1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

In 'ndrangheta, 'you don't have a childhood'

Max Zander
January 13, 2021

A key witness in the trial against the organized crime group 'ndrangheta in Italy is Luigi Bonaventura, who began cooperating with investigators in 2006.

'ndrangheta defector Luigi Bonaventura
Bonaventura conceals his identity as hundreds of former associated stand trialImage: Francesco Bellina/DW

Forty-nine-year-old Luigi Bonaventura was sitting in an empty restaurant in Bologna. He would not say where he had traveled from, just that he had spent several hours on a train. He wants nobody to know where he lives. He began working with the authorities in 2006, turning against organized crime — and his own family. So far, his collaboration has helped put up to 500 'ndrangheta members behind bars, and he is in constant danger of retribution. Nervous and exhausted from his trip, he caught his breath, drank some water, began to speak and did not stop. The crimes of his past come to him in his sleep. "The next day," he said, "I wake up and tell myself: I have to fight and become better." 

On Wednesday, a trial began against 350 suspected members of the 'ndrangheta, one of the most powerful crime networks in Italy. The trial is expected to stretch for two years in Lamezia Terme, in the southern region of Calabria. Suspects include lawyers, politicians, businesspeople and more hardened criminals.

Bonaventura knows many of them personally. He said it was particularly difficult for the authorities to keep the 'ndrangheta under surveillance: Members move freely in the shadows. It is less of an organization than a loose network of individuals and families who live according to their own conventions and sometimes turn on each other. Though the bosses are concentrated in Calabria, the 'ndrangheta is active across and Italy — and well beyond the borders. 

The courtroom bunker in Lamezia Terme
A special bunker has been built to hold the massive trial during the pandemicImage: Gianluca Chininea/AFP/Getty Images

'Ndrangheta 'sleeper agent'

The 'ndrangheta used to earn its money from kidnappings, but then it expanded its business to the construction sector, frequently nabbing lucrative state contracts, and the international drugs trade. The network is suspected of smuggling cocaine from Latin America to supply much of the European market. Some of the suspects on trial in Calabria were arrested in Germany.   

Bonaventura's grandfather Luigi Vrenna was an important 'ndrangheta boss, and it was expected from the start that he would become part of the tradition. His father turned him into a "soldier" when he was still a child. His toys were real weapons. He learned how to shoot and kill animals and how to withstand pain so that he would become accustomed to violence.  "You don't have a childhood," he said. When he was old enough, his family sent him to other regions to familiarize himself with local customs and dialects. He had become a "sleeper agent." 

He was called back to Calabria in the 1990s because a war had broken out between families. Bonaventura became an "active soldier," involved in blackmail, drug smuggling and murder. He spoke openly about this time. He said he never killed anybody who was innocent, using the analogy of war to justify his actions. He said he took revenge on another family after a child in his own was murdered.

Leaving the 'ndrangheta

These strong family links have made it difficult for law enforcement to combat the 'ndrangheta. Few members have the courage to leave and testify against their own relatives. But Bonaventura made the decision to do this after the birth of his second child and with the support of his wife. He chose to cooperate with the authorities, who have since arrested hundreds of his former associates. He spent 10 years in prison. After his release, he and his wife set up an association to protect other informants. They want to encourage members to take the same step, and they want the government to offer more support for people to leave organized crime. 

Bonaventura said the 'ndrangheta had taken a new course. The bosses no longer train their children to become killers but instead invest in their education so that they become "economic criminals: bankers and lawyers." He is hoping that the current trial will shed light on the 'ndrangheta's practices and organizational structures. 

"I had abandoned my dreams and lost my energy because I did not believe there would be an end to the 'ndrangheta," Bonaventura said, "but maybe something can change with this trial and the work of the state prosecutors."

Italy's largest mafia trial to begin

This article has been adapted from German.