Biggest mafia trial for 30 years begins

Star treatment: How Hollywood has represented the world’s worst gangsters.

Are we guilty of glamourising the mafia? The murderous crime families on trial in Italy are accused of unutterable evil – but big-budget films about organised crime remain hugely popular.

As the winter dawn broke on the mountains of Calabria, the mafia boss cursed his luck. He had created an extraordinarily elaborate hideout in this remote spot, with an escape tunnel leading to a bunker accessible only by foot. But somehow the Cacciatori – an elite unit of the Italian police – had tracked him down. As they pointed their guns, he raised his hands.

The mafioso was one of more than 300 detained in raids by 2,500 police officers in December 2019. Most took place in the Calabrian province of Vibo Valentia, but arrests were also made in Germany, Bulgaria and Switzerland. It was the climax of an operation which had started more than three years earlier.

The resulting trial began yesterday in a specially fortified building in the city of Lamezia Terme. The courtroom, with room for 1,000 people, contains socially distanced cages for the defendants. Nine hundred witnesses will give evidence in a process which is expected to last for two years. There are so many defendants that just reading their names out took more than three hours.

Those accused include politicians and public officials as well as mobsters; one, Giancarlo Pittelli, is a former senator for the Forza Italia party. The charges range from drug trafficking to extortion, money laundering and murder.

If the trial secures the convictions hoped for, it will be a triumph for Italy’s most famous anti-mafia prosecutor, Nicola Gratteri. Since investigators are often targets of assassination attempts, Gratteri has lived under police protection for over 30 years.

The defendants are accused of belonging to the mafia clan known as the ’Ndrangheta. Largely through drug smuggling, it has become one of the richest crime organisations in the world, with an estimated turnover of £44 bn a year.

According to Antonio Nicaso, an expert on the mafia, ’Ndrangheta clans are held together by strong family ties – “a characteristic that, until recently, has made this organisation virtually impenetrable. Today, at last, many of these brothers, nephews and even children have decided to appear as witnesses against their own relatives.”

Gratteri has targeted just one family, the Mancusos, headed by 66-year-old Luigi Mancuso. A key witness is his nephew Emanuele, who has agreed to testify in return for police protection.

“This trial is on behalf of all the honest business people and citizens who have endured years of attacks and harassment from the bosses who intimidated them into paying protection money,” said Gratteri. ‘‘It is my hope that these proceedings can signal a true rebirth for the people of Calabria.”

Whether they will dispel the mystique surrounding the mafia is another question. Hollywood films about it attract top actors and huge audiences. The Godfather, a three-part epic starring Marlon Brando and Al Pacino, is regularly cited as one of the best movies of all time.

Are we guilty of glamourising the mafia?

Clan of worms

Some say, yes: most films about it emphasise the excitement of the criminals’ lives, the ingenuity of their illicit activities, and the wealth they acquire through them. We seldom see the ordinary people they terrorise, rob and sell drugs to, the sufferings of families whose members they murder, or the boredom of their own existence in hiding or in prison.

Others argue that the majority of films reach the same conclusion: that crime does not pay. At the end of The Godfather, the Mafia boss Michael Corleone is shown as a pathetic, lonely old man whose family has been destroyed by his activities. In real life, everyone knows that the Mafiosi are just hoodlums, despite their efforts to portray themselves as “men of honour”.

You Decide

  1. Would it be worth spending your life in a bunker if you could afford anything you wanted?
  2. Is failing to inform on a criminal ever morally justifiable?


  1. Design a prison to hold the most dangerous Mafia bosses.
  2. Write a poem about a prisoner facing execution.

Some People Say...

“Crime and bad lives are the measure of a state’s failure. All crime in the end is the crime of the community.”

HG Wells (1866 - 1946), English novelist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that links between mafiosi in Italy and America became much stronger during World War Two as a result of the US government turning to a leading mobster for assistance. The Navy was anxious to stop strikes and sabotage in American dockyards, and Lucky Luciano agreed to help in return for a reduction in the 30-year prison sentence he was serving. He also recruited mafiosi in Sicily to help prepare for the Allied invasion of the island.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether watching violence on screen encourages people to behave violently in real life. Research by organisations such as the American Psychological Association has concluded that it encourages anger and aggression and decreases empathy and helpfulness. But some experts on criminal psychology argue that it makes no difference – people are either naturally inclined to violence or they are not.

Word Watch

An area of southern Italy which is home to 2 million people and has one of the highest unemployment rates in the EU.
A Sicilian word meaning boldness or bravado. However, the mafia in Sicily prefer the term Cosa Nostra – “Our Thing”.
The name means “The Hunters”. In the past 25 years they have caught 300 fugitives and uncovered more than 400 bunkers.
A member of the mafia. The plural is “mafiosi”.
Forza Italia
A political party which was led by the four-time prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. In 2009 it merged with another party launched by Berlusconi, Il Popolo della Libertà (The People of Freedom).
Obtaining money by force or threats. It comes from a Latin verb meaning to twist.
The name derives from a Greek word for courage. It has operated as a criminal organisation since the 18th Century.
The Godfather
Based on a novel by Mario Puzo, it was made into a series of films by Francis Ford Coppola. Marlon Brando won an Oscar for Best Actor, but refused to accept it because of the portrayal of American Indians in Hollywood movies.
People who engage in illegal, disruptive behaviour, especially violence. The word comes from the name of a gang active in San Francisco in the 1860s.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.