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How Did the 'Ndrangheta Get So Rich?

Italy's first globalised mafia is organising crime in all five continents.

af Luca Rinaldi
17 april 2014, 6:00am

Global 'Ndrangheta operations

Last year the ‘Ndrangheta – a mafia from Calabria, the toe of Italy's boot – had a total turnover that came to £44.8 billion, equivalent to that of McDonald’s and Deutsche Bank put together. That's equivalent to 3.5 per cent of Italy’s GDP of 2013, and it did so through, amongst other things, drug trafficking, extortion, usury, gambling, prostitution and human trafficking.

At least, that's according to the Demoskopika research institute in Italy. Can the mafia really make more than Maccy D's? Probably not. It has become a habit of Italian research insitutes to come out with stuff like this and their methodology is not always that scientific. In one of his papers published on GlobalCrime, Francesco Calderoni – an Italian researcher from the TransCrime research group – points out that the tendency to increase these figures perfectly fits “Mythical Numbers” theory. Basically meaning a lot of these numbers are over-hyped bullshit, but get talked about as if they're accurate.

A more scientific evaluation would drastically lower the numbers. And in fact, one has done just that. For a really reliable evaluation, we should wait for the Organised Crime Portfolio’s project to report back at the end of this year, but until then, the most valid appraisals from TransCrime, reckon that Italian mafias take around £8.8 billion – about 0.7 percent of the Italian GDP, of which £3.3 billion ends up in the 'Ndrangheta syndicate's hands. Even without those mythical numbers, they're still making a tidy wedge.

So how does a southern Italian crime syndicate worthy of sanction FBI under the US's Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act, manage to protect its massive turnover, influence politics and dodge the slings and arrows of state investigators and the judiciary?

Unlike the world famous Cosa Nostra from Sicily and the Camorra from Naples, the ‘Ndrangheta has operated for years largely managing to avoid the attention of the media. It's a tight knitted, family affair and members have done their best not to make too much noise, while police informers have always been a rare breed. Their well observed code of silence gives investigators a hard time.

The arrest of Carmelo Galico, the 'Ndrangheta's man in Barcelona

The 'Ndrangheta was denounced as a “sect of wrongdoers” way back in 1888 and has come a long way since then. Between 1970 and 1991, besides usury and extortion in Calabria, ‘Ndrangheta was mainly involved in kidnapping for ransom. The most famous case was that of John Paul Getty III gained popularity; he was the son of Paul Getty and grandson of the industrialist Jean Paul Getty, founder of the Getty Oil company. Getty, kidnapped in Rome on July 1973, was then released in the same year on the Salerno-Reggio Calabria motorway, after the ransom of around $3 million was paid.

When the Berlin Wall fell the ‘Ndrangheta siezed the moment and the cheap assets, moving quickly to expand their operations in eastern Europe and turning their operation global. They deal heroin and cocaine and became a reliable ally of the South American drug cartels. Last year an investigation linked the syndicate with money launderers who were giving their money to the IRA.

It is well known that Mexican drug gangs Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel are in business with the ‘Ndrangheta, and recent joint operations by police in Italy and the US – named “Crime 3”, “Reckoning/Solare” and “New Bridge” – uncovered an elaborate logistical network. The Zetas have a monopoly over drug trafficking in US and with the ‘Ndrangheta’s partnership they managed to enter the European drug market too. Operation “Crime 3” showed that the ‘Ndrangheta exercises absolute “hegemony over cocaine trafficking in Europe based on the alliance with Colombian traffickers in Europe and Los Zetas in the US.”

"The 'Ndrangheta can and has to be considered one of the most powerful organisations in the world for the handling of international drug-trafficking," said Raffaele Grassi, head of Italy's national anti-racketeering division in February. Operations like “New Bridge”, according to him, prove once more that the ‘Ndrangheta has expanded far beyond its place of origin and its activities in Northern Italy, and “is looking for criminals beyond the borders, invading new markets to make profit.”

Back in 1992, while Cosa Nostra in Sicily was openly challenging the state by killing the two judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, the ‘Ndrangheta pulled out from its campaign of violence and focussed on business instead, tightening their cozy links with the legal system. They infiltrated state institutions to such an extent that the municipality of Reggio Calabria had to be dissolved for its mafia connections.

Nicola Gratteri, an anti-mafia Calabrian public attorney. Image (via).

But this insidious approach has, at times, given way to open confrontation. Earlier this year a secret weapon factory was discovered in the province of Reggio Calabria, and the investigators have no doubt: those weapons were destined to be used in an attack against a State official. Italy’s national anti-mafia prosecutor, Franco Roberti, declared: "the situation in Calabria is utterly alarming. As in 2010, ‘Ndrangheta is ready to attack."

The spotlight has been late to shine on the ‘Ndrangheta in Italy. In the rest of Europe the syndicate came to prominence in 2007, following the Duisburg massacre on the 15th of August that year. Six people were killed in front of an Italian restaurant called “Da Bruno” in the German town, after an ambush at the peak of what was known as the “San Luca feud”, so-called because of the Calabrian town in which a long running war between the two families Nirta-Strangio and Pelle-Vottari took place.

Operating across borders has a key advantage for the syndicate: The crime of "mafia association" only exists in Italy, which leads to major problems in coordinating investigations between police tasks forces of different European countries. But the ‘Ndrangheta's influence stretches well beyond Europe anyway. Nicola Gratteri is a Calabrian Public Attorney who has been working for years in investigations on the organised crime in Calabria. “The ‘Ndrangheta,” he says, “is the only mafia that can be found in all five continents. We could define it as the only ‘globalised’ mafia.”


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