Olive groves land a mafia boss in jail: Police believe they have a watertight case against a leader of a Calabrian criminal clan, writes Patricia Clough from Rome

Patricia Clough
Tuesday 01 September 1992 23:02

DON Saverio Mammoliti, 50, one of the leading bosses of the 'Ndrangheta, the Calabrian mafia, playboy with a weakness for Jaguars; suspected international drug tsar; terror of local landowners and alleged usurper of 750 acres of the richest land in southern Italy, is behind bars.

Don Saro, as he is known with fear and respect around Castellace on the fertile plain of Gioia Tauro, was arrested on Monday with his wife, Maria Caterina, whom he married when she was 13. Unlike the traditional silent, homebody mafia wives, she allegedly helped run the family 'business'. Simultaneously the carabinieri rounded up Don Saro's brother, a nephew, three brothers-in-law and a sister-in-law in their seaside villas, as well as two non-related members of the clan. An eleventh member, alleged to be its hit man, is already in prison. A 12th got away.

Don Saro's activities have filled endless police files since he took over as head of the family at the age of 12, when his father, Francesco, was killed in a blood feud with a rival clan. The 'Ndrangheta families are involved in similar crimes to those of the Sicilian Mafia, but they appear to be less co- ordinated and have fewer international links.

Don Saro was believed to have helped plot the kidnapping of Paul Getty III, whose ear was chopped off and sent to the family to induce his grandfather, the oil multi-millionaire, to produce a ransom. But Mr Mammoliti was acquitted at his trial.

The FBI's Narcotics Bureau, as well as the Italian authorities, suspect him of large-scale heroin and cocaine trafficking; there have been probes into dubious public works contracts and hotel construction. But what put Don Saro and his family behind bars was the manner in which they are said to have acquired 750 acres of the most fertile and lucrative land - much of it olive and citrus groves - worth a total of around pounds 7m.

It is alleged that local landowners were 'persuaded' to sell them the land at giveaway prices, or to rent it to them for next to nothing - or that the clan simply fenced it in and treated it as its own.

The land was allegedly registered in the name of one of the arrested men, Francesco Ventrice, 67, a farm labourer who on paper runs three companies with a total annual turnover of pounds 3m a year and 15 different bank accounts.

Charges include allegations of one murder; six bomb attacks; 19 arson attacks; the destruction of 1,100 olive, citrus and kiwi trees in 15 separate incursions, and 14 instances of agricultural equipment stolen. And one murder. Baron Antonio Carlo Cordopatri was shot dead on 10 July last year. Baron Antonio was a southern aristocrat from an ancient landowning family. He was also something of a black sheep of his family, a bon viveur, a gambler, and was alleged at one stage to have joined the Mammolitis in extorting money from his own cousins.

But Baron Antonio was not about to hand over his ancestral land. Local labourers were made to stop working for him. Twice he was shot at, but he remained firm. Finally he was shot dead and Salvatore la Rosa, 24, the presumed clan member already in jail, was arrested almost immediately, allegedly with the gun still in his hand.

Don Saro, however, is not accustomed to staying behind bars for long. He once escaped from jail and spent many extremely comfortable years supposedly on the run but in fact managing the clan very close to home - and so cocksure that he got married in the church next door to the local carabinieri headquarters.

He has had his property seized then handed back. He has been sentenced to 33 years in jail, only to have it quashed by the Supreme Court. He seems to have, like many Mafia bosses, friends in high places: the telephone numbers of the prime minister's office and various Rome ministries were once found in his possession.

Two months ago he and some of his clan were rounded up after parallel investigations by the police - a glowing example of the lack of co-ordination between the country's various forces - but released a couple of days later.

But the Calabrian carabinieri believe they have a watertight case. For months, Major Paolo Fabiano and Captain Mario Paschetta have pored over documents in the public records offices and notaries' files. They ended up, according to a spokesman, with 'heaps of documentary proof'.

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