Can Italy Defeat Its Most Powerful Crime Syndicate?

A prosecutor takes hundreds of mobsters to court.

Lauren Tamaki

The airport at Lamezia Terme, Calabria, in the toe of Italy’s boot, was built in the 1970s and has not aged well. The cement facade is punctuated by rows of round windows that resemble oversize portholes. The parking lot is poorly paved. Beyond it rises an unfinished concrete tower, open to the elements and covered on one side by an advertisement for amaro.

I was there one day last year to meet Nicola Gratteri, the chief prosecutor for nearby Catanzaro, a small city high in the hills of central Calabria. Gratteri has dedicated the past three decades of his life to fighting a Calabria-based organization known as the ’Ndrangheta—the richest, most powerful, and most secretive criminal group in Italy today. (Pronounced en-drahn-get-ta, the word essentially means “man of honor”; it is believed to be derived from the Greek andragathía, or “heroism.”)

Sicily’s Cosa Nostra has been romanticized by the Godfather movies. The Neapolitan Camorra has become widely known through the film and TV series Gomorrah. But the ’Ndrangheta, the least telegenic and most publicity-shy of Italy’s Mafias, is the most aggressive.

The ’Ndrangheta’s tentacles extend to Italy’s wealthy north, where the organization thrives on skimming off state contracts, especially in construction, and to 31 other countries worldwide—to much of Europe, to the United States and Canada, to Colombia, to Australia. Outside Italy, the city with the most ’Ndrangheta outposts is Toronto. The ’Ndrangheta is on excellent terms with criminal affiliates in Latin America, from which it imports vast amounts of cocaine. The group is said to control more than half the cocaine market in Europe. And it has not wasted the opportunities created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Tens of thousands of small businesses throughout Italy suddenly found themselves on the ropes, without revenue or access to credit. For some, the ’Ndrangheta and other criminal groups stepped in with assistance. They also provided envelopes of cash for the unemployed. Call it an investment. As the Financial Times reported, the organization has also skimmed off public-health funds in Calabria, with disastrous consequences for the region’s health-care system.

Gratteri’s focus on the group has been unwavering. He helped mastermind a 2014 sting operation, code-named “New Bridge,” in which the FBI and Italian agents disrupted a major ’Ndrangheta drug ring operating on three continents. Authorities seized 1,000 pounds of pure cocaine. In December 2019, in a move coordinated by Gratteri, Italian police rounded up 334 people—lawyers, businesspeople, accountants, a police chief, the president of the Calabrian mayors’ association, and a former member of the Italian Parliament—on charges related to ’Ndrangheta activity, including murder and extortion. The formal legal process against these individuals and others—more than 470 people all told—is under way. A “maxi-trial” will eventually move from Rome to a large courthouse being prepared for the occasion in Calabria in order to accommodate all the defendants and their lawyers.

I was standing outside the airport when Gratteri sped up in a station wagon, trailed by an escort of plainclothes officers. They wore jeans and sneakers, and carried leather bags that I assumed held guns. Gratteri got out of the car and walked quickly toward me, taking hold of my suitcase and handing it to one of the officers. As we drove off, I asked him if this was an armored car—the door had seemed unusually heavy. With a flicker of a smile, he said, “Yes, of course.” After the arrests in December, the government provided him with an even more heavily armored vehicle than the one he had been using. A lot of people want Nicola Gratteri dead.

Gratteri was born in 1958 in the small Calabrian town of Gerace, not far from areas saturated, then and now, with ’Ndranghetisti. He was the third of five children. His father, who had a fifth-grade education, ran a small grocery store; his mother, who had a third-grade education, cared for the home and family. As a boy, Gratteri was well aware that something was deeply wrong with his corner of the world. Once, hitchhiking to school, he passed a dead body lying by the road.

Gratteri is slight, with inscrutable eyes, and he sometimes shuffles when he walks. On the highway, he drove extremely fast—even in the long, dark tunnels that poke through the Calabrian hills; even on roads that suddenly narrowed from four lanes to two. We were heading for Rome, 360 miles to the north, where he had a round of meetings. He could have flown, but he loves to drive; he says it gives him a rare sense of freedom. And the drive offered a good opportunity to talk. I told Gratteri that I imagined he knew which ’Ndrangheta or Camorra clan ran every stretch of roadway along our route, and he gave a little nod.

In another conversation, he told me he was lucky to have grown up in a family per bene—a good family, one with sound values. “We had antibodies,” Gratteri went on. Others didn’t. “In front of the school, I used to see the children of the ’Ndranghetisti, and they were already acting like little ’Ndranghetisti, and I couldn’t accept that violence. And so I thought, When I grow up, I have to change things.” He went to university in Catania, Sicily, and after graduating, he took the difficult state exam to become a magistrate, a job he began in 1986.

In the prosecutors’ office in Locri, Calabria, he began reopening cases that had long been stalled. In 1989, he started looking into the murder of a local businessman, who had been killed after a private dinner also attended by several politicians. “This businessman was building a dam for a lake. But there was no water in the lake. So I thought, Let me see if there was a public bid. And there wasn’t one.” Gratteri concluded that the businessman had somehow fallen out of favor with the local bosses.

