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As one mafia fades, Italy faces another

Police nabbed the Cosa Nostra's chief Monday, but the strongest organized crime group is the 'Ndrangheta – an organization responsible for 80 percent of Europe's cocaine imports.

By Bruce LiveseyContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / November 9, 2007



Rome

This past August, the fatal shooting of six Italian men exiting a restaurant in Duisburg, Germany, informed the world of what Italian authorities already knew: Italy's 'Ndrangheta crime syndicate had come of age as an international force.

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The Cosa Nostra, Italy's Sicilian mafia, used to be the country's most notorious and feared organization. But the capture this week of Salvatore Lo Piccolo showed how far they have fallen: For the second time in less than two years, their top boss was arrested.

As the Cosa Nostra wilted under the focused efforts of Italy's antimafia forces, however, the 'Ndrangheta quietly flourished. But after the assassination of a politician in the 'Ndrangheta's home province in 2005, the government vowed to crack down on the syndicate. An antimafia youth group – Ammazzateci Tutti – also rose up, vowing to hold the government to its promise.

"It was a mistake, because the state should investigate all criminal organizations," says Giuseppe Lumia, vice president of Italy's antimafia parliamentary commission. "If we were to use a sports metaphor, the state is recuperating, is training with its best players, but has not yet formed a team that is able to win the championship."

Europe's biggest cocaine player

Based in Calabria, the southernmost province of Italy's mainland, the 'Ndrangheta was once largely limited to shaking down small-town merchants and kidnapping for ransom.

Today, the 'Ndrangheta has formed close ties with Colombia's Medellin drug cartel and become the biggest player in Europe's cocaine market, says Alberto Cisterna, a magistrate with Italy's National Antimafia Directorate in Rome.

Italian officials and experts estimate that 80 percent of Europe's imports come through the Calabrian port of Gioia Touro, which local police say is controlled by the syndicate.

Prosecutors estimate that the 'Ndrangheta's operation generates ¤36 billion ($52 billion) a year in revenues. According to a 2005 report by the Italian social research institute Eurispes, drug trafficking accounted for ¤22.3 billion, with extortion, arms trafficking, and loan sharking also bringing substantial revenues.

The syndicate has used its proceeds to invest in northern Italy and the rest of Europe, says Nicola Gratteri, Calabria's senior magistrate, who has battled the 'Ndrangheta for nearly 20 years – doing everything from ordering wiretaps to prosecuting court cases. The Italian and German press, including Panorama and Stern magazines, have reported money-laundering schemes by the 'Ndrangheta across Europe.

According to a report presented by Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi's office in August, the syndicate has "a sizable presence" in Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, the Balkans, Eastern Europe, and South America.

Virtually impervious family ties

With members recruited on the basis of family ties, the 'Ndrangheta is virtually impervious to police infiltration. "Every locali, or cell, is composed of people who belong to family, and this is why there are no justice collaborators," says Mr. Gratteri, adding that only 42 turncoats have come from the 'Ndrangheta, compared with 700 to 1,000 from the Cosa Nostra and 2,000 from the Camorra.

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