The story behind the biggest mafia shakedown in Italy since 1986

The Godfather’s boy who is bringing down the Calabrian Mob: Hundreds are in the dock linked to mafia clan who feed their enemies to pigs but the greatest crime in their eyes is the boss’s son who ratted them out

  • Nicola Gratteri, 62, is the prosecutor in the ‘Ndrangheta mobster trials in Italy
  • Nicknamed ‘Signor Untouchable’, he grew up in the mafia-dominated Calabria 
  • A total of 355 suspected members of ‘Ndrangheta will take part in a ‘maxi-trial’
  • It’s Italy’s biggest mafia shakedown since Sicily-based Cosa Nostra trials in 1986 

Listening to the recording of a wire-tapped phone call, Nicola Gratteri shuddered at the words: ‘He’s a dead man walking.’

Italy’s most formidable mafia prosecutor was listening to the voice of a mobster he had been monitoring during a sweeping investigation into the nation’s most feared organised crime syndicate.

Gratteri, who had begun the probe two years earlier, had no doubt the Mob’s henchmen would murder without a second thought. And he knew he was the ‘dead man’ in question.

Faced with such a threat, he might have considered abandoning his task. But steel-nerved ‘Signor Untouchable’ was undeterred.

Growing up in mafia-dominated Calabria, on the ‘toe’ of Italy, he despised the ruling families who terrorised his community — and their children, who bullied their peers with impunity.

He determined to become a lawyer and bring mafiosi to justice: an ambition that places him in constant danger.

Nicola Gratteri (pictured), who had begun the probe two years earlier, had no doubt the Mob’s henchmen would murder without a second thought. And he knew he was the ‘dead man’ in question

Since he began his mob-busting in the late 1980s, Signor Gratteri, 62, has spent months in hiding and needed round-the-clock protection.

‘I lived very little with my family. I didn’t have the joy of seeing my children grow up,’ he told the Mail. 


Luigi Mancuso – ‘The Uncle’

The current trial grew out of an investigation of 12 clans linked to convicted ‘Ndrangheta boss, Luigi Mancuso.

Mancuso, 66, served 19 years in an Italian prison for drug trafficking and his role in leading what investigators allege is one of the ‘Ngrangheta’s most powerful crime families, based in the town of Vibo Valentia.

He allegedly continued to run drug trafficking operations whilst in prison.

In 2019, Mancuso was one of 334 people arrested by Italian police in an operation targeting the ‘Ndrangheta families based in the southern Italian city of Locri in the Calabria region.

Emanuele Mancuso

Emanuele, the son of mafia boss Luni Mancuso ‘the Engineer’, is a key figure in the trial as he will testify against his uncle Luigi Mancuso.

He was given police protection after he said he would reveal the mafia clan’s secrets.

Former senator Giancarlo Pittelli

Among the accused is former parliamentarian Giancarlo Pittelli, a renowned defence lawyer, Freemason and ex-senator from former premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party.

He denies accusations he acted as middleman between the ‘Ndrangheta and the world of politics, banking, and other powerful institutions, including the courts.

‘I never went to pick them up from school or saw them perform in a play. Only now they are adults do they understand why I was never around all those years.’

The prosecutor’s courageous efforts have put many of Italy’s most notorious gangsters in jail.

But his finest hour came a few days ago, when no fewer than 355 alleged criminals — mostly members of the ‘Ndrangheta — the most violent, wealthy and secretive of Italy’s mafia organisations — were brought to trial.

The culmination of a four-year investigation led by Gratteri, it is Italy’s biggest mafia shakedown since more than 400 members and associates of the Sicily-based Cosa Nostra were tried in 1986.

Hunted down by 3,000 officers, some of the hundreds arrested were found hiding behind false walls or trapdoors in their lairs.

Also on trial are dozens of allegedly corrupt officials whom the gangsters are said to have controlled in the region: councillors, police officers and a former senator.

The case will rely on thousands of hours of intercepts and surveillance, and the first-hand evidence of an informant who committed the ultimate mafia sin of betrayal.

Predicted to take three years, the trial promises to expose the secrets behind the ‘Ndrangheta’s empire for the first time.

