In Lamezia Terme, an industrial city in Southern Italy overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea, a historical event is going unnoticed. Between the cultivated fields and factories, the first so-called “maxi trial” of the ’Ndrangheta, the Calabrian criminal organization, began on Jan. 13. With 335 defendants (almost all men) and 600 lawyers dealing with 400 counts of murder, drug trafficking, money laundering, and more, it’s one of the largest criminal prosecutions in recent history.
Expected to last at least two years, the trial is known as “Rinascita-Scott,” or “Rebirth Scott.” Nicola Gratteri, the prosecutor driving the case, explained that its name refers to a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent who spent eight years in Italy fighting against narco-’ndranghetist organizations and died upon returning to the United States in a car accident. The trial is dedicated to his commitment. It’s been called the trial of the century in some Italian newspapers, but curiously, no television news stations are reporting on it, it never ends up on the newspapers’ front pages, and it’s not even creating political controversy.
This despite its huge scale and dramatic scenes: Everything takes place in a bunker built just for the occasion, at a cost of 4.7 million euros. It was an abandoned call center transformed over five months into a record-breaking courtroom that belies the fame of Calabria, which is known as the region of unfinished work. It is a structure of 35,500 square feet, where 947 people can sit at a safe distance, in compliance with COVID regulations. It is a maxi trial via Zoom, because many defendants follow the hearing from their prisons, dressed in overalls, carefully taking note of names and villages—all, strictly, with masks.
This giant event is observed in silence in Italy. The reasons are many. For one, the fight against organized crime has long ceased to be a priority of the Italian government. In recent months, COVID has consumed all interest and public debate. And there is also a certain amount of inurement among the Italian people to news about the mafia. This is partly by design: After the attack season of the ’90s, with the killing of Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, the two Sicilian magistrates on the front line in the fight against the Cosa nostra Sicilian mafia, these criminal organizations have believed that it is better to avoid sensational actions that bring the focus on them, and it is usually better to work under the radar. Crime in Italy has also changed its face: Previously mainly in the southern regions, it has spread throughout Italian territory, concentrating in the richest part of the country, in the north. There, it has abandoned the somewhat folkloric characteristics of its origins and has camouflaged itself in the wealthy modern northern entrepreneurship and in politics. It has used the proceeds of drug trafficking to invest in legal activities, from finance to catering to construction. During COVID, its involvement in the funeral business made headlines.
In the public perception, the ’Ndrangheta has historically been considered the least relevant and powerful criminal organization. But in reality, especially in the last 10 years, it has become the dominant one, not only in northern Italy but also in many European countries, including Germany.
Who are the men of the ‘Ndrangheta? The new “mafiosi” no longer wear flat caps and tote sawed-off shotguns as in traditional iconography. In some cases, they are well-heeled college graduates who operate in an economic context that is not recognized as criminal. Consider the case of Gennaro Pulice, 41, who has murdered six people and, as we learned recently in the magazine Il Venerdi, killed for the first time at 16, on the anniversary of his father’s death, because he felt he had to avenge him. Now cooperating with authorities, Pulice became one of the most important names in the organization and has degrees in law, speaks multiple languages, and has international business experience. He reportedly explained the law, history, and the economy to his comrades. He’s not exactly the over-the-top brute mobster figure from the past.
The fact that the mafiosi are not what they used to be can be seen most clearly by these “pentiti”—the informers. The word “pentito,” in Italian, means “repented,” and has almost a religious connotation. Historically, the ‘Ndrangheta has never had important pentiti, unlike the Cosa nostra mafia, which had the once infamous Tommaso Buscetta, for example. Repenting means denouncing the family, the greatest conceivable sacrilege. But this maxi trial is the first in which these collaborators of justice play a fundamental role. There are 58, in fact, and they all say they did it for their children. They speak on video with their backs turned, in secret places to avoid being recognized. Many of them have been left by their wives, because “repenting” is a real sin.
Among all the strange and extraordinary parts of this process, there is also the prosecutor who guides it, Gratteri, loved by many for the passion and dedication he puts into the fight against the ’Ndrangheta and hated by some of his colleagues for his methods, which are not always in line with the behaviors expected from a prosecutor. He’s a free thinker who strongly wanted this trial and who, apart from everything, really does risk his life every day. In an intercepted phone call last year, the clans called him “walking dead.”
Meanwhile, most of Italy looks away. But that doesn’t mean the trial is not pivotal to the country’s future. Calabria is one of the poorest places in Italy, with the highest rates of crime, and the success of this process weighs on the credibility of the Italian judiciary against the mafia—and also the credibility of the region, an area with a beautiful sea and breathtaking historic centers, but undermined by decades of criminal activity. Though the appetite for the trial may seem diminished, privately, its citizens are hoping that as the prosecution ramps up, Italy, Europe, and the world will look at this so-called maxi trial with open eyes.