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December 2004
The 'Ndrangheta Looms Large

By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus


Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

The Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta has become a force to be reckoned with, its tentacles spreading beyond its base at the toe of Italy.

     "One hundred people have been arrested in raids targeting groups in the south-western region of Calabria, known as the ‘Ndrangheta. The area had recently seen a spectacular rise of mafia-related crime. The Italian Interior Minister said the ‘Ndrangheta has become ‘the most powerful and dangerous criminal organization in Italy because of its viciousness.’" (Italian News Release, 22 September 2004)

     "An entire neighborhood in the Belgium capital of Brussels has been bought by the Italian ‘Ndrangheta seeking to launder drugs and money, and tens of millions of euros had been laundered by acquiring real estate in Belgium and Holland." (Sapa, 3 May 2004)

     The ‘Ndrangheta is deemed to be the most robust of all Italian mafias and has taken precedence over Cosa Nostra in the arms, heroin and cocaine markets. It is national and international in scope. The influence of Cosa Nostra in northern Italy had been marginalized due to the strong influence of Calabrese criminal associations. The ‘Ndrangheta is not only dominant; it appears to be monopolistic, pushing aside Sicilian clans from Palermo and Catania. The Calabrians have forged alliances with foreign criminal groups for drug trafficking and developing avenues for profitable opportunities.

     To cite one example, police have uncovered the growing presence of mafiosi in Poland. Polish gangs and the Russian Mafiyas are in the picture. Poland acts as a staging ground for criminal forays into adjacent countries. Especially the ‘Ndrangheta is investing heavily in real estate. Because of its inefficient control of money and secret bank accounts, Poland is an attractive location for money laundering. In league with Russian and Polish mobsters, the Italians arrange the smuggling of drugs, arms and rare metals. In Warsaw and elsewhere mafia-owned restaurants and pizzerias show unrealistically high profits given their volume of business, an indication of their use as money laundries of illicit cash. The ‘ndranghetisti are difficult to apprehend red-handed since the street work is done by Poles. The capos act in the guise of rich businessmen who live the high life and travel throughout Europe accompanied by armed bodyguards, skillfully avoiding Italian court warrants and police nets. The Polish police recently detained two Calabrians who were in the country allegedly to organize a channel to Western Europe for Turkish heroin. Other investigations have signaled the makings of an international syndicate coordinated by Italian and Russian mafias, although the actual dimensions of the linkage remain unclear.

     By the late 1800s, the 'Ndrangheta had emerged. The mountainous region of Calabria was poverty stricken, lacking an industrial base and a sizable burgher class. Feudal landholding patterns prevailed until the 20th century. Secret societies with criminal intent were established in the provinces. Their ascendancy in the city of Reggio Calabria was the revelation in 1888 of the existence of a "sect that fears nothing."

     The ‘Ndrangheta was a rural phenomenon that rose to oppose the excessive power of the landed gentry who exploited the peasant class to its own ends. The forerunners of the modern ‘Ndrangheta extorted money from the landowners by intimidation and acts against property and persons. The booty from thefts was divided among friends and relatives. By supposedly acting in the interests of the peasantry, the leaders achieved a reputation as "men of honor," fair men who were supporters of the disfranchised.

     The term ‘Ndrangheta itself suggests as much. It means a "society of honorable men," deriving from the Greek andragathes, indicating a noble, courageous man, worthy of respect as a result of his capacities. A code of honor is the pillar of a collective identity in the sect, forming a brotherhood of solidarity among it affiliates and a common purpose. The word is a part of the Calabrian dialect; the organization is understood as a Calabrian (criminal) subculture with distinct characteristics.

     The ‘Ndrangheta has evolved from its humble beginnings to become in the past decades an infiltrating force of corruptive influence, siphoning off wealth and posing a threat to state stability. Where there are opportunities for profit, there is criminality. Costly public work projects in Calabria cannot proceed smoothly, as one official stated, "without taking into account the ‘Ndrangheta."

