Only 20 minutes prior to our meeting, Italy's most prominent mafia target provides us with his location. Nicola Gratteri, the prosecutor in charge of the nation's fight against organized crime, has grown accustomed to living in danger; however, receiving too much notice exposes him.
He is in charge of the largest trial of its kind since the 1980s, and we are told to wait outside the court in the southern part of Calabria for him. There, more than 330 suspects have testified, and 70 of them have already received convictions.
Suddenly, Gratteri enters the scene flanked by his five-car police escort. We express our gratitude to him several times for being willing to meet and speak. Let's get started, he snaps, telling them to stop thanking him. Nothing bothers me more than wasting time. " .
"When I went to school, there were dead people lying around the streets.".
The man who has dedicated his entire career to combating the 'Ndrangheta, Italy's most powerful mafia, is on their kill list and is not a fan of small talk.
He then decides to drive us 40 minutes to his office. There, he'll be more free to speak. Perhaps Italy's most dangerous commute begins as we get into his armored vehicle.
Since my fiancee's house was shot at in 1989 and she received a phone call in the middle of the night informing her that she was getting married to a dead man, I've lived with this level of security, he says. This suffocating level of control resulted from the escalated situation. ".
Given what transpired thirty years ago, there is no other option. The Sicilian mafia group Cosa Nostra planted a bomb beneath a highway close to Palermo in 1992, killing prosecutor Giovanni Falcone. His wife, three police officers, and he were all killed. Two months later, a car bomb killed his colleague Paolo Borsellino.
Italians still view the murders of these men as a turning point in their modern history, along with the horrifying photos of the partially collapsed motorway at the scene of the Falcone attack. The brutality of the crimes continues to serve as a potent symbol of the mafia's ability to terrorize people, and the magistrates are admired for their courage.
While keeping his eyes on the road, Gratteri tells me he often considers the judges who were assassinated and how they, too, were moving targets as they traveled through yet another area of the country that had been contaminated by organized crime. Because you have to rationalize fear in order to move on, he claims, "I talk to death a lot. I wouldn't be able to perform this job otherwise. ".
Since the 'Ndrangheta's inception in the 19th century, the rugged and lush toe of Italy has served as its stronghold. The criminal organization is centered on family clans, or "ndrine," who historically held sway over the mountaintop villages of Calabria, their fierce loyalty forged by kinship ties.
Although the Cosa Nostra in Sicily and the Camorra in and around Naples are more well-known internationally, in part due to their dramatic mass bombings, both have been debilitated by an unrelenting police crackdown. The 'Ndrangheta has replaced them and is now the most powerful mafia in Italy. It has branches all over the world, from South America to Australia, and it has an estimated annual turnover of about $60 billion (£49 billion).
Coke is their unit of exchange. The organization dominates the market globally and is thought to now have 80 percent or more of the drug trade in Europe.
Man v. Mafia: Italy's Crusader.
Italy's most powerful mafia is now the 'Ndrangheta. The prosecutor from Calabria, Nicola Gratteri, who has risked his life to fight them, is introduced to Mark Lowen of the BBC.
Currently available on BBC iPlayer (UK Only).
On Saturday, January 14, at 07:10, 15:10, and 07:10 (GMT), as well as on Sunday, January 15, BBC World News will be airing the program for viewers outside of the United States.
Gioia Tauro, the busiest container port in Italy, is a massive facility in the south of Calabria where the majority of the traffic is routed. Only a small portion of the cocaine that enters this country is intended for the Italian market; the majority is sent eastward, through the Balkans and the Black Sea. There have also been interceptions of military equipment headed for Russia.
We watch as a recently delivered container containing Ecuadorian bananas is examined, first by sniffer dogs and then by members of the Guardia di Finanza, or financial crime squad, who cut open boxes to search through the fruit. This shipment is clean, but many others are not; in the last two years, the amount of cocaine impounded here has almost tripled.
An extensive 'Ndrangheta trafficking ring was allegedly being operated by port workers when a police operation swarmed them. 35 people were detained, and seven tons of cocaine with a street value of $1 point 4 billion (£1 point 14 billion) were seized.
