Italy struck a major blow against the little known ‘Ndrangheta mafia – the country's most dangerous and impenetrable mafia organization – Tuesday when police arrested 300 alleged members on charges of murder, drugs trafficking, and extortion.
In the biggest operation against the shadowy syndicate in 15 years, more than 3,000 armed police raided homes, offices, and mafia strongholds across the country, arresting the alleged head of the organization, Domenico Oppedisano, an 80-year-old godfather.
Mr. Oppedisano had been serving as the head of the organization since last year, when he was formally anointed leader at a lavish mafia wedding, according to Italian police.
For decades the 'Ndrangheta has been based in the southern region of Calabria, in the toe of the Italian boot, but has in recent years thrived on cocaine trafficking and spread its tentacles to northern Europe, the United States, South America, and Australia.
It has also established a formidable presence in northern Italy, laundering its dirty money and investing in ostensibly legitimate enterprises such as hotels, restaurants, supermarkets, and even the health-care sector.
The government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, which claims it has done more in the last two years to tackle the mafia head on than any previous administration, hailed the raid against the ‘Ndrangheta as precedent setting.
It was "absolutely the most important operation against the 'Ndrangheta in recent years," according to Italy's interior minister, Roberto Maroni.
The Calabrian mob had been "hit in the heart of its organizational and financial structure," the minister said.
While the "Godfather" movies introduced the world to the Cosa Nostra mafia of Sicily, the 'Ndrangheta is much less well known.
What's in a name?
Originating in an area that was once, in classical times, under Greek domination, its name derives from the Greek word meaning "courage" or "loyalty," according to the FBI.
Its criminal activities are anything but courageous, however, and largely revolve around the highly lucrative importation of cocaine from Colombia and its distribution around Europe.
The long-term impact of the nationwide assault on the 'Ndrangheta remains to be seen, but investigators claimed it struck a crippling blow against one of the world's most powerful but enigmatic criminal syndicates.
The raids, which included the confiscation of firearms and around 60 million euros ($76 million) worth of assets, took place in the ‘Ndrangheta's home region of Calabria and around Milan, the regional capital of the wealthy north of Italy and an irresistible target for mafia gangsters.
The arrests in and around Milan "confirm that northern Italy is the true theater of operations for the 'Ndrangheta," said an antimafia prosecutor, Alberto Cisterna.
Built on cocaine and collusion
Italy's Eurispes institute has estimated that the 'Ndrangheta's turnover from trafficking in cocaine and arms, prostitution, and extortion amounts to around 44 billion euros ($56 billion) a year – the equivalent of 2.9 percent of Italy's gross domestic product.
The strength of the mafia also relies on the collusion of corrupt police, politicians and businessmen, as numerous scandals have attested in recent years, including some involving long-serving and very close aides of Mr Berlusconi.
“The huge raid against the ‘Ndrangheta confirms what we have been fearing for years – that its reach goes to the very heart of this country. It’s really a national emergency,” said Franco Laratta, a member of Parliament from the main opposition party.
Much less well known than Cosa Nostra of Sicily or the Camorra of Campania, the 'Ndrangheta hit international headlines in 2007 when a blood feud between clans resulted in the gunning down of six men outside a pizzeria in the sleepy town of Duisburg, Germany.
Its tight organisational structure, based on blood ties and family, has made it hard to penetrate, and it has yielded far fewer turncoats, or 'pentiti,' than other mafia groups.