A port the Calabrian mafia helped to build has become so crucial to organised crime that it accounts for almost all of the cocaine seized entering Italy by sea.
A new report by the country’s anti-drug unit revealed 97 percent of the almost 14 tons of cocaine coming into Italy via the Mediterranean sea last year was discovered in Gioia Tauro, a port in the southwest region of Calabria – an area dominated by the ‘Ndrangheta, the world’s most influential mafia organisation. The gangsters not only funded part of the building of the port, companies controlled by them were involved in its construction and its operation.
In the last two years, as cocaine seizures have fallen in the two other main west coast ports of Genoa and Livorno, they have risen in Gioia Tauro. A total of 13.3 tons of cocaine was intercepted at the port – situated on the Tyrrhenian Sea on Italy’s “toe” – in 2021, almost six times the 2.3 tons seized there in 2011. Gioia Tauro’s importance as a destination for cocaine from South America now means that Calabria accounts for two thirds of all the cocaine seized by land, air and sea in Italy.
The volume of drugs seized at ports often reflects the amount of drugs being smuggled through them. It is estimated that for every kilo that is found by the authorities, on average another five kilos goes undetected into the hands of criminal gangs – meaning that statistically the equivalent of around 70 million gram bags of high purity cocaine was successfully smuggled through Gioia Tauro last year.
The anti-drug unit’s report said the amount of cocaine seized at Gioia Tauro “confirms the fundamental and primary role that this port continues to play” in Italy’s illegal drug industry.
The report said the port is increasingly being used as a waypoint for the trafficking of cocaine and other drugs onwards to ports in the Balkans, the Aegean Sea and the Black Sea, with a rising number of cocaine seized on its way from Gioia Tauro to Turkey, a country where gangs are increasingly involved in trafficking the stimulant drug.
As soon as the port opened for business in 1995, the most powerful local ‘Ndrangheta clans in the area, the Piromalli-Molé family in Gioia Tauro and the Pesce family in Rosarno, had started to wet their beaks by demanding a security tax of $1.50 from the port’s operators for every container.
A report on mafia influence in Gioia Tauro prepared for the European Commission in 2012 concluded that the “internationalisation of ‘Ndrangheta activity in the 1990s went in parallel with the construction of Gioia Tauro”. It said organised crime had “enjoyed a bonanza” as a result of the port operations, in which “the entire gamut of internal or subcontracted activities is mafia influenced, from the management of distribution and forwarding to customs control and container storage”. During one trial, it was found that 35 percent of businesses operating at the port had links to mafia.
Anna Sergi, a criminology and organised crime professor at the University of Essex who specialises in the ‘Ndrangheta, said national police forces and Europol estimate the Calabrian mafia controls around two thirds of Europe's cocaine trade.
“Gioia Tauro is home for the ’Ndrangheta. It has always been a huge investment for the clans, to import cocaine themselves and also to offer protection and services to newcomers who wanted to import cocaine and anything else,” she said. “’Ndrangheta clans have exploited Gioia Tauro not just through trafficking, but also through interfering in the hiring process at the port and via higher levels of corruption.”
One police investigation last year which resulted in the arrest of 49 people uncovered the infiltration of one of Gioia Tauro’s three towns, Rosarno, by the ‘Ndrangheta, which had managed to control official bodies by influencing local elections. In another case, port authorities found evidence that a laboratory for refining, preparing and packaging cocaine bricks was being set up within the port by a team of South Americans linked to the mafia.
There has been a string of police operations and trials targeting and exposing the mafia’s influence on Gioia Tauro, as well as some huge seizures of drugs at the port. In December last year Italian police discovered three tons of cocaine hidden in two shipments of bananas, peanuts and washing machines.
In her new book about her time growing up near Gioia Tauro and researching the ‘Ndrangheta, Chasing the Mafia: ‘Ndrangheta, memories and journeys, Sergi explained: “The port of Gioia Tauro was built and sustained, especially in its early days in the 1990s, with the money and in the interest of some of the most important clans of the ‘Ndrangheta.”
She said Gioia Tauro was a unique port in terms of its organised crime set up. Gangsters have influence in seaports around the world, from Brooklyn and Montreal to Liverpool and Genoa, but Gioia Tauro stands alone because the port, the surrounding region and its incoming drug trade is so dominated by the ‘Ndrangheta.
“The money that bought the drugs in the first place comes from the same territory where the drugs arrive and are initially distributed. The cocaine investors are not always the distributors, but in Gioia Tauro they are.
“The ‘Ndrangheta clans invest, import and receive, as well as distribute wholesale. And it is not always like this, not even for the ‘Ndrangheta clans active in other places. This gives them a powerful grip on both the cocaine and the territory.”