Originally a band of thugs who lived beyond the law in remote mountain villages in 19th-century Calabria, today they are said to control 80 per cent of Europe’s cocaine trade, raking in about £50billion a year — or around 3 per cent of Italy’s GDP.

They have formed an allegiance with gangs in South America, who manufacture the cocaine, and Albanians, who distribute it throughout the world.

Extreme brutality is the ‘Ndrangheta’s trademark. Even by mafia standards, their henchmen use chilling methods to murder or torture those who cross them.

For decades their activity was confined to Calabria. But in 1973, when they kidnapped John Paul Getty III, the 16-year-old grandson of America’s wealthiest oil tycoon, who was then living in Rome, it made lurid headlines.

When his grandfather refused to pay the demanded $17million ransom, the ‘Ndrangheta sliced off his ear and posted it to a newspaper, with a lock of his hair.

An accompanying letter warned that the boy’s other ear would be cut off if the money failed to arrive within ten days, then he would slowly be cut to pieces. ‘In other words, he will arrive in little bits,’ it said.

A view taken in Lamezia Terme, Calabria, from one of the detained defendants’ cells, shows the inside of a new bunker room built for the upcoming ‘Rinascita-Scott’ maxi-trial in which more than 350 alleged members of Calabria’s ‘Ndrangheta mafia group and their associates go on trial

Italy’s largest mafia trial in more than 30 years opened Wednesday as more than 350 suspects face a judge in a specially courtroom (pictured) in the southern Calabrian town of Lamezia Terme, in the heart of ‘Ndrangheta territory

Three judges overseeing Italy’s mega-mafia trial ask to be recused on the first day as 350 ‘Ndrangheta mob suspects prepare to face justice

By Rachael Bunyan for MailOnline

Three judges assigned to oversee Italy’s largest mafia trial in more than 30 years today asked to be recused on the first day – as hundreds of alleged members of the ‘Ndrangheta mob prepared to face justice. 

The trial, which is expected to take at least a year to complete, will involve 355 defendants, 400 lawyers and 900 witnesses alleging crimes from murder, drug trafficking and extortion, to money laundering and abuse of office. 

Among the accused are suspected Mafia boss Luigi Mancuso, known as ‘The Uncle’, and his alleged accomplices who have a host of nicknames including ‘The Wolf’, ‘Fatty’, ‘Sweetie’, ‘Blondie’, ‘Little Goat’ and ‘The Wringer’.   

However, the initial hearing hit an immediate snag today after the three judges assigned to the case asked to be recused, saying they had been involved in earlier aspects of the investigation. 

Their request will be reviewed by a separate court, which will delay proceedings for several days, lawyers said.   

Prosecutors claim the gang infiltrated almost every aspect of life in Italy’s Calabria region, from city hall and hospitals, to cemeteries and even the courts – while their empire also spanned the globe from Australia to Canada, and Germany to the US where it did business with El Chapo’s Sinaloa Cartel.

An ex-senator from former premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, Giancarlo Pittelli, is also among the list of defendants after he was accused of being middleman between the ‘Ndrangheta and the world of politics, banking, and other powerful institutions.

At the centre of it all is Nicola Gratteri, 62, Italy’s top mafia prosecutor who defied threats that he is a ‘dead man walking’ as he strode into court on Wednesday.   

Gratteri, who has spent the last 30 years living under police escort, said it was an ‘important day’, telling reporters outside court that the trial would ‘give the idea of what the Calabrian mafia is today – no longer a mafia of shepherds dedicated to kidnapping, but a major criminal corporation’. 

He added: ‘Decades ago, people would tremble when talking about Cosa Nostra or when using the word ‘Ndrangheta, something they would say only in a hidden room, around the fireplace, whispering. 

‘Today we are beginning to speak out in the open sunlight.’

‘In the last two years, we can say we have been seeing a spike in complaints by businessmen, bullied citizens, victims of usury, people who for years have been subject to the pall of the ‘Ndrangheta,’ Graterri, who who has spent more than 30 years fighting the mob, added.

He later sat in the front row of the courtroom as Judge Tiziana Macri began reading out the names of the defendants, none of whom attended in person but who participated via video conference, their faces shown on dozens of televisions fitted over lines of grey desks.   

