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A specially constructed bunker for the first hearing of a maxi-trial against more than 300 defendants of the `ndrangheta crime syndicate, near the Calabrian town of Lamezia Terme, in southern Italy, on Jan. 13, 2021.

Valeria Ferraro/The Associated Press

A maxi-trial opened Wednesday in southern Italy against the `ndrangheta crime syndicate, arguably the world’s richest criminal organization that quietly amassed power in Italy as the Sicilian Mafia lost its influence.

The hearing against more than 300 defendants opened in a specially constructed bunker on the sprawling grounds of an industrial park in Calabria, the “toe” of the Italian peninsula.

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

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Anti-mafia Prosecutor Nicola Gratteri told reporters as he arrived Wednesday that the trial was a turning point, showing where the `ndrangheta is now being called out for its crimes and is being brought to face justice.

Italy has opened one of its biggest-ever trials of mafiosi. It targets the 'Ndrangheta, which is now considered Italy's most powerful organized crime group. Reuters

“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,” he said. “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,” he said.

Investigators say the ‘ndrangheta has established bases in much of western, northern and central Europe, Australia, North and South America and 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 cells for his role in leading what investigators allege is one of the `ndrangheta’s most powerful crime families, based in the town of Vibo Valentia.

The prosecution has indicated it hopes to call more than 900 witnesses and 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 a member.

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

The Lamezia Terme bunker is so vast, a score of video screens has been anchored to the ceiling so participants can better view the proceedings. There is a sea of rows of tables for some 600 lawyers to work, with microphones and chairs safely distanced to respect COVID-19 health rules.

While the numbers are impressive, this week’s trial isn’t Italy’s largest one against mobsters. In 1986, in Palermo, in a similarly specially constructed bunker, 475 alleged members of Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian Mafia, went on trial. That trial, which resulted in more than 300 convictions and brought 19 life sentences, helped reveal much of 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.

In 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 in an indication of how rooted the syndicate is in the territory.

Based almost entirely on blood ties, the `ndrangheta for decades was practically immune to turncoats. But their ranks are starting to become more substantial. Among those turning state’s evidence in the Lamezia Terme trial was 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.

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

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