Soon after Gratteri discovered the contract for the nonexistent dam on the waterless lake, someone shot at the window of his girlfriend’s house. She married him anyway. For obvious reasons, Gratteri is reluctant to discuss details about his family, and for their safety he does not speak with them about his work. The family, like Gratteri himself, is under police protection.

In 1992, two anti-Mafia prosecutors in Palermo, Sicily—Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino—were killed in car bombings within weeks of each other, along with members of their police escorts and Falcone’s wife. The attacks were among the most dramatic and terrifying in Italy’s postwar history. Falcone and Borsellino had presided over a celebrated maxi-trial, beginning in 1986. Images of the 366 defendants crowded into cages in the courtroom became famous everywhere. Hundreds of mafiosi were convicted. After the assassinations, a black-and-white photograph of Borsellino and Falcone sharing a confidential exchange became the emblem of Italy’s fight against corruption—it has appeared on posters, on billboards, on the sides of buildings, and all over the internet.

I asked Gratteri how the assassinations had changed his sense of the situation in Italy. He told me that the Cosa Nostra had made a grave error: The assassinations revealed that the organization’s influence “was much bigger and much deeper” than anyone had thought—an existential challenge to the state. Troops were sent to Sicily. As Gratteri sees it, the group’s strategy of full-frontal war against the state marked “the beginning of the end of that Cosa Nostra” and the start of a new Cosa Nostra: quieter, and more interested in infiltrating institutions than in murdering prosecutors and judges.

The ’Ndrangheta, too, learned a lesson. It became slyer, and never sought to directly confront the authorities. “It always looks for points of contact and common ground with people and institutions,” Gratteri told me. That is what gives it its power. The group is woven into the fabric of the Italian economy and Italian political life. Throughout the Italian south, it is not uncommon for candidates seeking national office to demonstrate an inconspicuous familiarity with voto di scambio—the “exchange vote,” or quid pro quo. That is widely interpreted to mean cutting deals with criminals so that they encourage people to vote for the right candidate. And it is not just in the south: As far north as the Italian Riviera, entire cities have seen their governing councils disbanded because of ’Ndrangheta infiltration. (The disbanding of local councils, with governance put into state receivership, is a standard response.)

The ’Ndrangheta has proved hard for prosecutors to crack, because its organizational structure is based on blood ties. In other Mafias, the structure is looser, and members more easily break away. Historically, very few ’Ndranghetisti have betrayed their family. Of the more than 1,000 people who became state’s witnesses in Italian organized-crime cases in recent years, only about 15 percent are members of the ’Ndrangheta. But that is slowly changing, as the mass arrests in December, based in part on information from inside, suggest. The ’Ndranghetisti who break their oath, Gratteri told me, usually do so out of love or out of fear. They are young men who don’t want to spend their entire future in prison, and who may have wives or girlfriends on the outside. Or the informants are women who have married ’Ndranghetisti and want their children to have a different life. Even so, the ranks of the ’Ndrangheta remain largely loyal.

The ’Ndrangheta emerged in 19th-century Calabria, as the region’s feudal economy was chaotically giving way to the forces of capitalism. In the early years, the organization’s members operated mainly as robbers and brigands, before expanding into smuggling, extortion, and abduction. The most famous of its hundreds of kidnappings was that of J. Paul Getty III, in 1973. (Despite their initial reluctance, the Gettys paid a ransom of about $3 million after the kidnappers sent Paul’s severed ear to the family in the mail.) The modern ’Ndrangheta was born in the 1980s, when it moved into cocaine, leaving the less lucrative heroin trade to the Cosa Nostra.

In Italy, the ’Ndrangheta sells cocaine to other crime groups—often Albanian or Nigerian—who in turn sell it on the street. Such outsourcing keeps the ’Ndrangheta away from the piazzas and focused on more sophisticated ways of making money, such as siphoning off European Union funds meant for agriculture and infrastructure. Meanwhile, the fact that foreigners are selling drugs on the street all over Italy is a major factor in the popularity of the right-wing League party and its anti-immigration “Italians First” rhetoric.

Still, the group is more than willing to get its hands dirty. In 2012, six men were given a life sentence in Italy for murdering a woman who had been cooperating with police against the ’Ndrangheta. (They had strangled her and burned her body.) The ’Ndrangheta operates according to a simple rule: If you screw up, you’ll be killed. In 2015, a 22-year-old man was arrested in Italy for ordering the murder of his own mother, allegedly as punishment after she’d had an affair with a boss from a rival ’Ndrangheta clan.

How do you build a case against a group like the ’Ndrangheta? I asked Gratteri. He has spent years immersed in the details—the crimes, the arrests, the sentences, the appeals, the personalities, the interconnections. His mind holds an encyclopedia of the group. In the case that resulted in the mass arrests in December, Gratteri and his team spent four years compiling evidence. He ticked off some of the methods: copious wiretaps; geothermal imaging, which can detect underground bunkers; close cooperation with law-enforcement agencies worldwide; an understanding of the group’s rules and rituals; a feel for how the organization adapts to new technologies and investment opportunities, such as cryptocurrencies. The indictments relied on the testimony of about 20 former ’Ndranghetisti turned state’s witnesses, a record number, Gratteri told me.

