Report: Mafia: Territory ‘Ndrangheta: The multinational crime company

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Sebastiano Strangio, a 39-year-old chef, closed down his pizzeria in Duisburg (Germany) after two in the morning. It was August 15, 2007, and he decided to go out for a drink with two waitresses and three friends. As they were walking towards their cars, two guys approached and opened fire with caliber 9 pistols. They changed several magazines with all the calm in the world and fired 59 times, including the coup de grace in the head at each victim: all Calabrian. The main target was Marco Marmo, a native of San Luca, like Strangio himself. A small town of 3,700 inhabitants 2,144 kilometers from cold Duisburg, where the previous Christmas had broken out a clan war in which the wife of one of the bosses died. Five of those bodies were related to those responsible, the Pelle-Vottari family. In the back room of the pizzeria an armory was hidden, and in the pocket of one of the victims the German police found a burned statuette of the Archangel Saint Michael. The world discovered that day how the ‘Ndrangheta virus had spread.

-What are you looking for?

"I'm looking for blood and honor."

Thus begins a dialogue of about 20 minutes to enter an organization originally based on two strata —major and minor society—, on secrecy and strict hierarchies. From that moment, if necessary, the new picciotto, the lowest stadium, he will kill his family in order to protect the ‘Ndrangheta. When he swears there is a lit candle and a figurine of Saint Michael the Archangel, protector of the Calabrian mafia. The aspirant, a relative of another member, sticks a needle in his finger and each of the drops falls on the figure that is burning. The rest of the clan, sitting in a horseshoe, hears that the new one will burn like the statuette if he betrays his new family. It is always so. Hundreds of summaries already document a liturgy of which most of the details are still unknown.

The organization was born with theft of cattle and kidnappings. Today it controls the wholesale distribution of cocaine in Europe

The town of San Luca, known to affiliates as the Mamma, helps to understand this organization. The Corleone of ‘Ndrangheta is not a place of passage. The winding road winds through the rugged Aspromonte and ends at the local church. End of the journey. When entering the place where the most dangerous mafia in Europe takes root, the stranger will always be under surveillance. A scooter with a teenager without a shirt, three hoop earrings and a shaved head on the sides escorts him, accelerating a few meters behind. In this town, where no one has run for mayor for five years, he set the Duisburg fire. The Pelle-Vottari and the Nirta-Strangios have commanded from their bunkers in recent years a deeply ritualistic organization that was born out of cattle theft, extortion and kidnappings, but ended up as a crime multinational with a monopoly on distribution. cocaine wholesale in Europe. Today, according to the Catanzaro Prosecutor's Office, it has more than 30,000 members in Calabria alone and has a turnover of some 43,000 million euros that allow it to alter the democratic system. This liquid mafia, as defined by the writer Francesco Forgione, is the fourth company in Italy and, probably, the one with the most subsidiaries in the world: Australia, Canada, Belgium, Holland, Spain … But the key is not to appear so.

Il Quotidiano del Sud journalist Michele Albanese is one of those who knows the organization best. He poses with his bodyguards, a protection he has had since 2014, when the ‘Ndrangheta planned to assassinate him.

Giampaolo Salvatore kills the hours leaning on a railing next to the San Luca town hall. About 50 years old, tough skin, farmer's hands and Olympic athlete's back, he regrets that no one wants to hire him after eating 25 years for kidnapping people. Nothing weird here. For years they searched the north for victims, always from wealthy families; They put them in a car, crossed Italy on secondary roads and hid them in some cave in Aspromonte. Impossible to locate them, mutters a friend of Salvatore's. It was in the seventies and that business – 694 kidnappings – worked until a stroke of luck suggested changing course at ‘ndrinas (families). The grandson of oil magnate John Paul Getty ended up in the trunk of a car in 1973 on his way to Calabria. They asked for 17 million, thus challenging the richest man in the world. But also the most stingy. After five months of negotiations and the shipment of an ear, it ended up at three million. Enough for what they set out to do.

The historic capo Girolamo Piromalli, head of Gioia Tauro's staff, led a revolutionary – and bloody – initiative to invest the loot. Trucks, excavators and bribes that allowed them to enter the public concession system and participate in the construction of key infrastructures such as the Salerno-Reggio highway (440 kilometers of commissions) or a tailor-made port for future business. The organization created a new stadium named La Santa that gave it access to the button room, as true power is called in Italy. The decision cost a war with 800 dead and the establishment of Crimine, a dome where to make decisions. But it gave a stratospheric boost to the ‘Ndrangheta and laid the foundations of what it is today.

The daughter of the Turin magistrate Bruno Caccia, assassinated by the ‘Ndrangheta in 1983, places flowers on the plaque that commemorates him.
The daughter of the Turin magistrate Bruno Caccia, assassinated by the ‘Ndrangheta in 1983, places flowers on the plaque that commemorates him.

The port of Gioia Tauro

The port of Gioia Tauro, whose City Council has been intervened by mafia infiltrations for three years (like 457 others in Italy since 1991), is the best expression of how the ‘Ndrangheta has parasitized a land exuberant in natural resources and impeded its prosperity. Inaugurated in 1995 on a great plain, it was to be accompanied by the industrial reconversion of 700 hectares of agricultural land to build a steel center. They razed the orange groves, the land was urbanized and dozens of businessmen received around 1,200 million euros in aid with European funds. The money and the businessmen disappeared, recalls in one of those plots Michele Albanese, the journalist who knows the organization best and who moves with two carabinieri since they planned to assassinate him in 2014. Those lands today house one of the largest African day laborers' camps in Europe: 3,000 inhabitants crammed between tarps and tin, whose labor at the price of a slave (12 hours at 25 euros) controls the ‘Ndrangheta.

