A dead dolphin, melted bodies in mafia maxi-trial

The Ndrangheta, Italy's most powerful organized crime syndicate, is in the crosshairs of the "maxi-trial" against 355 defendants held in the poor southern region of Calabria.

A dead dolphin on a doormat and windows smashed with sledgehammers. Weapons stored in cemetery chapels. Bribes to judges for acquittals, and bogus medical certificates letting convicted killers dodge prison.

These are the stories recounted since January by dozens of Ndrangheta members turned state witnesses in Italy's largest anti-mafia trial in three decades, covering everything from intimidation to vote-buying, and drug trafficking to murder.

"They waited for them in Piazza Morelli, invited them to eat ricotta at the farm ... and then they killed, burned and melted them," testified one criminal-turned-witness, Andrea Mantella, describing a 1988 revenge killing of two brothers.

The Ndrangheta, Italy's most powerful organized crime syndicate, is in the crosshairs of the "maxi-trial" against 355 defendants held in the poor southern region of Calabria, the group's home turf.

Having expanded well beyond its rural roots, the Ndrangheta now dominates Europe's cocaine trade and has infiltrated many areas of the legal economy throughout Italy, and even abroad.

It is helped by close contacts with politicians and business figures, and its stranglehold over the local population in Calabria.

Testimony that wrapped up this month from an unprecedented 58 mafia informants – connected to court by video link – exposed both the brutality of the Ndrangheta, but also the insidious influence of the group at all levels of society.

The trial focuses on one Calabria province, Vibo Valentia, whose family clans are dominated by Luigi "The Supreme" Mancuso, 67, himself on trial after serving a 19-year sentence for drug and mafia crimes until 2012.

"Without the consent of Luigi Mancuso you can't open any business," testified his nephew, Emanuele Mancuso, in March.

With nicknames like "Lamb Thigh," "Sweetie," "Wolf" and "The Wringer," the defendants – many of whom are related – are alleged bosses and operatives, as well as their white-collar enablers.

They are accused of procuring weapons, gathering votes or delivering messages. Others allegedly collected and distributed cash to prisoners, acted as accountants, or managed relations with mafia in other regions. Still others determined extortion targets and planned ambushes.

The extent of the Ndrangheta's reach in the local economy has made it near impossible to eradicate. The court has heard of ambulances moving drugs, water supplies diverted to marijuana crops and drowned migrants buried without coffins after rigged public tenders.

Informant Mantella, a high-ranking member who confessed to numerous murders, said 70,000 euros (US$79,000) were paid to release him from prison to a medical clinic where "I did what I wanted," underscoring the Ndrangheta's financial clout.

The defendants also include police, court workers, mayors and other officials – some allegedly meeting mafia in illegal Masonic lodges.

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