'A Very Resilient Structure': 70 Convictions in Landmark Mafia Trial Just the Beginning

The first wave of convictions have taken place in a mega trial of alleged members of the 'Ndrangheta – the world's most powerful mafia.
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Photo by Gianluca Chininea/AFP via Getty Images

The conviction of the first 70 people at one of Italy’s largest mafia trials is just an opening salvo in what will be a landmark trial in the fight against the world’s biggest mafia, according to experts.   

Based in the southern Italian province of Calabria, the ‘Ndrangheta are considered to be one of the world’s most powerful organised crime groups, with an estimated € 75 billion (about £64 billion) in assets. 

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The group has 355 people yet to be judged on charges ranging from extortion, drug trafficking and theft in a “maxi-trial” expected to last into 2023.

“This was the low hanging fruit,” said an Italian police official, who spoke to VICE World News but wanted to be anonymous as he does not have permission to speak about ongoing trials. “These suspects either knew they’d be convicted or suspected they’d be acquitted, so they chose a fast-track trial.”

Of the 91 who accepted an early trial, 70 were convicted. Six will face a sentence of 20 years and about a third received more than a decade in prison. All of the 70 are eligible for a sentence reduction by a third for choosing the faster trial.

The prosecutor, Nicola Gratteri, who has been living under police protection for nearly 30 years, said the sentencing had gone “very well.”

Dr Anna Sergi, a researcher at Essex University specialising in the ‘Ndrangheta, said the importance of the trial is the decision by the state to pursue convictions against these specific clans. “It is symbolic. It is the first time that a comprehensive action of the state touches the whole of the Vibo Valentia province and its clans together.”

Sergi said the most influential offenders are yet to be judged. “Obviously it's not the end of the trial,” she said. “The ordinary trial, with some of the most important positions - including white collar crimes, mafia supporters and mafia bosses - is still ongoing and will be ongoing for at least another 18 months.”

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The ‘Ndrangheta is made up of about 150 semi autonomous clans centred around Calabria – Italy’s poorest and least developed province – and has seen its operations expand worldwide from Europe to Australia to Canada. It is believed to control a large chunk of the world’s cocaine trade. This defused structure, the drinas, as the clans are called, only coordinate with each other about once a year at a meeting and otherwise work autonomously around family units, so they are hard to catch.

“The Sicilians used to keep everyone from working with their family members, often to keep things from falling into the control of just one family,” said the police official. 

“Finding people willing to testify against non-family members is pretty easy. But the ‘Ndrangheta, it’s all family and most people will go to jail before they testify against their brother or father. And if you break into one Drina, unlike in Sicily, you’re really only going to get that operation,” he said. “It's a very resilient structure.”