     "A southern Italian mayor who opposes the building of a bridge between Sicily and the mainland has resigned after a campaign of intimidation blamed on local mobsters. Rocco Cassone, the civic chief in Villa San Giovanni, has had his car set on fire twice. Last month he received a death threat.…Villa San Giovanni, across the strait of Messina from the coast of Sicily, in the ‘Ndrangheta heartland, appears destined to become caught up in one of Europe’s biggest projects.…For the ‘Ndrangheta on one side of the strait and Cosa Nostra on the other…the project holds out the prospect of vast rake-offs from the cash that will flow into the area." (Guardian Newspapers, September 3, 2004)

     Unlike Cosa Nostra, which is pyramidal, the ‘Ndrangheta has a horizontal structure. It is a segmented criminal enterprise and the affiliates do not know anything, if not very vaguely, about the level superior to the one to which they belong. Where it rules, every ‘ndrina, or clan, has full control of the territory and a monopoly in every activity. The ‘ndrina is founded largely on family lineage and is consolidated by a web of intra-‘ndrina marriages. Being all related, it is difficult to convince affiliates to cooperate with the authorities. To snitch on one’s own has been rare.

     "Mafias find strength in omertà and in the sacred and impregnable structure of the family, the only secure place. Only blood does not betray." (S. Accardo, Sicilian parish priest)

     The internal hierarchy of every clan is rigid and well defined, allowing little deviation from its expectations. Sons of ‘ndranghetisti are expected to follow in the footsteps of their fathers. During the initial grooming process in youth, they are known as giovani d’onore (boys of honor). It is their diritto di sangue, a right of blood, a title that is assigned at their moment of birth, in anticipation of the day when they will be enrolled into the ranks as uomini d’onore (men of honor).

     The elementary level is composed of the soldiers (picciotti d’onore), who execute orders with blind obedience in hopes of one day graduating to direct a crew of picciotti as a cammorista. The next level, called santista, has a right to a share of the rake-offs because they have earned their "bones." Higher still in the inner sanctum is the vangelista, who demonstrates his fidelity to the criminal life by the act of swearing on a copy of the Gospel. The quintino constitutes a group of five privileged ‘ndranghetisti, the sub-bosses, who in the old days were recognized by a tattoo with a five-point star. The boss, or capobastone (head of command), administers the ‘ndrina territory and sits in with other neighboring ‘ndrina capos, called a locale. The locale of chiefs coordinates criminal ventures at the provincial level and with other ‘ndranghetisti outside of Calabria. ‘Ndrine will form consortiums to pool resources and men when big operations are in the offing, such as contrabanding or drug transactions.

     Authorities have reported that in the past there have been ‘Ndrangheta meetings of all capobastoni in an attempt to unify the clans into a single structure to increase their power and to promote peace between warring ‘ndrine. In attendance were also colleagues from northern Italy, Australia and North America. Each clan has contributed funds to these gatherings, which are called La mamma di tutti gli affiliati, "The Mother of All Affiliates," in obvious reference to plans of an integrated international ‘Ndrangheta movement.

     All criminal groups have many features in common. These include durability over time, diversified interests, hierarchical structure, capital accumulation, reinvestment, access to political protection, and use of intimidation and violence to protect and promote their interests. A way in which the ‘Ndrangheta succeeds is apparently in its ability to remain less noticed and therefore more difficult to penetrate and defeat. As one official noted, the ‘Ndrangheta "is invisible like the dark side of the moon." This secrecy is enhanced by the employment of women in extortions, collecting rake offs, securing caches of stolen goods and as go-betweens. The Calabrians traditionally have had women in its ranks. A judicial report from the 1880s reads, "Dressed as men, they take part in larceny and other crimes."

     The ‘Ndrangheta has emerged as one of the most active of criminal associations. It has, by official estimate, 155 clans with 6,000 affiliates, a larger number, relative to regional population size, than the mafias of Sicily, Campania or Puglia. To this number must be added those citizens peripheral to the mob who play a substantive role. The Calabrian mafia witness Giacomo Lauro said, in 1995, "The mafia cannot exist without complicity or middlemen. In Calabria these take the form of entrepreneurs acting as middlemen, corrupt politicians, deviant Freemasonry, and members of secret service. There cannot be a mafia without such support. Likewise, there is no police without mafia informants and collaborators." ‘Ndrangheta power has been consolidated by those who ally with it to foster their own interests. Where public partnership exists, mafiosi have dominion.

     "In Taurianova, a town near Reggio di Calabria, the local ‘ndrina beheaded a town councilor, then used his severed head for target practice in the town square. It was the 32nd murder in the small town in two years. A later investigation found that the town had been controlled by the ‘Ndrangheta for Christian Democrats for years. The posts of mayor and party president had become hereditary in one family, which had grown wealthy by defrauding the health service and taking kickbacks on construction projects." (P. Lunde. Organized Crime, 2004)


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