The first three hours of the trial’s opening day were consumed by the court’s formal rollcall of the defendants and their lawyers. 

Among the defendants are boss Luigi Mancuso ‘The Uncle’ and others with nicknames including ‘The Wolf’, ‘Fatty’, ‘Sweetie’, ‘Blondie’, ‘Little Goat’ and ‘The Wringer’.

Defendants who are jailed, due to convictions in other cases, could follow the proceedings by a video conference.  

The 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. 

Eventually the kidnappers settled for $2.2million and freed him.

Unlike some mafia factions, the ‘Ndrangheta has no compunction about murdering women and children, either.

Over the years they have killed them by the dozen. The victims included three-year-old Nicola Campolongo, who was shot in the head in 2014 after her grandfather had fallen foul of the Mob.

In 2012, six gang members were jailed for torturing and shooting Lea Garofalo, 35, a clan member’s girlfriend who had shared their secrets with the police, then dissolving her body in acid.

The court heard how they kept watch on the 50-litre acid vat in a rural warehouse for three days to make sure her corpse had been completely liquefied.

Two other female informants were forced to drink cups of acid and died in agony.

The 438 indictments levelled in this trial range from drugs and weapons trafficking to extortion. It took more than three hours last Wednesday just to read them out.

That many of the accused shared surnames — there were 18 members of the Bianco family, for example — said much about the group’s insularity.

Only those with blood ties are admitted, and the estimated 10,000 members of the ‘Ndrangheta — which risibly translates as ‘Men of Honour’ — belong to about 100 Calabrian clans.

The defendants span the generations, and 44 are female. As Signor Gratteri told us, pitiless women play an essential role.

‘They are involved in drug trafficking. They go back and forth from prisons, receiving orders, and now they have started (running) the rackets, too,’ he says.

The defendants have nicknames such as Big Nose, Fatty, Blondie, The Wolf, Little Goat, Sweetie, Leg of Lamb and The Wringer.

If these sobriquets make them sound like characters from The Sopranos, the darkly comedic 1990s television mafia series that is attracting a new audience of locked-down British viewers, there is nothing remotely funny about their alleged activities.

According to reports in Italy, when one female farmer refused to surrender her citrus orchard to the ‘Ndrangheta, her son was killed by a car bomb.

And a businesswoman who vanished four years ago after defying the mob’s attempts to seize her land was murdered and fed to pigs, a clan member has allegedly confessed.

It is not known whether examination of these horrors will feature in the showpiece trial, the logistics of which are staggering.

Before the pandemic, the 355 defendants — plus some 90 others who have opted for a separate, fast-track hearing — would have appeared in person.

There would also have been 600 lawyers, 900 witnesses and a phalanx of international journalists — which meant converting a disused call centre the size of a football pitch, with 1,000 seats and capacious cages for the alleged mobsters.

Now, because of Covid, they will follow proceedings in the vast bunker via video links from their cells.

The makeshift courtroom is in the city of Lamezia Terme, an ‘Ndrangheta stronghold, so it has been fortified.

This week, soldiers patrolled outside and a police helicopter buzzed overhead.

At the heart of the investigation are the Mancuso family, who were impoverished farmers a century ago.

According to Professor Antonio Nicaso, an authority on the mafia, their fortunes were transformed in the 1970s when they commandeered a big quarry.

The stone from it was used to build one of Europe’s biggest seaports, on the Tyrrhenian coast.

During mafia infighting for lucrative contracts at the port, Gioia Tauro, about a thousand people were killed and the murder rate outstripped that of New York.

Signor Gratteri says: ‘The family is really low-key. This is very important to them. They never exhibit their wealth in any way.’

The godfather of the clan is Luigi Mancuso, 66, aka ‘The Uncle’, who has spent 19 years in jail for mob-related offences.

One of his brothers, Pantaleone — known as ‘The Engineer’ — is claimed to be the head of its fearsome ‘military wing’.

Luigi is among the accused in this case, together with Pantaleone’s son Guiseppe, 30, and a female member of the family, Silvana, 51.

They were trapped in part by the evidence of another of Pantaleone’s sons, 33-year-old Emanuele.

