Nicola Gratteri leads a massive battle in impoverished Calabria against the Western world’s richest crime syndicate, as heavy security protects him from threats

CATANZARO, ItalyFrom this scrubby hilltop town in Italys deep south, a 61-year-old prosecutor is taking on one of the worlds most powerful criminal organizations.
Nicola Gratteri
is leading the battle against the Ndrangheta, a crime syndicate that from the tip of Italys boot has extended its tentacles across the globe, and dominates Europes cocaine trade.The anti-mafia prosecutor in December mobilized thousands of law-enforcement officers in an operation that led to the arrest of more than 300 people, part of a continuing probe that is exposing the links between a major Ndrangheta clan with local officials and politicians in the region of Calabria. It was one of the biggest mafia busts in Italys modern history, and the largest raid ever against the Ndrangheta.
I thought of it as war, said Mr. Gratteri, a Calabria native who has been living under police protection since he became a prosecutor in his home region three decades ago. Since then, police thwarted several mafia plots to kill him.
He began planning the latest sweep in 2016, on his first day as chief prosecutor of Catanzaro, the regional capital. But Mr. Gratteris war is only just beginning. More than 500 people are currently under investigation as part of the probe, most of them in pretrial detention.
The trial is due to start before the summer. To host the vast number of defendants, witnesses and lawyers, a volleyball arena with a seating capacity of 3,200 is being converted into a high-security courtroom.
Among Mr. Gratteris targets are the top ranks of the Mancuso family, one of the most powerful Ndrangheta clans, as well as businessmen, civil servants and politicians from across the ideological spectrum. The accusations include murder, extortion, corruption, money laundering, belonging to a crime syndicate and colluding with one.
Some local politicians and media have criticized the raid as excessive, questioning whether the hundreds of arrests were really necessary. Mr. Gratteri says that without the arrests, the risk of flight and evidence tampering was too high.
The coming trial will be Italys largest anti-mafia case since the so-called maxi trial against Sicilys Cosa Nostra that began in 1986, which greatly weakened the organization and exposed its inner workings.
Since then, the Ndrangheta has gradually eclipsed Cosa Nostra to become the Western worlds richest crime syndicate. It controls around 80% of Europes cocaine trade and has estimated annual revenue of $55 billionbigger than the estimated revenue of all the drug cartels of Colombia and Mexico combined. Prosecutors estimate the Ndrangheta has 20,000 members.
Much of its money is laundered in major European cities, including in real estate, restaurants and hotels.
Like much of Southern Italy, Calabria trails the rest of the country and Western Europe in wealth.
GDP per capita, 2017, in thousands of euros
Little of the Ndranghetas wealth reaches its home region of Calabria, one of Western Europes poorest areas. Unemployment, at 21.6%, is the highest in Italy.
It is here that the Ndranghetas secretive family networks groom new members, shake down businesses for protection money and cultivate ties with government officials. That corruption and intimidation helps explain why there is so little outside investment in Calabriaand why many young people turn to the mob for work.
But it isnt just Calabria. The heavy presence of crime syndicates has contributed to the long economic stagnation in Italys south as a whole.
Taking on the Ndrangheta has long come at a huge personal cost for Mr. Gratteri. In 1989, mobsters fired a volley of bullets at his girlfriends front door and phoned her to say she was marrying a dead man. She married him anyway, adapting to his high-security lifestyle. The couple, who are still married, have two adult sons.
I have no life, Mr. Gratteri said in his soft Calabrian accent. He travels between his home and office in a bulletproof car and rarely goes anywhere else. He hasnt been to the beach or to the cinema in over 20 years. He has never been for a stroll in Catanzaros town center since becoming prosecutor there. He couldnt go to his fathers funeral.
I am like a convict under house arrest. Despite this physical constraint, in my mind I feel very free, he said.
Mr. Gratteri describes himself as an insomniac and a workaholic. He wakes up at around 2:30 a.m., goes to the kitchen and works until dawn, he said. Anxious for his life, he finds solace in workand in tending his vegetable patch, surrounded by armed guards and security cameras.
Its important to tame fear, to dialogue with death and to tell oneself that even if I die tonight or tomorrow its not a disaster because Ive had a good life, he said. Ive been a lucky man.
The risk is real. In 2005, Italian police discovered an arsenal of explosives and assault rifles that were to be used to kill him, one of several assassination plots against him.
More recently, police intercepted a phone conversation between two mobsters describing Mr. Gratteri as a dead man walking.
After the latest wave of arrests, the danger is higher than ever before. Police say there is a specific threat. The prosecutors bulletproof cars have just been replaced with sport-utility vehicles that are armored against bombs. More men have been added to his escort.
All of Italy remembers how two prominent anti-mafia prosecutors, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, were assassinated by the Sicilian mafia in the early 1990s.
The son of a shopkeeper, Mr. Gratteri grew up in the tiny medieval village of Gerace, where he and other young boys played barefoot soccer. He crossed paths with some of those boys later in life, questioning one of them in a Miami jail who was caught on a sailboat with 800 pounds of cocaine. Another childhood friend, by now an Ndrangheta member, was arrested in one of Mr. Gratteris operations.
The new Ndrangheta sweep has shaken up Calabria just as its people elect a regional government on Jan. 26. The arrests have pressured Italys political parties to prove their candidates dont have criminal links.
The incumbent Democrat governor of Calabria,
Mario Oliverio,
pulled out of the race after Mr. Gratteris team announced two of his closest aides are under investigation. A prominent conservative politician is among those in pre-trial detention.
Some accuse Mr. Gratteri of interfering in politics. Democrat lawmaker
Enza Bruno Bossio
said the arrests effectively prevented Mr. Oliverio from running again. Her husband, the former deputy governor, is among those under investigation.
Gratteri arrests half of Calabria! Is it justice? No, its just a show, she said in a
post she has since deleted.
For many other Calabrians, Mr. Gratteri is a hero. At a rally in his support on Jan. 18, a few thousand people gathered outside the prosecutors office in Catanzaro. Primary school students and their teachers chanted Dont touch Gratteri!
A helicopter flew overhead and police snipers were stationed on rooftops. The prosecutor didnt show up: Police were worried the mob would try to kill him that day.
What can cities with poor economic prospects do to reduce the appeal of organized crime? Join the conversation below.
The mafia is like an invasive cancer. Its destroying our hopes and our rights, said Pasquale Spina, 18, who said he wants to become a police officer. We are here to support Gratteri because he needs it.
But in a region where there are few economic opportunities for young people and mistrust of authorities runs high, joining the mafia is sometimes seen as a good option.
On social issues, politicians are weakthe Ndrangheta is much stronger, Mr. Gratteri said. It offers hope.
To raise awareness about organized crime, Mr. Gratteri sometimes gives talks in local schools. His message doesnt always come across as intended. After one talk last year, he said, a student asked him for tips on how to join the mob.
Mr. Gratteri doubts the Ndrangeta can ever be completely defeated. You can eliminate 80% of it through law enforcement, he said. But a small part remains, and thats the mafioso mindset.
Write to Margherita Stancati at margherita.stancati@wsj.com
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