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Massive Mafia Trial Is 'One for the History Books'

Newser — Rob Quinn

It's the biggest Mafia trial Italy has seen in decades—with the added challenge of COVID-19 precautions. The "maxi-trial" of hundreds of members of the 'Ndrangheta crime syndicate began Wednesday in a fortified 1,000-capacity courtroom in Calabria, the heart of the group's territory, the Guardian reports.

Many of the 355 defendants will attend via videolink from prisons, while others will be in cages, wearing masks and sitting 6 feet apart. Most of the defendants were arrested in raids in December 2019 following a years-long investigation of the syndicate, which became the dominant organized crime group in Italy after the decline of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra.

The last Mafia trial on this scale involved 475 Cosa Nostra defendants and lasted from 1986 to 1992. More:

  • The defendants. The investigation targeted the Mancuso crime family.

Its alleged boss, 66-year-old Luigi Mancuso, is the highest-profile defendant, the BBC reports. Others include allegedly corrupt police officers and government officials, along with mobsters with nicknames like "Wolf," "Fatty," and "Blondie." Another 92 defendants will be tried in a fast-tracked trial starting later this month.

Most were arrested in Italy, though some were picked up in raids in countries including Germany and Switzerland.

  • The charges. The charges, some of which date back to the '90s, include murder, extortion, usury, money laundering, drug trafficking, and corruption, as well as membership of the crime syndicate, the New York Times reports.

Investigators say the group used its massive revenues from cocaine trafficking to snap up hotels, restaurants, and other businesses across Italy.

  • Code of silence broken.

Like other Mafia groups, the 'Ndrangheta relied heavily on family ties and a "code of silence," but the more than 900 witnesses that will be called include people who have decided to testify against relatives, as well as citizens who have decide to testify despite fears of retaliation, the AP reports.

"We have been seeing a spike in complaints by businessmen, bullied citizens, victims of usury, people who for years have been under the pall of the 'Ndrangheta," says prosecutor Nicola Gratteri.

  • The world's richest organized crime group.

Gratteri says the 'Ndrangheta is the world's richest crime group and is organized like a large company, Deutsche Welle reports. "I have to start with the idea that there's an organization, as in a business, as in a large multinational, with a boss and then down, like a pyramid, to all the other members," he says.

Investigators say the group's reach extended across Europe and it also had bases in Australia, the Americas, and Africa. A 2013 study concluded the group's financial power exceeded that of Deutsche Bank and McDonald’s combined.

  • "One for the history books." "Expectations are high, and it’s obvious that the Italian authorities hope it will be a milestone in the struggle against the ’Ndrangheta," Antonio Nicaso, an expert on the group, tells the Guardian.

"What is certain is that this trial will be one for the history books on organized crime," he says. "With these proceedings, Italy will finally have the opportunity to reveal to the world the secrets of the ’Ndrangheta, which over the years has grown silently and in the shadows."

  • Inside the courtroom.

The courtroom, inside a converted call center in an industrial park, is so vast that video screens have been fixed to the ceiling to allow people to view the proceedings, the AP reports.

When the trial opened Wednesday, the first three hours were taken up with the reading of the names of the defendants and their lawyers. The trial is expected to last at least a year.

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