The godfather of the clan is Luigi Mancuso (pictured), 66, aka ‘The Uncle’, who has spent 19 years in jail for mob-related offences

Luigi is among the accused in this case, together with Pantaleone’s son Guiseppe, 30, and a female member of the family, Silvana, 51. They were trapped in part by the evidence of another of Pantaleone’s sons, 33-year-old Emanuele (pictured).

He will be a key prosecution witness, having dared to become the first member of his clan ever to ‘rat’ on his own kin.

A troubled and rebellious boy, he is said to have been taken into care by social services for a time, but at 14 he was formally initiated into the ‘family firm’, as tradition dictates.

Had he remained loyal, he would have risen to become a boss, for in the ‘Ndrangheta, positions of power pass down the bloodline.

Italian call center is converted into huge courtroom as 350 alleged ‘Ndrangheta mobsters

By Sam Baker for MailOnline 

Hundreds of suspected members of Italy’s most powerful mafia group will face a judge this week, with a dedicated converted courtroom being used for the country’s biggest ‘maxi-trial’ of the last three decades.

The trial against the ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate and its accomplices – which includes politicians, civil servants, police and businessmen – is expected to last for more than two years. 

In total, 355 defendants, more than 900 prosecution witnesses and 400 lawyers will feature in the trial, as well as 58 state witnesses ready to break their ‘omerta’ – code of silence. 

The ‘maxi-trial’ will be held in a specially outfitted building in the heart of ‘Ndrangheta territory in Calabria.

It took almost three hours to read the names of each defendant at a recent hearing – with boss Luigi Mancuso ‘The Uncle’ among a host of nicknames which included ‘The Wolf’, ‘Fatty’, ‘Sweetie’, ‘Blondie’, ‘Little Goat’ and ‘The Wringer’ that held up proceedings.

The state is putting forward a show of strength by holding the trial right in the heart of ‘Ndrangheta territory – with the gang controlling tonnes of cocaine flowing into Europe.

But according to Professor Nicaso, who interviewed Emanuele in prison, as the boy grew up he came to disapprove of his family’s ruthlessness — a sense of moral repugnance that only deepened after he was sent to study law at Rome University.

Older clan members, often barely literate, usually want their sons to acquire the worldly savvy to launder their cocaine billions in legitimate businesses and on the world’s stock exchanges.

But in Emanuele Mancuso’s case, this plan rebounded. Once he was away from Calabria, mixing with young people whose backgrounds were far removed from his own, his conscience became troubled by his family’s brutality.

While he was in Rome, Emanuele also met his future wife, Nensy Chimirri, now 28.

After he had set up home with her, his newfound values didn’t prevent him from moving into the marijuana industry.

He first took a course in agricultural science, then used the knowledge he had gleaned to cultivate hemp-seed plants on a large scale.

By selling his yield over the internet, Emanuele rapidly built a £20million business.

By 2018, however, he had been caught — and it was while he was in prison awaiting trial on charges of drug trafficking (for which he would receive a sentence of four years and six months) that he requested a meeting with Nicola Gratteri.

By this time, Emanuele’s wife had given birth to their first child — and in Professor Nicaso’s opinion, Emanuele decided to sever ties with his clan because he felt his daughter should be free to choose her own destiny.

Signor Gratteri offers a rather more pragmatic explanation.

‘He was feeling marginalised by his family,’ he says bluntly. ‘He didn’t have it in him to become a great mafia leader.

‘Of course, I was surprised when he asked to see me — never before had a member of the Mancuso family turned — but I understood why. He was not respected by his family.’

Whatever the truth, the renegade gangster and his one-time arch-foe formed an unlikely bond of trust.

It prompted Emanuele to spill secrets that had remained within the clan for decades.

Together with the testimony of other insiders who have since broken ranks, his information will form a vital plank of the prosecution’s case.

Even if he survives the bounty that has no doubt been placed on his head, Emanuele Mancuso is already paying a heavy price for his betrayal.

For reasons of her own, Nensy has chosen to remain within the Mancuso family, so their marriage is surely over.

He is now in a witness protection programme, his whereabouts so tightly guarded that even Signor Gratteri claims not to know where he is. As for the ‘dead man walking’, he remains philosophical.

‘Right now I feel overexposed,’ he says with a shrug. ‘But for me, the important thing is to have the conviction that it is worth it.