A locked cell containing hundreds of tightly wrapped packets of drugs is where the majority of them are kept, and we are given a rare opportunity to see them.
Testing kits that resemble items from the pandemic are filled with liquid solution and a piece of the white powder that has been cut away; however, this time, crime rather than Covid is being detected. A red line appears a short while later. With a 98 percent purity, it is positive.
More than half of the total amount of cocaine seized by the Guardia di Finanza at Gioia Tauro port over the past two years is cocaine. While 'Ndrangheta smuggling may be increasing, police expertise is also growing as forces cooperate internationally.
Three hundred thirty-five suspects, including attorneys, accountants, and an ex-member of parliament, were detained as a result of a large-scale international operation in 2019 by police in Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and Bulgaria. All belonged to or were associated with the Mancuso family, one of the 'Ndrangheta's' 150 or so vicious clans.
The so-called "maxi trial" in Calabria started two years ago as a result of this, which was the group's biggest setback in its history. 600 attorneys and 900 witnesses, many of whom testified via video link, were accommodated in a call center that had been converted on the outskirts of Lamezia Terme. Death by extortion, drug trafficking, and murder are among the charges. Already, sentences have been given to more than 70.
Sitting inside the sizable room with cages set up on the side, it seems like visual symbolism is significant here: a set-up intended to demonstrate to Italians that their state is taking action against the 'Ndrangheta and that the mob is not untouchable.
The trial is the biggest of Nicola Gratteri's professional life. He tells me the arrests cost the 'Ndrangheta control of 70% of Vibo Valentia, one of their stronghold provinces, as we are hurried into his office, his close protection team always one step behind.
"If they are all found guilty, it means breathing space for the community," he claims. The 'Ndrangheta, however, is made up of many more families than just the Mancusos, despite their strength, so this is far from the beginning of the end for the 'Ndrangheta. The prosecutor adds, "I'll be moving on to another trial as soon as I finish this one.".
To win this battle, he has dedicated his life—even made great sacrifices. He says, "I don't have a life. "We have to pause and talk it over with my protection team before entering a cafe. We go in and get the coffee after someone comes in to pay. We have to stop and talk about where to go potty. In the past 25 years, I haven't visited a theater or a restaurant. When I need a haircut, my barber comes to the office. I don't get to see my family very often. I'm a free man, though, in my head. ".
It's worth it, I enquire. He gives a long sigh. If you believe in it, and I do, it's worth it, he responds. "I think what I'm doing is significant. There are thousands of people who support me and view me as their final option and best chance for change. I can't let them down. ".
Francesco and Sara Scarpulla are two of them. When their only child, Matteo, was killed by a bomb placed on the car's undercarriage in 2018, they had to endure the unimaginable.
The Mancusos, a 'Ndrangheta clan that is currently on trial, are said to have been responsible for his assassins; they allegedly chose Matteo and Francesco as targets as a result of a protracted dispute over the boundaries of their respective properties.
Only a few meters away from Matteo's grave in the Limbadi cemetery is the Mancuso family tomb, placing the victim and the murderers' kin almost side by side in a region rife with blood feuds.
Sara tells me about Matteo in their living room, which has walls covered in enormous pictures of him. He was "the joy of life - polite and exceptional.". As Matteo's mother and father, I'm honored to have raised him.
Having been in the car with Matteo at the time, Francesco, who is seated next to her, taps on the table disinterestedly as he observes helplessly as his wife loses control of her ability to contain her tears.
Our life is no longer a life, she asserts. When I ask God, "Where were you when Matteo was dying?", Matteo's girlfriend responds, "He was there, taking Matteo with him.".
According to Sara, there are many 'Ndrangheta in Limbadi. They have complete control over neighborhood businesses, wield all the major power, and instill fear with their violent behavior. She remembers how they would kill her family's animals and then throw beheaded chickens on the roof of her home as their land dispute progressed.
Things won't change, she continues, "until people's mentalities shift.". "We must sow the seeds of change, just like Prosecutor Gratteri and all other prosecutors. We'll be stuck here with the 'Ndrangheta in charge until we follow in their footsteps. ".
