The Mafia’s Public Enemy Number One: Italian Prosecutor Nicola Gratteri

Death threats, security escorts and drug lords—just a day in the life of Nicola Gratteri.

Adriana Sapone / AP Photo

When Nicola Gratteri, one of the most respected anti-mafia prosecutors in the world, landed in Rome last Friday, he had just found out about a plot to kill him.

A few days earlier, a mafia boss-turned-state witness had confessed that a prominent family belonging to the Calabrian ‘ndrangheta—the richest and most powerful crime organization in Italy, and perhaps in the world—had recently purchased 36 pounds of plastic explosives, with which they’d planned to blow up Gratteri and his security escort. According to the Mafioso’s testimony, the explosives had already arrived in Calabria, the region at the toe of Italy’s boot that serves as a jumping-off point for Sicily.

This is not the first time the 46-year-old Gratteri has received such a threat. In the 1990s, an unknown assailant fired shots at his fiancée’s door, then phoned her with a warning: “Don’t marry Gratteri because you’ll marry a dead man.” In 2005, authorities intercepted a conversation between a mafia boss and his son-in-law that revealed how deeply the crime syndicates hate the prosecutor. “Do we have to blow up the security as well?” asked the son-in-law. “Yes,” the boss answered. “Why all this blood?” asked the son-in-law. “Because he ruined us; he brought disasters,” said the boss. Shortly thereafter, the boss was arrested.

The ‘ndrangheta were apparently so intent upon bumping off Gratteri that they were willing to risk a subsequent crackdown by the State, says a qualified source in the Calabrian district attorney’s office. “They know that blowing up a prosecutor would force the State to react, as when Judges [Giovanni] Falcone and [Paolo] Borsellino were killed by the Sicilians,” says the source. “However, this [latest death] threat seems real.”

The constant threat of revenge from the ‘ndrangheta requires Gratteri to employ 15 bodyguards and constantly move locations. “I go to sleep around 10 p.m. every night and wake up at 2:30 am. That’s my favorite moment of the day—it’s quiet, and nobody bothers me. That’s when I do the real work, until 6 or 7 a.m.,” he says. “The rest of the day, I spend trying to avoid attacks. In this position, one has to be very careful—you have way more enemies than friends, and not only among the Mafiosi.”

While the prosecutor seems to genuinely enjoy his profession—“I love this job with all my heart … when I got married, I asked the priest, who happened to be my uncle, to hurry, because I wanted to go back to work”—and while his mood is generally upbeat, Gatteri says the lifestyle has taken its toll. “I’ve been disappointed so many times by the betrayal of people close to me that now it is very hard for someone to really get to me,” he says.

“I don’t spend a second in Calabria without security, and even then, I know that the day the ‘ndrangheta decides to kill you, there’s no way you can avoid it.”

Born to a poor farming family and raised in the city of Reggio Calabria, Gratteri grew up with many kids who ultimately became ‘ndrangheta members--but he says that he always had a clear idea of what was right or wrong. His father “taught me to always share what I have with others,” Gratteri says. “Every winter, we killed two pigs: one for us, and one to feed our neighbors, who were much poorer than we were. They didn’t even have shoes to wear.”

Later, when forced to arrest some of his childhood playmates who had gone into the ‘ndrangheta, Gratteria says simply: “It was a difficult thing to do, but there was no other possible choice.” Some of them, he says, “were clearly going to become Mafiosi: they were rude, mean, and they had been breathing in the ‘ndrangheta culture all their lives, at home.”

Family, Gratteri believes, is the one element that makes a difference in a child’s trajectory. “If I grew up in an ‘ndrangheta family, today I would be a capo-mafia,” he says. “No matter what your nature, kids always try to emulate their parents. For me, this meant work hard, get good grades in school, respect the teacher and help others. I have never seen the child of a Mafioso become a normal person.”

In Calabria, where the ‘ndrangheta is extremely rooted at every level of politics, public administration and business, it is not unusual to know someone affiliated with an ‘ndrangheta family. “One guy I used to play football with, when I was 10 years old, was arrested recently off the coast of Miami while cruising in a boat carrying 320 kilos of cocaine,” Gratteri says, explaining how this mafia is quickly spreading in the United States, particularly in Florida and New York.

“I interrogate these people in jail all the time, but it is so hard to convince one of them to talk. You can only become a member of the ‘ndrangheta if you are related to a boss or marry a member of a family, and blood ties are tough to break.”

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Gratteri’s latest operations have led to the sentencing of 34 ‘ndrangheta members and have uncovered a new route in the mafia’s international drug trade, centered in New York City, where the crime syndicates can secure easy access to cocaine shipped in by Mexican cartels. Gratteri relies on the support of local intelligence for his operations, and he’s been able to make more international arrests of ‘ndrangheta members than any other Italian prosecutor in large part because he’s gained the trust of colleagues overseas. “Gratteri is a great investigator; it’s a pleasure to work with him and nobody knows the ‘ndrangheta better than he does,” says an FBI special agent who works in New York. “The ‘ndrangheta has become one of our top priorities in recent months, and we need to be able to rely on people like Gratteri to face it.”

Even the criminals themselves seem to have a grudging fascination with Gratteri. Once, Gratteri flew to Washington, DC, to interrogate the former Colombian paramilitary leader and drug lord Salvatore Mancuso, who was extradited to the United States in 2008 to face trafficking charges. When Gratteri talked to Mancuso, the Colombian told him that he’d been spying on the prosecutor during a trip Gratteri had taken to Bogotá to investigate the ‘ndrangheta’s South American ties. “I wanted to see this person was who was crazy enough to investigate me,” the drug lord told Gratteri.

“I was in the center of Bogotá, with lots of security protecting me. I didn’t know that all the armored cars that I could see around my hotel belonged to Mancuso,” Gratteri recalled. “He told me his protection consisted of 600 men! Not even the U.S. President has such an escort. Can you imagine how much money he had?”

While Gratteri is relentless in his pursuit of the ‘ndrangheta, he’s also a hard-eyed realist—perhaps even a pessimist--when it comes to the organization’s manpower and reach. This attitude has exasperated some of his former colleagues, including scholar Enzo Ciconte, one of the world’s leading ‘ndrangheta experts, who says he no longer speaks with Gratteri. “A few years ago, I invited him to talk in the Calabrian University where I teach. He told hundreds of students, full of hope for their futures, that the battle against the ‘ndrangheta is unwinnable. He literally said that no matter what we do, we will never beat them,” Ciconte says. “I thought he gave a very negative message.”

“I am simply being realistic,” Gratteri says. “No matter how many investigations we carry on in the world, we recover less than 10 percent of the cocaine that arrives in Europe. ‘Ndrangheta members are so many: strong, clever, determined people. Secrecy is their motto and, moreover, they don’t have a godfather that leads on everyone, which means that no arrest can really threaten the existence of the organization.”

“Eradicating the ‘ndrangheta? Impossible.”