This article originally appeared on VICE UK
Last year the ‘Ndrangheta — a mafia from Calabria, a region that forms the toe of Italy's boot — had a total turnover that came to about $75 billion. Which, as reported by the Guardian in March, is equivalent to that of McDonald’s and Deutsche Bank put together, or 3.5 percent of Italy’s 2013 GDP. It did this through, among other things, extortion, usury, gambling, prostitution and the trafficking of both drugs and humans.
At least, that's according to the Demoskopika research institute in Italy. Can a mafia really make more than McDonald’s? Probably not. It has become a habit of Italian research institutes 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 that a lot of these numbers are over-hyped bullshit that get passed on from publication to publication without anyone checking them – they're kind of like the urban legends of the stats world 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 truly reliable estimate, we should wait for the Organized Crime Portfolio to report back at the end of this year, but until then, the most valid appraisals come from TransCrime. The crime research center reckon that in 2013 Italian mafias took in around $15 billion, or roughly 0.7 percent of last year's Italian GDP. Of this, $5.5 billion ends up in the 'Ndrangheta syndicate's hands. So, even without those "mythical numbers," it's still making a tidy wedge.
So how does a southern Italian crime syndicate – one worthy of FBI sanction under the US's Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act — manage to protect its massive turnover and influence politics, all while dodging the slings and arrows of state investigators and the judiciary?
Unlike the world famous Cosa Nostra from Sicily and the Camorra from Naples, for years the ‘Ndrangheta has largely managed to avoid the attention of the media. It's a tight-knit family affair and members have done their best not to make too much noise, while police informers have always been a rare breed. Its name comes from the Greek for "courage" or "loyalty" and aptly its well observed code of silence gives investigators a hard time.
The 'Ndrangheta has come a long way since it was denounced as a “sect of wrongdoers” way back in 1888. Between 1970 and 1991, besides usury and extortion in Calabria, the ‘Ndrangheta was mainly involved in kidnapping for ransom. The most famous case was that of John Paul Getty III; the son of Paul Getty and grandson of the industrialist Jean Paul Getty, founder of the Getty Oil company. The 'Ndrangheta ended up raking in a ransom of around $3 million for Getty III after kidnapping him in Rome in July '73, before releasing him onto the Salerno-Reggio Calabria motorway.
When the Berlin Wall fell, the ‘Ndrangheta seized the moment and the cheap assets, moving quickly to expand its operations in former Soviet bloc countries and turning its operation global. The syndicate dealt heroin and cocaine and became a reliable ally of the South American drug cartels. Last year, an investigation linked its operation with an IRA money laundering scam.
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. 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 organizations in the world for the handling of international drug trafficking," said Raffaele Grassi, head of Italy's national anti-racketeering division in February. He said that operations like “New Bridge” 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 focused on business instead, tightening its cozy links with the legal system. The local government in Reggio Calabria had to be dissolved because it had such strong mafia connections — that's how thoroughly the gang infiltrated the political establishment.
But this insidious approach has, at times, given way to open confrontation. Earlier this year a secret weapons 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."
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 taskforces 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 organized crime in Calabria. “The ‘Ndrangheta,” he said, “is the only mafia that can be found in all five continents. We could define it as the only ‘globalized' mafia.”
They might shoot your face off for saying it but — in one way, at least — it seems the 'Ndrangheta really has become the globe-straddling McDonald's of mafias.
Follow Luca Rinaldi on Twitter: @lucarinaldi