Antonio Pelle of the 'Ndrangheta crime family reportedly reached the rank of vangelo (gospel), a high-level official who is sworn in with his hand on the Bible. Illustration by Jacob Everett
In criminal organizations hierarchy is everything. A few years ago, the Italian government led an investigation called Crimine-Infinito that revealed the complex structure of the 'Ndrangheta, the Calabrian mob. Long considered a "horizontal Mafia," or a simple confederation of clans, the 'Ndrangheta was shown to have a secret hierarchical structure with a central leader, exactly like the better-known Cosa Nostra.
The governing body of the 'Ndrangheta is the Crimine (Crime), supervised by the capo crimine (head crime). His spokesperson, the mastro di giornata (master of the day), passes along his orders. Underneath them are the colonels: the mastro generale (general master), the capo società (head of the society), and the contabile (accountant).
At the base of the 'Ndrangheta are the 'ndrine, clans made up of members of the same family (often enlarged through arranged marriages). Each 'ndrina is in charge of a distinct territory called a locale (local), which does not always coincide with a geographic zone: It is possible to have numerous locals in the same city, or multiple cities in the same local. The Crimine controls every local in the world, and everyone there must obey its every command.
Each local has at least 49 members and answers to a capo locale (head local), also called a capo bastone (head crook) after the staff used by shepherds to round up sheep. He directs the criminal activity in his territory, calls meetings, decides on memberships and promotions, and resolves conflicts. Just like the capo crimine in the central organization of the 'Ndrangheta, every capo locale is flanked by a capo società, his chief manager; a mastro di giornata, who delivers his instructions to the underlings (in slang, "he passes the news"); and a contabile, who oversees the funds coming from illicit activities, the so-called valigetta (briefcase).
The locals have a double structure: the Società Minore (Minor Society), comprising the lowest-level members, and the Società Maggiore (Major Society), also called the Società Santa (Holy Society), composed of their superiors. There are many ranks (known as doti) in the 'Ndrangheta, and a member's position determines his tasks, responsibilities, and salary.
In the Società Minore, the lowest tier is occupied by the giovane d'onore (youth of honor), a descendant of a boss and an honorary member by blood right. Above him is the picciotto d'onore (boy of honor), the first role given to those who join the 'Ndrangheta. He'll carry out menial tasks, mostly manual labor, until he graduates to the position of camorrista (literally "someone who collects extortion money") and takes on more complicated jobs. The top brass in the Società Minore is known as the sgarrista (soldier).
One enters the upper house of the local, the Società Maggiore, as a santista (the name refers to his being part of the Società Santa). A rung above him is the vangelo (gospel), so called because he swore loyalty to the 'Ndrangheta with one hand on the Bible (a tattooed cross marks his left shoulder). Next is the trequartino (three quarters), who has privileged access to three quarters of the organization (he has a cross on his right shoulder and an emerald rose under his foot). The ranks continue ever upward: quartino (one quarter), padrino (godfather), crociata (crusade), stella (star), bartolo (the origins of this title are unknown), Mammasantissima (Most Holy Mother), and infinito (infinity). The Società Maggiore culminates in the figure of the Conte Agadino. The name is probably a reference to Count Ugolino, whom Dante depicts as eating his own children in the Inferno. The boss of the 'Ndrangheta may eat his children, sell them, sacrifice them without facing a vendetta. Arriving at the top of the 'Ndrangheta means acquiring the power to kill and betray one's own blood.
Up to a certain point in the 'Ndrangheta's hierarchy, each rank has a religious reference and is identified with a saint. (The picciotto is associated with St. Liberata, the camorrista with St. Nunzia, and the sgarrista with St. Elizabeth.)
It's important to keep in mind that the 'Ndrangheta's initiation ritual is known as a "baptism." The members position themselves in the shape of a horseshoe and receive the baptismal candidate from a "guarantor," a kind of godparent who vouches for the prospective member and the authenticity of his intentions to enter into the clan. A capo società officiates the rite, asking the initiate questions and reading him the honor codes that he will be required to maintain at the cost of his life. The Mafia baptism is a "blood baptism": The new member's finger is cut by a sharp knife so that a drop of his blood falls on the prayer-card image of St. Michael the Archangel-considered the patron saint of the 'Ndrangheta-which is then slightly burned on one corner. At the end of this ceremony, a new "man of honor" is created. (Every promotion to a higher rank requires its own ritual.)
It seems unbelievable, but even today, as I am writing this, young people are joining criminal organizations through archaic rituals. And not only in Italy but all over the world.