It has been particularly difficult to crack the ’Ndrangheta overseas. Italian law gives prosecutors like Gratteri strong tools with which to fight organized crime. Most notably, they can order asset seizures while investigating someone on charges of “Mafia association,” a broad category that does not exist elsewhere in Europe or abroad.

Gratteri enjoys questioning people, and he has the right demeanor for it: calm, focused, respectful, but also inscrutable. He somehow manages to build trust with criminals. A while ago I came upon a YouTube video of Gratteri speaking with one of the biggest fish he’d caught in all his years as a prosecutor: Roberto Pannunzi, the man credited with forging ties between the ’Ndrangheta and the Medellín cartel in Colombia.

Pannunzi, sometimes called “the Pablo Escobar of Italy,” was first arrested in Colombia in 1994, for drug trafficking. After being extradited to Italy, he eventually obtained a medical dispensation, and fled the country. In 2004, Italian authorities tracked him down in Spain. He was extradited to Italy again, and Gratteri went to see him. Gratteri told him, “You’re going to spend 30 years in prison, so there’s not much you can do about that. ” And Pannunzi replied, “No, dottore, I’ll get out. I have so much money that I could cover you and that marshal with money. I could bury you with money. ” And indeed, Pannunzi escaped again in 2010 by claiming to have heart trouble, getting himself transferred to confinement at a clinic, and then fleeing.

Italian authorities tracked him down once more, in 2013, this time in Colombia. He was extradited to Italy once more, and Gratteri flew to Rome for his arrival. “I saw him, and he said, ‘Buongiorno, dottore, how are you?’ ” Gratteri recalled. “I said, ‘Did they treat you well?’ And he says, ‘Yes, they treated me well; the flight went fine.’ ” The two men spoke as if they were old friends. Someone filmed the meeting, and it wound up online.

I have watched the video over and over. What strikes me most is the mutual familiarity. Because Gratteri grew up in Calabria, he is cut from some of the same cloth as his adversaries. It is clear from the video that Gratteri and Pannunzi understood each other, and on some level respected each other. “He understood my authority,” Gratteri later told me about the meeting.

Gratteri lives in a walled compound ringed with cameras and guarded by police. He coordinates every move with his police escort and tells his wife the bare minimum. He travels constantly—throughout Italy, the rest of Europe, beyond. He goes to bed by 10 p.m. and often wakes up at 2:30 a.m. to start work.

I visited Gratteri one day at the courthouse in Catanzaro. Every so often, people would knock on the bulletproof door, and he would check a monitor before buzzing them in.

From here, Gratteri masterminded the indictments at the heart of the new maxi-trial. Gratteri seeks to lay bare the organizational structure of the ’Ndrangheta—how the group forges links with Italian politicians, institutions, economic interests, and other elements of society—much as the maxi-trial in Palermo revealed how the Cosa Nostra operated. “The strength of mafiosi essentially comes from their external relations—the social capital that derives from their ability to force ties and construct social networks,” Antonio Nicaso, an expert in the ’Ndrangheta who teaches at Queen’s University in Ontario and has co-written 14 books with Gratteri, told me. The maxi-trial could also serve as an investigative model for law enforcement elsewhere.

As we neared Rome on our drive that day, I mentioned to Gratteri that, years ago, a magistrate in Calabria had told me that he was more afraid of some elements in Italy’s anti-Mafia establishment than he was of the Mafia. That remark, delivered almost offhandedly, stayed with me. It suggested that Italy was a dark place, where the people you thought were on one side were in fact helping the other, even if only by averting their eyes. Gratteri is aware that the ’Ndrangheta tries to influence, however nebulously, the ranks of the magistrates. He thought back to certain colleagues in the judiciary and what he remembers some of them said to him. “When I was young, I thought it was advice,” he said. “Then I understood these were messages”—subtle reminders that it might be best if he didn’t peer under this rock or open that door.

When I asked Gratteri what it took to get up every morning and do this kind of work, knowing that people want to kill him, he grew philosophical. “Everything has a price,” he said. He hasn’t gone anywhere without police protection since 1989, he said. He hasn’t been to the movies in 30 years. His house is a heavily surveilled fortress—“like Big Brother,” he said. But inside the walls, he has a vegetable garden. He grows tomatoes, eggplant, basil. His voice became almost tender as he listed the vegetables, like a parent naming children.

“I’m a man in a cage,” he said. As much, in some ways, as any defendant in a maxi-trial. “But in my mind, I’m a free man.” He pointed a finger to his temple. “I’m free in my choices and free to decide. Free to think and to speak my mind.” He continued: “I can say what others can’t allow themselves to say, because they don’t have their affairs in order. Because they can be blackmailed. Because they’re afraid. Because they’re cowards.”

This article appears in the October 2020 print edition with the headline “Mob Justice.”