Issue 263: 2021 01 21: Trials and Tribulations

21 January 2021

Trials and Tribulations

The US and Italy.

By Paul Branch

23 May 1992 will be long remembered by Italians in general and Sicilians especially.  It was a date commemorated in one of the original episodes of Inspector Montalbano, the iconic TV police series set in picturesque rural Sicily in the fictional town of Vigata.  Montalbano’s long-term girlfriend Livia lived in Genova and would visit him often but briefly.  The couple had finally decided on a more permanent arrangement, presumably eventually leading to marriage, with Montalbano transferring away from his beloved Sicily to a police station near her.  The episode ends at the entry to the slip road leading from Vigata to the highway for Palermo airport, after Montalbano’s transfer had been confirmed.  Waiting at the intersection with the car radio on, Montalbano hears the breaking news of the assassination of a magistrate, Giovanni Falcone; the local Cosa Nostra mafia had detonated a bomb on the A29 highway which also killed his wife and three policemen.  In despair but putting patriotism and justice above his personal needs, Montalbano turns the car round and heads back to Vigata, away from his future with Livia and back to fighting the mafia.

Falcone was the lead prosecutor in the Palermo maxi trials which lasted six years and convicted 475 members of Cosa Nostra of a huge variety of crimes involving protection rackets, drugs, fraud, theft, murder, corruption and many more.  He was murdered a couple of months after the trials ended with multiple convictions.  Within another few weeks, fellow investigator, Paolo Borsellino, was also assassinated in Palermo.

Last week saw the continuation of Italy’s struggle against organised crime with the start of proceedings against 350 members and associates of the ‘Ndrangheta mafia group of clans based in Calabria, deep in the toe of Italy.  The litany of crimes allegedly committed by the accused is much the same as last time in Sicily.  Calabria’s mafia is based on intricate and intimate blood relations; leading members of the group rarely venture outside their home villages but their underworld tentacles spread beyond rural Calabria to most regions of Italy, to Germany, Switzerland, Bulgaria and to America.  Following the successful prosecutions of the Cosa Nostra, ‘Ndrangheta grew to become possibly the most powerful global criminal organisation, bigger even than the Camorra based around Naples and worth £44 billion in 2013, more than McDonald’s and Deutsche Bank combined.

A specially-equipped 1000-capacity courtroom for the new maxi trials has been built in Calabria at Lamezia Terme to hear the testimony of 900 witnesses and the pleas of the host of accused who will either appear on video links or be accommodated in high-security cages.  Those on trial include a bevy of associated politicians at state and local levels, civic officials, police and businessmen as well as ‘Ndrangheta bosses and their subordinates.

The impetus for this judicial tour de force arose out of ordinary Calabrians being tired of living with ‘Ndrangheta and its influences on their lives, and the surprising willingness of mafia family members to give evidence against even their own close relatives in return for protection.  Star witness against the Mancuso clan element of ‘Ndrangheta is expected to be Emanuele Mancuso, nephew of the alleged supremo Luigi Mancuso.  Chief prosecutor Nicola Gratteri, who has led the investigation since 2016, has already been described by an unnamed source as a dead man walking, no doubt a sinister reminder of what happened in Palermo in 1992.

The other legal event of significance due to take place in the coming weeks involves just one man on trial, but whether that happens depends on how incoming US President Joe Biden judges the legal, political and social mood of the country.  Much has been made of the legacy of outgoing POTUS Donald J Trump, his ardent supporters calling to mind the decisive tax breaks for corporations leading to increased employment, his Middle East deal bringing together Israel and its former antagonists in the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and that a largely ignored and forgotten slice of American humanity has at last been given a voice, albeit recently a disturbingly violent voice… as with so many of history’s great causes, talking gets you only so far and then it gets physical.  It looks very much like a case of a paternal and benevolent president looking after his own.

Drawing too many comparisons between a possible Trump post-impeachment trial and the mafia proceedings in Calabria would really be overstepping the mark, but there are some interesting little parallels which bear a mention.  Oddly, as it happens,  Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, is of Italian immigrant descent and has as mafiaesque a name as you could hope to devise.  But the coincidence stops there; Giuliani’s parents were of northern Italian stock (Tuscany is not noted as a mafia hot spot) and young Rudy went on to earn a lawyer’s degrees and find fame as Mayor of New York and in other significant political appointments, as well as building up his own corporate legal empire with some success.  He was Mayor at the time of 9/11, and for his services to the people of New York he was given an honorary knighthood by our Queen.  There is some doubt that Giuliani will lead Trump’s defence if the impeachment trial proceeds, however – his lack of success in more recent activities trying to overturn the election results is said to have resulted in his bills being contested; if that is so, perhaps Trump is neither happy nor impressed.

Family ties have played a large part in the Trump presidency, with some supporters looking forward to a Trump dynasty after another term with Donald, followed by Ivanka from 2024, Donald Jr from 2032, maybe Eric in 2040 and then Barron from 2048.  It’s said that they would no longer be standing for the Republicans but rather as representatives of the new Trump party.  GOP members in the Senate, who much prefer the political status quo, may decide to vote to convict Trump if the trial happens, thus preserving the Republican party by preventing Trump or his family ever standing for the presidency in the future.  It would also help those planning on running for president in 2024, although they shouldn’t expect much support from the Trump electoral base.

Trump’s family have been extremely faithful to him throughout his tenure, maybe from self-preservation but nonetheless their loyalty is touching.  There was one moment of awkwardness when his niece let rip in a book, but that was soon glossed over and I doubt any of his supporters were listening anyway, as they weren’t when earlier stories emerged alleging severe but unproven other wrongdoings with ladies.  Donald Jr did strike a chilling note however in support of his father when the Electoral College votes were finally being formally recorded after the riot at the Capitol.  “I’m going to be in your backyard” was the threat he made to all those Republican lawmakers who did not try hard enough to overturn the election results.  Brother Eric was a little less forthright by suggesting their voters would never forget.   Although both comments pale in comparison with the “dead man walking” threat which accompanied the start of the Calabria maxi trials, it’s starting to get close.  Looks like Italy and America have battles still to fight.


photo: Ana Itonishvili at unsplash

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