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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Author: RACHEL DONADIO - a Paris-based contributing writer at The Atlantic, covering politics and culture across Europe.