ROME — Hundreds of defendants were sentenced to prison Monday in a case that prosecutors and experts said dealt a crucial blow to the Mafia in southern Italy and showed how the mob retains deep ties to cocaine trafficking, but also exerts control over the local economy and institutions through powerful politicians.
The sentences marked a blow to the criminal syndicate, known as ‘Ndrangheta, by imprisoning leading members of the Mancuso crime family, a group based in the southern Italian city of Vibo Valentia that prosecutors say has strong links to criminal organizations in the United States and elsewhere.
But they also showed how powerful the mobsters had gotten, steering local politics, local governments, and even a former member of Italy’s Parliament.
Giancarlo Pittelli, who served in Parliament and was the regional coordinator of the center-right Forza Italia party when it was led by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, was found guilty of abetting the ‘Ndrangheta from the outside and sentenced to 11 years in prison.
The case also resulted in prison sentences for a lieutenant in the Carabinieri, Italy’s military police force, and an official with the local finance police, as well as a former regional councilor and a former member of the Democratic Party’s national assembly.
The reading of the sentences of the more than 330 defendants lasted more than an hour and covered crimes ranging from extortion to money laundering, corruption, usury, murder, and involvement in a criminal organization.
But the trial also resulted in the acquittals of some members of local institutions, including a mayor and some local police officials.
The case began more than three years ago when police raids against the Calabrian Mafia and their associates led to the arrests of more than 330 people in Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and Bulgaria.
The name of the law enforcement operation, “Rinascita Scott,” or Rebirth Scott, paid homage to a US drug agent who spent years pursuing ‘Ndrangheta mobsters.
The ‘Ndrangheta, while not the most well-known Mafia group from Italy, is considered one of the most dangerous.
The crackdown on the internationally notorious Sicilian and southern Italian crime families goes back decades and has severely depleted their power and influence.
The Campania-based Camorra syndicate has captured the public’s imagination with TV shows, including the popular HBO Max series “Gomorrah,” and movies.
Yet the ‘Ndrangheta, once considered just a group of rural gangs based in Calabria, has grown to control much of Europe’s cocaine trade and has emerged as one of Europe’s most feared criminal organizations. Prosecutors say it has deep connections globally, including ties to South American drug lords and associates in about 50 countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
“From a group of punchers at the order of local wealthy lords, the ‘Ndrangheta is now a service agency and a structural component of global capitalism,” said Antonio Nicaso, a professor of social history of organized crime at Queen’s University in Canada who has written extensively about the mob.
“The trial and the verdicts showed how it was able to form alliances with law enforcement officials, the institutions, and national politicians,” he said.
Nicaso also said that while such crackdowns are a sign of government vigilance against the ‘Ndrangheta, the group is such a deeply rooted phenomenon in southern Italy that it can’t be uprooted just “with handcuffs.”
After the initial wave of arrests, a handful of younger relatives of ‘Ndrangheta families started collaborating with prosecutors, betraying the familial bonds that are the backbone of the local clans.
“Some young men put the community ahead of their blood,” Nicaso said. “That is the strongest message of this trial.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.