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.
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.
Yet the 'Ndrangheta's clans can be quarrelsome – with fatal results. The killings in Duisburg last summer are rooted in such an internecine dispute, says Mr. Gratteri, who is overseeing the investigation into the origins of the attack.
One of the men shot in Duisburg, Marco Marmo, was wanted by authorities for involvement in the December 2006 murder of an the 'Ndrangheta leader's wife in the Calabrian village of San Luca. Gratteri refused to discuss the details of the investigation under way, but the Italian press has speculated that Marmo was the reason an 'Ndrangheta clan executed the Duisburg attack.
Mr. Lumia of Italy's antimafia parliamentary commission says this conflict "has become a clash for financial and territorial control of San Luca ... [which] becomes control on an international level."
In order to bring down the 'Ndrangheta, Gratteri contends, new legislation is needed. "We have no laws that are proportional to the force of the 'Ndrangheta," he says, explaining that well-behaved convicts can leave prison after five years. "I would like ... [them] not to be released before 30 years."
Youths' challenge to Italy: rise up
For magistrates battling the 'Ndrangheta, a welcome ally has been Ammazzateci Tutti – formed two years ago by fed-up young people. "The 'Ndrangheta is an octopus which tries to control everything and to kill all of the fish," says Bruno Marino, a student whose father was killed by the group.
Since its founding, Ammazzateci Tutti has held regular demonstrations designed to pressure the Italian state into taking action against the 'Ndrangheta.
Last February, a protest in Reggio di Calabria drew thousands into the streets. In recent weeks, the group has staged regular protests against the government's pending transfer of Luigi De Magistris, an antimafia magistrate investigating links between politicians and the 'Ndrangheta.
"The 'Ndrangheta ... is infiltrating the political system," says Aldo Pecora, a law student and spokesman for Ammazzateci Tutti, whose taunting title means, "Now Kill Us All."
"Ammazzateci Tutti is a message that expresses both hope and challenge to the 'Ndrangheta, saying 'See if you have enough lead to kill us all,' " explains Mr. Pecora. "It's also a challenge to normal people to rebel against the the 'Ndrangheta."
Pecora says the group continues to form chapters across both Calabria and throughout Italy, their message spreading via the Internet, which he credits with helping them to become a national organization.
Still, he concedes that they don't yet pose a serious threat to the 'Ndrangheta, but are rather "bothering" those who want to control Calabria.
He hopes to one day become an antimafia magistrate, and says he's put Ammazzateci Tutti "before everything, before my family and my studies, because I am not wasting time. I am doing something for my children, if I ever have any. There is nothing to lose and only the future to gain."