On the night of August 15, 2007, in the quiet town of Duisburg, Germany, the final act of a 16-year-old feud took place. The Nirta-Strangio and the Pelle-Vottari-the two most powerful clans in San Luca, the Calabrian village that is the stronghold of the 'Ndrangheta-had been warring since 1991. Everything had started with an ordinary Carnival prank: During the festivities, some guys from the Nirta-Strangio threw eggs and flour in front of a bar run by the Pelles, dirtying the car of a member of the Vottari family. This was immediately interpreted as an affront, since everyone knew that the Strangios were trying to expand their power over the area. So began a feud that caused more than a dozen deaths over the next decade and a half. The last set of murders happened on that night in Duisberg, when the Nirta-Strangio sought to avenge a death that had occurred a few months earlier. They killed six people linked to the Pelle-Vottari families, almost all of them very young, in front of an Italian restaurant called Da Bruno, where one of the victims had just celebrated his 18th birthday. A burned prayer card with St. Michael's image that was found in the pocket of the guest of honor led investigators to deduce that the restaurant had probably been the site of a rite of initiation of the 'Ndrangheta. Inside, there was a statue of St. Michael, and in a windowless room in the back numerous images of the Madonna di Polsi (Our Lady of Polsi, revered by members of the 'Ndrangheta) hung on the wall, watching over a long table with 12 chairs. The motivation for the murders and the ceremony that took place in Duisburg had originated more than 1,200 miles away, in the small town of San Luca. Rules, codes, and rituals travel from San Luca to Germany, to the rest of Europe, and to the United States-any place in the world where the 'Ndrangheta have extended their tentacles.
Being in a criminal organization means being a member of a structure that is part business, part religious order, and part ancient military (like the Roman army, which was organized in legions). Legends and codes abound in Mafias, which use them to construct a collective identity for their members. Rituals are useful because they provide rules in a world without rules: Italian crime families are considered the most trustworthy underground organizations in the world because they have regulations, which aren't the rules of jurisprudence-the law-but of behavior and discipline for illegal operations (which, by definition, have no rules).
It may seem paradoxical that a country known for its absolute lack of rules has the mob with the most rules in the world. Italian mafiosi are conservative, traditional-quite different from their modernized, emancipated Italian-American counterparts. Joe Pistone ("Donnie Brasco"), the FBI agent who infiltrated the New York Mafia, maintains that the more mafiosi become Americanized the more they become mere bullies, failing to understand that you don't commit a crime just to get rich, because if you break the Mafia's rules you also break its way of life.
In the 1970s Vincenzo Macrì, nephew and designated heir of Antonio Macrì, boss of the 'ndrina of Siderno (in Calabria), was "laid down"-that is, banned from the organization-because his behavior did not conform to that of a good 'Ndranghetista (member of the 'Ndrangheta). Vincenzo rode around on a Vespa, went out in a T-shirt and shorts, and was ultimately replaced. Even today a 'Ndranghetista must rigorously respect certain parameters: He must not be a playboy, and he must be careful not to cause trouble, avoiding fights and stupid stunts. In other words, he must not attract unnecessary attention.
I've always been struck by the spirit of absolute sacrifice exhibited by the bosses of criminal organizations. I've often wondered how a man can withstand the conditions of a maximum-security prison (where Italian law requires Mafia bosses to be held) for decades. You understand it when you see how bosses live as free men or, even worse, as fugitives: forced to stay closed up in tiny, windowless bunkers to avoid being discovered by law enforcement.
Italy has more bunkers than any other country in the world. There are places, such as the area around the town of Locri, in Calabria, where they are part of everyone's daily life. A household builds a bunker almost automatically, preparing for the worst: Hopefully it won't be necessary, but it's better to have it just in case. Bunkers are part of the blueprints of new homes. It's as though good parents think about their sons' futures by providing them with a safe place to spend their time as fugitives. Plus a relative, a brother-in-law, a cousin, or an uncle might need it. The mafioso knows that sooner or later his life on the outside will only be possible if he knows how to hide.
The bunker, however, is a mind-set more than a hideout-the mind-set of living with very little space, of never going out, of never seeing sunlight. It's like an animal den. It's a crawl space only made human by a scant collection of personal items: prayer cards, porn magazines, car and watch catalogues-things that prove the power of the mafioso is internal rather than external. The boss has to satisfy himself with the pictures of those watches and luxury cars, buying them with his eyes, because he will never be able to leave his spider hole.
This is the price someone pays when he wants real power, the power over life and death.
Translated from the Italian by Kim Ziegler