A disused call centre in an industrial area of Calabria, Southern Italy, has been transformed into a highly-secure courtroom for the purpose of the so-called Riniscita Scott operation – the biggest mafia trial in Italy in almost three decades that started on Wednesday.
The building will house some 355 defendants, 900 witnesses and 700 lawyers, according to news agency AFP. Allegedly, the defendants are all members of one of Italy’s four large mafia groups – the ‘Ndrangheta – which has had links to crimes in Malta in the past.
In 2015, six companies registered in Malta had their assets seized as part of a clampdown by Italian police on illegal gaming activities and money laundering linked to the Calabrian group.
Further links were discovered by the press, revealing a number of other Italian nationals on Italian prosecutors’ list of wanted people who have companies and home addresses in Malta. The alleged mafia-linked companies were surrounded by an intricate web of fiduciary companies established in Malta.
In December, the crime syndicate made headlines in local media again when Roberto Recordare, a businessman from Calabria, was reported by Italian media ANSA to have been caught talking about his interests in Malta during calls that were intercepted. He is believed to have been a “confidential subject reserved by the ‘Ndrangheta” and owns two companies registered in Malta.
The phone taps also allegedly caught Recordare threatening the life of Giulia Pantano, a prosecutor in Reggio Calabria, when he referred to a possible bomb attack. ANSA also reported that Recordare referred to the assassination of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia where he said that “they were still picking up her pieces in Malta”.
The group is made up of approximately 100 “families” in the region. But it is the Mancuso family which is currently the focus of proceedings. On Wednesday, 355 defendants began their trial, including the family head Luigi Mancuso, who is also known as “the uncle”.
“Sweetie”, “The Wolf” and “Fatty” are some of the other nicknames of the defendants, according to the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).
The crimes which the defendants are being prosecuted for include drugs and arms smuggling, extortion, and being members of a mafia group.
According to Italian media reports, the level of security is “impressive”, and includes deployed patrols at motorways and a helicopter flying over the area keeping watch. Extensive COVID-friendly measures, including 150 video connections are also in place.
The last time proceedings of such proportion against mafia-linked groups were witnessed was in the 1980s until the 1990s which focused on the Corleonesi clan of Sicilian mafia Cosa Nostra, which controlled Sicily. The court case had taken on 475 members.
That period also made way for, what the OCCRP has described as “an unprecedented period of mafia-sponsored terror” which had resulted in the assassinations of prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in 1992.
According to the OCCRP, the ‘Ndrangheta has now outpaced its Sicilian counterparts as Italy’s most powerful criminal group.
The importation of drugs, especially cocaine, is said to fuel the organisation. In a Sky News interview with chief prosecutor Nicola Gratteri, Gratteri said that the group almost has a monopoly on European cocaine imports.
Calabrian Gatteri, 62, has lived under police protection for some 30 years due to his work as an anti-mafia prosecutor. Reports state that Gratteri has been referred to as “a dead man walking” by some mafia members. Yet he refuses to be intimidated.
“Sacrifices are made if you believe that you are on the right side and that you are doing something useful to the community,” Gratteri told Sky News.
‘Ndrangheta is not the only mafia clan linked to Malta, described as the “ATM for the Italian mafia” by the Investigative Reporting Project Italy (IRPI).
IRPI said that when online gaming systems are controlled by organised crime they can essentially function as ATMs for criminals. “This is the conclusion reached by anti-mafia prosecutors in Palermo, who in February 2018 cracked down on a vast Maltese gambling network allegedly linked to families belonging to the Cosa Nostra, Sicily’s infamous mafia organisation,” IRPI said.
Investigations into two major and seemingly unconnected scandals in Malta also had another common link – a mafia clan in Sicily that thrived on the lax supervision of Maltese authorities.
‘Operation Beta’ by the Italian Carabinieri in 2017 led to the arrest of 30 individuals as part of a major clampdown on illegal gaming activities and money laundering linked to the Sicilian mafia family Santapaola-Erculano.
Almost a year later, the Italian police arrested individuals involved in an operation including Sicilian, Maltese and Libyan individuals smuggling Libyan fuel into the European market. Again, a link to the Santapaola-Erculano emerged.
Sicilian Nicola Orazio Romeo is one of the accused in the case involving Darren Debono and Gordon Debono who, together with Libyan ‘smuggling king’ Fahmi Bin Khalifa, was arrested for smuggling fuel from Libya and selling it as regular fuel in Europe through an Italian trader.