When former gangster Luigi Bonaventura agreed to become one of the star witnesses in a mega trial against hundreds of members of the ‘Ndrangheta, Italy’s richest and most powerful mafia, he knew he would have to go into hiding.
He spent years working as an assassin, cocaine smuggler and gunrunner under his father before his wife encouraged him to quit the secretive group, which controls the bulk of cocaine flowing into Europe.
It would involve betraying his family, and he expected his father to be furious. Salvatore Bonaventura had spent years training his son to be the equivalent of a child soldier in the ‘Ndrangheta’s base, the rugged mountain villages of Calabria, southern Italy.
“My father was violent and cruel to teach me the ‘Ndranghetista ways. I grew up learning to kill or be killed. You don’t have a childhood,” Mr Bonaventura told the Telegraph. “To be born into a mafia family is to be destined to become a mafioso.”
Salvatore’s reaction was typical of the Godfather-style group, where bloodlines and loyalty are preserved at any cost: he tried to have his own son murdered.
“The family that manages to kill one of their own to protect the ‘Ndrangheta is seen as upholding the highest values,” said Mr Bonaventura, who shot his would-be killer in the groin during the ensuing public gun fight. “It is as if you say: ‘I love the ‘Ndrangheta more than my own family.’”
It is these sorts of values that public prosecutors in Calabria are trying to finally break during the biggest court case against a mafia group in Italy since the Maxi Trial against Sicily’s Cosa Nostra in the 1980s.
After years of investigations, a two-year trial is set to see some 355 people with alleged ties to organised crime – including Freemasons, police captains and even a former senator from Silvio Berlusconi’s party – in the dock for everything from attempted murder to extortion.
Although numbers are hard to come by, the ‘Ndrangheta are thought to be responsible for hundreds of deaths in Italy and beyond over the decades. Some of the more colourful accusations include leaving dead dolphins on doorsteps as an intimidation tactic and burying targets in tarmac.
Around 70 people who opted for fast-track trials in return for more lenient sentences were convicted in November, but the biggest fish are yet to come.
They include Luigi “the Uncle” Mancuso, 67, considered the head of the most powerful ’Ndrangheta clan at the heart of the trial. To accommodate the 600 or so lawyers involved, the trial is being held in a bunker specially built for the occasion at a cost of 4.7 million euros.
For Mr Bonaventura, becoming a pentito (mob turncoat) was his only way out of his life of crime and violence.
After admitting to crimes including murder and serving 10 years in prison, Mr Bonaventura was finally released in 2018. Along with his wife, he has set up a help group for fellow mafia defectors and other reforming criminals, the Supporters of Collaborators and Witnesses of Justice.
He has also testified against hundreds of powerful mafiosi, including members of the Mancuso clan, in numerous court cases, of which the so-called Rinascita-Scott trial is just the latest.
He says his collaboration with the government is partly about seeking justice for his childhood friend, Franco. After winning a ‘Ndrangheta ritual “duel to first blood” – a violent fight with sticks and knives – he drank a bit of Franco’s blood and they swore to protect each other.
When Franco was later killed in a mafia feud, Mr Bonaventura sought revenge on the system that had let his “blood brother” down: “I have to respect the pact I made, to avenge him from the one who killed him.”
But it was also partly a way to protect his family, and particularly his son, from being sucked into a mafia way of life that goes back to his grandfather, infamous crime boss Luigi Vrenna, who was imprisoned over an ambush that killed a ten-year-old boy and his older brother in 1973.
“It’s sort of like being a prince in the royal family, except they get taken by someone from the family to shoot a Kalashnikov,” said psychologist Enrico Interdonato, who works with children from mafia families. “This lifestyle brings only prison or death.”
Mr Bonaventura’s father was so high up that he never had to go through a formal initiation ceremony. Instead, he proved his mettle during a brutal vendetta with another clan in the 1990s.
“It was a very cruel war in which dozens were killed,” he said. “If your brother was killed you had to avenge him, and then their uncle would be obliged to avenge this. There were shootings and terrorist acts such as bombs seemingly every day. After three or four years, my family’s side was the winner, but there was a lot of death.”
These days, the mafia is less bloodthirsty – there were only 271 murders across the whole of Italy in 2020, compared to 1,916 in 1991.
Instead, the ‘ndranghetisti prefer to operate in the shadows, relying on corruption and backroom deals to run one of the biggest drug smuggling operations in Europe, with tentacles that reach as far as Australia and Canada.
The trial has not stopped them yet – on New Year’s Eve, more than three tonnes of cocaine hidden in a shipment of bananas were found in the port of Gioia Tauro, a ‘Ndrangheta stronghold.
But lead prosecutor Nicola Gratteri, who has acquired a kind of star status in Italy with his fearless pursuit of the mafioso, hopes that just as the Cosa Nostra faded away after the 1980s Maxi-Trial, this will mark the beginning of the end for the ‘Ndrangheta.
“I have known the mafia since I was a child because I was hitchhiking to school and I often saw dead bodies on the road,” Mr Gratteri told AFP. “I thought: when I grow up, I want to do something so that this won’t happen again.”
Others are less sure, however.
“Hope is one thing, history and legacy is another,” said Anna Sergi, professor of criminology at the University of Essex.
“The trial will send some people to jail … but it won’t fix the social roots of the mafia phenomenon,” she added. “Every trial is a drop in the ocean, and in order to see the effects we need a lot of drops.”
Additional reporting by Anthony R.
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