composed of a series of family clans, known as ‘ndrine, which form strategic alliances with each other through blood and marriage, creating a tight monolithic organization bound by loyalty.
During the upcoming trial, however, many members will break this tradition of secrecy by appearing as witnesses against defendants who are, in many cases, their own relatives. Among them is Emanuele Mancuso, son of former boss Luni Mancuso. He has already provided investigators with confidential information about the ‘Ndrangheta in exchange for police protection. The younger Mancuso is set to testify against current clan leader Luigi Mancuso, who is his uncle.
Prosecutors believe the trial, which relies heavily on the testimony of these former mafia members, will finally uncover the syndicate’s long-held secrets and dismantle them once and for all. A longtime opponent of the ‘Ndrangheta and lead prosecutor Nicola Gratteri has vowed to take down the “asphyxiating ‘Ndrangheta, which truly takes the breath and the heartbeat from the people,” and it is her hope that “these proceedings can signal a true rebirth for the people of Calabria who are tired of living with the ‘Ndrangheta.”