‘For the people of Calabria, I am the last resort. I can’t betray the thousands of people who believe in me.’

He pauses, then adds: ‘Anyway, I would feel like a coward if I stopped. And I’m not interested in living as a coward.’

Additional reporting by Benedetta ArgentierI in Italy

How the ‘Ndrangheta cocaine crime network extends around the world

By Rachael Bunyan for MailOnline 

In December 2019 an operation targeted the ‘Ndrangheta families based in the southern Italian city of Locri in the Calabria region – the rural, mountainous and under-developed ‘toe’ of Italy’s boot and the heartland of the worldwide crime group. 

As a result of the swoop, Italian police arrested 334 people, including a police colonel and a former MP from Silvio Berlusconi’s party. 

Despite intense police attention and frequent arrests, the ‘Ndrangheta – which derives its meaning from the Greek word for ‘heroism’ – has continued to extend its reach. 

Notoriously ruthless, the ‘Ndrangheta has surpassed Sicily’s Cosa Nostra and the Naples-based Camorra to operate on all continents thanks to the wealth it has amassed as the principal importer and wholesaler of cocaine produced in Latin America and smuggled into Europe via north Africa and southern Italy.

That trade is worth billions and previous police operations have indicated that the ‘Ndrangheta has well-established links with Colombian producer cartels, Mexican crime gangs and mafia families in New York and other parts of North America.

In 2016, a suspected ‘Ndrangheta boss, Ernesto Fazzalari (left), was arrested after two decades on the run, fleeing a life sentence for murder. A year later, another suspected boss of the crime clan, Santo Vottari (right), was detained in Calabria having been on the run for a decade

The organisation’s tight clan-based structure has made it hard to penetrate but police have made some in roads in recent years. 

In 2015, 163 people were arrested in a major crackdown on the notorious mafia gang, which by that time had become the most powerful crime organisation in the country.

In another sting that year, police snatched assets worth £1.4billion from the ‘Ndrangheta, which included more than 1,500 betting shops, 82 online gambling sites and almost 60 companies.  

In 2016, one of Italy’s most wanted mafia bosses Ernesto Fazzalari was arrested after two decades on the run, fleeing a life sentence for murder. 

The ‘Ndrangheta member was captured in an apartment in a remote part of the southern region of Calabria.

On the run since 1996, he was convicted in absentia in 1999 of mafia association, kidnapping, illegal possession of weapons and a double homicide linked to a bloody 1989-91 feud which left 32 people dead in his home town of Taurianova.

His arrest was hailed by the government as a significant victory for the state in its battle against the powerful mafia group.

In 2018, another suspected boss of the crime clan, Santo Vottari, was detained in Calabria having been on the run for a decade.

He was arrested hiding behind a trap door of a bunker having gone to ground over a 2007 massacre in Germany.  

Vottari was convicted in absentia in 2009 of being one of the heads of an ‘Ndrangheta clan whose feud with local rivals culminated in the Duisburg killings.

He was given a prison term of 10 years and eight months, two years after he went on the run.

Vottari was one of 31 people sentenced to prison terms in 2009 in connection with the Duisburg killings, which happened after a vendetta between two clans based in the same village, San Luca, spiralled out of control.

The feud between the Nirta-Strangio and Pelle-Vottari clans reportedly began with an egg-throwing prank in 1991. 

Reprisals escalated after the killing, on Christmas Day, 2006, of Maria Strangio, the wife of clan leader Giovanni Nirta.

The feud was blamed for at least 16 deaths in total, with the killings in Germany bringing it to international attention.

Giovanni Strangio was convicted in 2011 of being the mastermind and one of the authors of the Duisburg killings.

He was sentenced to life in prison. Seven others were given life sentences linked to the feud at the same trial.

Notoriously ruthless, the ‘Ndrangheta has surpassed Sicily’s Cosa Nostra and the Naples-based Camorra in influence thanks to its control of Europe’s cocaine trade.

The organisation is made up of numerous village and family-based clans based in the rural, mountainous and under-developed ‘toe’ of Italy’s boot.

The name ‘Ndrangheta comes from the Greek for courage or loyalty and the organisation’s secretive culture and brutal enforcement of codes of silence have made it very difficult to penetrate.

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