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    Mass trial opens for fearsome, rich Italian mob group ‘Ndrangheta

    A mass trial opened Wednesday in southern Italy against the ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate, arguably the world’s richest criminal organization, which quietly amassed power as the Sicilian Mafia lost its influence.

    The hearing for more than 300 defendants opened in a specially constructed bunker on the sprawling grounds of an industrial park in the town of Lamezia Terme in Calabria, the toe of the boot-shaped Italian peninsula.

    Prosecutors are hoping the trial will be a decisive blow for the Calabrian-based ‘Ndrangheta, which has exploited tens of billions of dollars in cocaine revenues to extend its criminal reach across Europe and into several other continents.

    Anti-mafia prosecutor Nicola Gratteri said the trial was a turning point showing that the ‘Ndrangheta was finally being called out for its crimes and brought to face justice.

    “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,” Gratteri said Wednesday as he arrived at the makeshift courthouse. “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.”

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    Investigators say the ’Ndrangheta has established bases in much of Western, Northern and Central Europe, Australia, and North and South America. It is active as well in Africa.

    The trial grew out of the investigation of 12 clans linked to a convicted ‘Ndrangheta boss. That figure is Luigi Mancuso, who served 19 years in Italian prison for his role in leading what investigators say is one of the ‘Ndrangheta’s most powerful crime families, based in the town of Vibo Valentia.

    The prosecution has indicated that it hopes to call more than 900 witnesses. The trial is expected to last at least a year.

    Among the accusations being considered by the court are drug- and arms-trafficking, extortion and “Mafia association,” a term used in Italy’s penal code for members of organized crime groups. Others are charged with complicity with the ’Ndrangheta without actually being members.

    Some 325 defendants were ordered to be tried in Lamezia Terme, while about 90 more defendants in the investigation chose to have a fast-track trial, which begins later this month elsewhere in Calabria. In another offshoot of the investigation, a separate trial involving five murders begins in February.

    The Lamezia Terme bunker is so vast that a score of video screens have been affixed to the ceiling so that participants can better view the proceedings. There are rows of tables for some 600 lawyers to work, with microphones and chairs safely distanced to respect coronavirus health rules.

    While the numbers are impressive, this week’s trial isn’t Italy’s largest one against alleged mobsters. In 1986, in a similarly specially constructed bunker in Palermo, 475 alleged members of Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian Mafia, went on trial. Those proceedings resulted in more than 300 convictions and 19 life sentences, and helped reveal much about the brutal methods and murderous strategies of the top mob bosses on the island, including sensational killings that bloodied the Palermo area during years of power struggles.

    By contrast, this trial against the ‘Ndrangheta is in large part aimed at gaining convictions for alleged connivance among mobsters and local politicians, public officials, businessmen and members of secret lodges — an indication of how rooted the syndicate is in the territory.

    Based almost entirely on blood ties, the ‘Ndrangheta for decades was practically free of turncoats and informers.

    But those ranks are starting to grow: Among those turning state’s evidence in the Lamezia Terme trial is a relative of Mancuso. Several dozen informants in the case come from the ‘Ndrangheta, but others are from the former ranks of Cosa Nostra in Sicily and could be called to testify.

    Awash in cocaine-trafficking revenues, the ‘Ndrangheta has gobbled up hotels, restaurants, pharmacies, car dealerships and other businesses throughout Italy, especially in Rome and the affluent north, criminal investigations have revealed.

    The buying spree in past years spread heavily across Europe, as the ’Ndrangheta sought to launder illicit revenues but also to make money by running legitimate businesses, including in the tourism and hospitality sectors, according to investigators.

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