ROME—Deep in the heart of Calabria, one of Italy’s wildest and most beautiful southern regions, one of the biggest mafia trials Italy has ever seen kicked off Wednesday inside a call center converted into a massive courtroom, which authorities say can hold 1,000 mobsters, lawyers, and turncoats socially distanced and secure enough to prevent bomb attacks.
Cages line the perimeter of the room for some of the 355 defendants who are linked to the ’Ndrangheta crime syndicate, which experts say is now the most powerful in the world with the financial power of Deutsche Bank and McDonald’s combined and an annual turnover of $64 billion, mostly in intercontinental drug sales. Massive screens hang from the ceilings where those too dangerous to be taken from jail will testify by video-link in what looks like a massive mob Zoom meeting. Outside the building, two security checks are in place as well as a COVID testing spot to try and prevent this mega-trial from turning into a superspreader event.
The trial is expected to last at least two years and includes 42 mafia women who are facing charges of murder, extortion, money laundering, and arms and drug trafficking. One of the female suspects is charged with murder for attempting to carry out a vendetta on behalf of her incarcerated brother— although she was thwarted when the victim took a cyanide pill—as is common among mafiosi who use suicide to deprive their assassins of a successful hit. Another of the female suspects is charged with running guns to Bulgaria and storing a cache in her daughter’s closet that included semi-automatic weapons and hand grenades. Three are charged with money laundering, four are charged with extortion, and the rest are charged with a myriad of crimes including accomplice to murder, drug running, and harboring fugitives.
Women have long held a complicated role in Italy's mafia organizations—at once unable to officially join the men-only groups but often wielding immense power just the same. They are tasked with raising children to grow up outside the law and often take over while their husbands, fathers, or brothers are incarcerated. That 42 women are on trial (and a further dozen entered plea agreements) speaks to the seriousness with which the Italian court system is finally taking female organized crime suspects. For decades, women were given a pass in mafia trials, thought to be on the periphery or simply not smart enough to be involved, thus allowing them to fly under the radar. Other defendants include those who go by the monikers The Uncle, The Wolf, Fatty, Sweetie, Blondie, Little Goat, and The Wringer, allegedly named after his preferred torture method against those who cross him or his family.
The trial is the fruit of a sting operation in 2019 in Germany, Italy, Switzerland, and Bulgaria called Rinasciata Scott or Rebirth Scott, named so for American DEA agent and former Marine Sieben William Scott, who was a close friend and collaborator of the trial’s chief prosecutor Nicola Gratteri, who credits his friend with connecting the dots between the Columbian cartels and Calabrian ’Ndrangheta mafia. Scott died in a traffic accident several years ago and Gratteri paid homage to his American friend who he met in Rome while he worked from inside the U.S. embassy, by naming the investigation after him.
The trial is focused on testimony from Emanuele Mancuso, one of the most prolific turncoats the ’Ndrangheta has ever produced. The son of Luni Mancuso, known as “The Engineer,” Emanuele started working with Gratteri in 2016 and was nearly killed for his betrayal by his mother Giovannina del Vecchio and aunt Rosaria Del Vecchio, who believed they had raised him better than to be a good person.
When he first started collaborating with Gratteri, his partner Nensy Chimirri was about to give birth to their daughter, who has since been used as a sort of bargaining chip to try to get him to recant his testimony. Chimirri wrote a letter to her lover promising to forgive him. “You can come back, I'll be here for you like everyone else,” she wrote, attaching a photo of their newborn daughter in the arms of Giuseppe, Emanuele’s brother. It was a threat that if he didn’t come back, he would never see the daughter again.
Italian police conducted a dangerous operation to try to get Chimirri into the witness protection program and save his daughter, but she refused. The child was removed and is living in foster care, but since Chimirri still has visitation rights, she is still in the grasp of the notorious Mancuso wing of the ’Ndrangheta. “I decided to collaborate with justice in the vicinity of her birth with the hope of offering her a different future, far from the social and criminal context of my belonging,” Mancuso wrote in a letter last week after a juvenile court failed to prohibit visits from the mother. “I intend to express my state of frustration and concern for the fate of my daughter, who is only 30 months old, because, despite the notorious events linked to the pressures I have undergone for the choice I have made, she, although subjected to the special protection program, in reality, thanks to the availability of his mother, maintains contact with the 'Ndrangheta circles'.”
Authorities know that the child could easily be kidnapped and killed for the testimony Mancuso is about to give against his family. “There can be no honor in such an event, there can be no values, there can be no humanity in threatening such a thing,” Gratteri said recently about the undue pressure on his star witness. “There is no honor in the 'Ndrangheta.”
While this is not the first maxi-trial against the ’Ndrangheta, it is the largest. In 2003, more than 200 syndicate members were found guilty of crimes including murder, extortion, and drugs and arms trafficking in a trial that legitimized the ’Ndrangheta as a cohesive organized group in anti-mafia circles. The current trial has been compared to the massive trial against the Sicilian Cosa Nostra in the 1980s in which 338 people were convicted and sentenced to a total of 2,665 years in prison, which was the first time any mafia-style organization was tried on a grand scale with hundreds of defendants linked by criminal association. That trial ultimately led to the assassination of Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, the two anti-mafia prosecutors who led the hearings.
Barbie Latza Nadeau is the author of an upcoming book called Godmothers about women in Italy's organized crime syndicates to be published in 2021 by Penguin Random House.