As a child, Nicola Gratteri would see dead bodies littered along the side of the road.
Born in the small Calabrian town of Gerace in 1958, by all accounts, the prosecutor had rather humble beginnings. Gratteri’s father – who only achieved a fifth grade education – ran a small grocery shop, while his mother – who didn’t progress beyond third grade – took care of the family.
What they lacked in riches they more than made up for by being a per bene family (translation: respectable, decent, proper; one with sound values). And it’s precisely what Gratteri himself credits as the foundation for his 30-year campaign against crime.
While the Cosa Nostra of Sicily found pop-cultural relevance in The Godfather films and the Neapolitan Camorra through the popular series Gomorrah, Italy’s most violent and powerful crime syndicate also happens to be the most camera-shy.
The name ‘Ndrangheta (pronounced: en-drahn-get-ta) ironically translates to “man of honour” and is said to be derived from the Greek “andragathía” or “heroism.” The group thrives on skimming off state contracts in Italy’s wealthy northern territories, mainly in construction.
The organisation’s seat of power is based in Calabria – the “toe” of Italy’s boot, if you will – with links to 31 countries internationally (including Europe, US, Canada, Columbia, even Australia).
The ‘Ndrangheta control Europe’s supply of cocaine, facing accusations of building a criminal empire on cold-blooded murder, buying off politicians + officials, extortion, and so forth. Their control of cocaine in Europe is so dominant, in fact, they actively supply to rival organised crime groups in Italy – usually Albanian or Nigerian – who then take it to the street.
Separating themselves from the streets by way of proxy is just one method that keeps the ‘Ndangheta away from scrutiny, freeing them up to focus on more nuanced forms of crime such as siphoning EU funds intended for agriculture and infrastructure, which is then redistributed as envelopes of cash to small businesses impacted by the pandemic. A local investment, if you will.
The group operates under strict rules of confidentiality and are more than willing to get their hands dirty to enforce this code of silence. In 2012, six members were handed life sentences after strangling and burning a woman who cooperated with police. In 2015, another member was arrested for ordering the murder of his own mother after she’d allegedly had an affair with a rival clan’s boss.
As you will have gathered by now, the ‘Ndrangheta are notoriously hard to catch as its organisational structure involves rigidly loyal blood ties, woven deep within the fabric of the Italian economy and political landscape. This makes it virtually impossible to break away as, historically speaking, ‘Ndrangheta rarely betray their family. Within the sample size of over 1,000 people who eventually became state witnesses in Italian organised crime cases, only 15% were members of the ‘Ndrangheta.
That’s where Nicola Gratteri comes in.
Nicola Gratteri is the chief prosecutor for Catanzaro, a small city in the hills of central Calabria with a heavy ‘Ndangheta presence.
After attending university in Catania, Sicily, Gratteri took the state exam to become a magistrate, officially assuming the position in 1986. From there, Gratteri dedicated himself to digging up old cases that had long been stalled from the prosecutor’s office in Locri, Calabria.
Gratteri’s first direct encounter with organised crime occurred in 1989 after stumbling upon the murder case of a local businessman who was killed following a dinner party with several politicians in attendance. The businessman in question was apparently in the process of building a dam for a lake with no water. After discovering there was no public bid, Gratteri came to the conclusion that the businessman had greatly upset some of the local bosses.
Discovering the contract for a non-existent dam on a lake without water quickly drew unwanted attention. The window of Gratteri’s now-wife was pumped with hot lead. To this day, Gratteri is hesitant to publicly speak about his family for their safety. He hasn’t travelled without police protection in 30 years.
Fast forward to 2014, Nicola Gratteri led a sting operation dubbed “New Bridge” which entailed both FBI and Italian agents running interference with a major ‘Ndrangheta narcotics arm spanning across three continents – authorities seized nearly 500 kilograms of pure cocaine.
To no one’s surprise, Gratteri has been labelled a “dead man” walking. He’s lived in a walled compound guarded by police since 1989 where he spends most of his spare time growing tomatoes, eggplants, and basil in his garden. He once compared his living situation to Big Brother, describing himself as “a man in a cage.”
“But in my mind I’m a free man. I’m free in my choices and free to decide. Free to think and to speak my mind. 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 are afraid. Because they’re cowards.”
Back in December of 2019, Nicola Gratteri coordinated a spectacular clean-sweep in which the Italian police rounded up 334 people on charges related to ‘Ndrangheta activity. Ranging from businessmen, lawyers, accountants, a police chief, a former member of the Italian parliament, to the president of the Calabrian mayors’ association — they were arrested on suspicion of murder and extortion.
Gratteri has spent the last four years immersing himself in the details. At this point, he could tell you each ‘Ndrangheta or Camorra clan across every stretch of roadway in Italy. Behind bulletproof doors within a Catanzaro courthouse, Gratteri will often start his day at 2 AM and go to bed around 10 PM.
One of the more prominent targets in this trial is the Pablo Escobar of Italy, Roberto Pannunzi. This nasty piece of work has been linked to forging ties between the ‘Ndrangheta and the Medellín cartel of Columbia. Having escaped from prison before being extradited to Italy from an extensive list of geographies, Pannuzi had the balls to tell Gratteri in person: “I have so much money that I could cover you and that marshal with money. I could bury you with money. ”
The formal legal process is now underway, involving a staggering list of over 470 people. A maxi-trial that can encompass all defendants and their respective lawyers will eventually move to a larger courthouse (currently being prepared in Calabria specifically for the occasion).
It’s expected to last two years, but Nicola Gratteri is hopeful he’ll see a productive end.
“It is always worth doing what you believe in. Sacrifices are made if you believe that you are on the right side and that you are doing something useful to the community. Therefore it is never wasted time and we are always convinced that it was worth it.”