Suddenly, a defiant expression takes hold. "I have to fight, I have to go to the front and yell in this town's streets, 'The 'Ndrangheta must leave from here!' This is not the 'Ndrangheta's town. Matteo lives in this town. ".
However, breaking the 'Ndrangheta's strangling hold will require more than just a mental shift; it will also require the mafiosos to turn against the 'Ndrangheta and end the 'Omertà, or code of silence.
However, in a group where loyalty is defined as betraying your own family, there are surprisingly few traitors.
We locate one, Luigi Bonaventura, who is giving a witness statement at the Mancuso trial. He agrees to meet us in northern Italy, close to where he lives, but he won't specify where. His testimony provides a unique window into the inner workings of the mobsters and how their indoctrination works.
He started working with the police sixteen years ago, ostensibly to give his children the freedom he was never given, and has since been living under witness protection. He goes by his own name, but wears a balaclava over his face to avoid being recognized by the people he turned against.
He explains to me that because the 'Ndrangheta is a tribe, if you are born into that family while it is at war, you cannot help but grow up surrounded by incitement to hatred and violence. "Kill, kill, kill" was the only phrase that was said repeatedly.
He recalls being raised "as a child soldier," receiving a gun at age 10, and treating actual weapons like toys. He was called to fight at the age of 19 when his family entered a conflict with another family after receiving training to be "a sleeper-cell killer.". He claims, "I was involved in five homicides.". "I witnessed three, while also performing two. ".
More than 500 'Ndrangheta suspects, according to him, have been arrested or convicted as a result of his collaboration. I inquire what effect he anticipates the ongoing "maxi trial" will have on the mafia.
He responds, "The 'Ndrangheta does not have one head, it is not Sicily's Cosa Nostra, with a boss of bosses who, once he collapses, brings everything down with him. The 'Ndrangheta is a monstrous, many-headed hydra, and if one head is cut off, there are many more. The Mancuso family will reunite and come back stronger than ever in a matter of time—possibly 10 years. ".
It is a gloomy prediction. However, on the ground in Calabria, anti-mafia organizations work to inform the next generation and make sure that Italy's youth are kept out of the hands of organized crime.
However, Nicola Gratteri, the nation's foremost expert on the 'Ndrangheta, tells me that Italy will never be free from the mafia's hold because of how deeply it has permeated Italian society and how far its tentacles reach. "It can be greatly reduced, but combating it would require a revolution. We still require a stronger system, but more importantly, we must spend money on culture and education. ".
He claims that when he was a young boy, that is what separated him from many of his friends who were captured by the 'Ndrangheta.
I would be a mafia boss today if I had been born a hundred meters down the road, he says. But I was fortunate to be born into an upright family. A sawn-off shotgun has killed a lot of my classmates, and I've had other classmates arrested for having weapons or drugs. ".
He remembers being sent to Miami when an old classmate was found with 800 kg of cocaine on his sailing ship. He confessed to me that he had ruined his life. I tried to convince him to cooperate by saying, "Look, you can still change things," but he refused. ".
He smiles when I inquire about the mafia's or the state's victory in this conflict for Italy's soul. "The result is a draw. To succeed, we must alter the game's rules and implement a prison system potent enough to deter criminals. ".
Gratteri appears to be somewhat of a loner, willing to pick fights and throw the biggest stones at the highest level. He is a hero to many and an enemy to others. Does the 64-year-old now harbor any regrets?
No, he answers. Even though it was impossible, maybe I could have done more. I've performed to the highest standard possible, and I'll keep working as long as I can. " .
He pauses to gather his thoughts. To have a normal life, I would have had to move more slowly. "Everything in life has a price, don't you think? Maybe my workload would have been lighter. However, I would have felt cowardly if I had. And it makes no sense to me to live timidly. ".
He checks his phone as we are about to end our time with him. He tells us to pack up quickly and move our bags outside because he needs to lock up and leave. "The anti-mafia crusader gives a quick handshake and moves on to his next conflict.