MESSINA, Italy – In a bunker-style courthouse taped to a prison, nearly a hundred suspected mafiosi and accomplices are on trial, accused of defrauding the European Union into millions of euros.
The so-called maxi-trial is expected to reconstruct, for the first time, the integrated system prosecutors are using say the mafia clan and their associates are targeting € 55 billion in agricultural subsidies that the EU pays annually.
It’s a scheme that officials claim involved not only the masses, but also white-collar accountants, politicians and government employees, resulting in at least € 10 million in stolen EU agricultural funds. And this is a moment that reflects the diversification of criminal organizations in southern Italy, where groups have evolved from traditional drug and extortion activities to capitalizing on more lucrative and high-risk income streams – including EU grants meant to support farmers.
Trials are likely to last at least a year, with 97 defendants, 90 lawyers and up to 1,000 witnesses, with a number of state witnesses preparing to crack their omerta, or code of silence. On Tuesday, when trials begin, it takes more than an hour for the list of defendants to be charged with crimes including fraud, false statements, extortion, setting up fake companies for illegal profit, encouraging drugs and stealing livestock.
“Colossal fraud,” the investigating judge stated in the pre-trial indictment, “exploited EU funding on a large scale and to perfection.” It was, the document stated, “a devastating phenomenon. A mafia who is ready to face Europe using illegal methods, and a [Italian] countries that are already lagging behind and playing in defense. ”
Sitting in court, Italian Senator Mario Giarrusso, a veteran anti-mafia campaigner, pondered the moment, calling it “extraordinary and symbolic.”
With the trial, he said, the public can now “reconstruct the mechanisms used systematically by the mafia and white-collar officials.” And, he added, this represents a significant change in the way Italian courts handle fraud.
To date, claims of inappropriate EU subsidies have been treated as simple fraud in Italy, a crime that often goes unpunished due to protracted litigation. But now that prosecutors consider it a mass scheme, Italy’s strict anti-mafia laws mean some defendants could face up to 25 years in prison.
“This is a major new development uncovered in this trial – an integrated and organized system” of subsidy fraud, said Giarrusso.
The case is also a major topic given the € 209 billion windfall that Italy will receive as part of the EU’s post-pandemic recovery fund. While the trial may worry people by exposing the depth of EU corruption in Italy, it can also serve as an opportunity to show EU leaders that the country is serious about preventing criminals from sneaking up on top.
Four years in the making
The massive public trial is the culmination of four years of investigative work that came to the public 13 months ago, when about 1,000 police officers raided a number of suspected mafia members.
The arrests removed a large part of the hierarchy of the two main mafia clans – Battanesi and Bontempo Scavi. The two groups are distinguished by their colorful nicknames. There’s Blondie, Banger, and Vito Corleone, named after Marlon Brando’s character in “The Godfather”. And the boss of the Batanesi clan allegedly was Sebastiano ‘Arrogance’ Bontempo.
Based in the mountains of Nebrodi, a protected area of 860 square kilometers, the mafia family is “characterized by strong family ties, violence and brutality,” the arrest order said.
The two clans share power in the village of Tortorici, the hometown of the bomb maker who made the explosion that killed Italy’s most famous martyr, anti-mafia prosecutor Giovanni Falcone.
This distribution of power has not always gone smoothly. There were bloody territorial wars in the 1980s and 1990s, which killed more than 40 people. But the two groups have since allegedly put aside their differences in their common goal of defrauding the EU.
Prosecutors said the two groups worked out a scheme to identify parcels of land where EU funds had not been claimed. Officials working in local government agencies help track these plots, accessing land databases in exchange for cash. Coordination with officials reduces the risk of multiple subsidy requests for each plot of land.
Mafiosi then allegedly made bogus lease contracts, or forced landowners to sign lease contracts, taking over land, which they often did not bother to farm.
Several applications for funding were made for land that was not agricultural land, or was actually not owned or leased by the applicant at all, including a plot of land belonging to the Catholic Church and another on which railroads had been built, according to the indictment. Other suspected plots of land include one used by the US navy to host satellite communications
Any disagreements between the two mafia clans over this plot are resolved through mediation.
Since the arrests, three of the suspected mafia members have served as state witnesses, according to investigators, providing new evidence suggesting that the fraud took place in the 1990s.
In the courtroom
Piera Aiello, a lawmaker who married to the mafia but became a state witness in the 1990s, was there to witness the start of the trial on Tuesday.
Aiello has been an advocate for those collaborating with the justice system, but seeing the cages lining the courtroom, he told POLITICO how difficult the task of informants was at the trial.
“Against one mafioso is one thing, but against 100 mafioso?” she says. “This is a difficult time to look them in the eye and point the finger at the mafia. Your heart is shaking. ”
Authorities in Italy first became aware that mafia clans were abusing EU subsidies around 2012, when Giuseppe Antoci, the former president of the Nebrodi region, ordered background checks for those applying for funds. The move made Antoci a target of the mafia, and he faced an assassination attempt in 2016 – the most notorious attack on an institutional figure since the 1990s.
Antoci now lives under armed guard 24 hours a day, but he also appeared at the courthouse on Tuesday, defiant.
“I want to look into the eyes of those who have held this land hostage for decades,” he said.
The victims, he said, were not only the EU and taxpayers, but local communities and residents who had lost funds – “farmers, young people who want to start a business, who want to find opportunities to live back home”, he said. “EU money must be given to these people.”
The defendants’ lawyers say their clients remain innocent, arguing that they have been victims of injustice.
Alessandro Pruiti Ciarello, a lawyer for the nine defendants, said that the maxi trial was “unfair” for the defendant because group responsibility was determined without having to prove the specific involvement of each individual.
“They don’t have to show individual responsibility,” said Ciarello. “Often some of the big fish were released and some of the small fish were cursed.”
As a first in Europe, this trial could serve as a blueprint for other regions and countries in Italy.
The Greens in the European Parliament this week released a report details the misuse of European agricultural funds in five Central and Eastern European countries. And a Slovak journalist, Jan Kuciak, was killed in 2019 while investigating the Italian Ndrangheta mafia for defrauding the EU.
Investigators admit that their findings are likely just the tip of the iceberg.
Maxi-trial, says Giarrusso, an anti-mafia advocate, is a “warning” to the mafia: “It shows we can fight this phenomenon.”