Port? Internationally punished for its bad reputation (it has laid off some 400 workers), it is one of the organization's cocaine distribution hubs along with Antwerp and Rotterdam, according to the legal sources consulted. It is impossible to control more than 2% of the 24,000 containers that can carry ships of up to 260 meters that call here (about 10 a week). Those in charge show the facilities for a whole morning and distance themselves from the accusations. The controls, they say, are superior to those of any European port. “This image has hurt us a lot. We cannot paint everything pink, but all the drugs from Europe do not enter through here ”, refutes the company spokesman.

Carabineros guard the house of an escaped ‘Ndrangheta boss.
Carabineros guard the house of a fled ‘Ndrangheta boss.

The Catanzaro prosecutor, Nicola Gratteri, 60, disagrees on some statements. His office, which is accessed through a steel door leaving behind a group of escorts, keeps the secrets of this organization whose growth can only be understood by looking across the Atlantic. He himself has crossed over dozens of times to lead joint operations that have resulted in the seizure of tons of cocaine on the high seas. “In South America there are dozens of men from the organization who live there in a stable way. They have married and have families in Colombia, Bolivia and Peru, and from there they send tons of cocaine to Europe. The Gulf Cartel and the Zetas have done great business with the Calabrians. This gives you a vision of their expansion and the level of rapport ”.

The 'Ndrangheta is the most competitive and trusted organization among the cartels. It is the only one that removes the trusted drug from the three producing countries (Bolivia, Colombia and Peru), says Gratteri. Normal criminal gangs buy cocaine at 1,800 euros per kilo, with an active principle of 98%. “But the‘ Ndrangheta does it for 1,000 euros. They have a privileged relationship, of total trust, because they never fail. In fact, other organizations throughout much of Europe turn to them when they need an order. Cosa Nostra, for example, has been buying cocaine from them for three decades, ”says the Calabrian prosecutor.

Patrol of the Guardia di Finanza (the customs police) in the port of Gioia Tauro.
Patrol of the Guardia di Finanza (the customs police) in the port of Gioia Tauro.

The relationship is so good that, for the first time, an organization outside the cartels, as documented by Operation Decollo, led by Gratteri in 2011, was able to participate as a partner in the production of coca paste. An unusual phenomenon for other criminal groups, which are normally only able to collaborate in the transport process from the country of origin. “It has been happening for 10 years. Especially after the fall of the big cartels. Now there are many small groups forced to join forces when the ‘Ndrangheta asks for five tons at a time. The relations of this mafia with the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) and the FARC (the former guerrilla, demobilized) are today fully demonstrated. Especially with a part of the AUC, which after the pacification process returned to cultivating cocaine as a way of life, ”says the prosecutor.

The cocaine journey

The port of Gioia Tauro has been a great gateway for decades. Its strategic location in the heart of the Mediterranean, the depth of its docks and the control over certain workers made it an ideal place to camouflage its shipments among the 2.8 million containers it moves per year. For a long time, the two families that rule the area (the Bellocco-Pesce and the Piromalli-Molè) charged 1.5 dollars for each container under the pretext of guaranteeing their safety. "They have hired workers to get the coca out of there," says the burly commander Giampiero Carrieri, a strong man from the Guardia di Finanza (customs police) in the area and an expert in drug trafficking. His team works day and night checking incoming merchandise, and patrols the docks by boat and helicopter. In the last decade they have intercepted 17,000 kilos of drugs. Little, they admit, compared to what goes in.

The power in Calabria has the same surnames for a century. The pillar of ‘Ndrangheta is the family

But the business starts much earlier. Controls in Colombia have forced ‘Ndrangheta suppliers to transport coca in trucks through the Amazon rainforest, arrive in Brazil and ship it at the port of Santos (in the state of São Paulo, the largest in South America). Carrieri, who has been in three countries in the last week and has not slept for 24 hours at the time of the conversation in his headquarters, has seen everything: false funds, games in the refrigerator motor … The strategy is usually the same. Panamanian shell companies organize loading and transportation. Let's say 10 containers of sugar cane come out. Before closing the container, they place four 25-kilo bags of coca there. They call it rip off. Then they close and put a seal. But inside they have left another identical to the official one that will serve to seal the container again once the coca has been removed in Gioia Tauro.

This is where the business in Europe begins. Going through that kind of customs costs 20% of its value. Then, outside the port, what the ‘Ndrangheta bought at 1,000 euros in origin is already worth 30,000 euros per kilo. The more they buy, the cheaper: whoever only wants a kilo has to pay around 60,000 euros. When the package is opened, there are those who make only 300 grams, put it in a blender and mix it with another 300 of cut. At that time each dose is already worth 50 euros per gram and leaves the retail in the hands of small clans.

Infiltration into the territory / The Church

The ‘Ndrangheta rite rests on a skewed perversion of Catholicism. The sacred invocations, the figures of the Archangel Michael or Saint Elisabetta, the Gospel … Also its great temple, the sanctuary of the Madonna of Polsi, hanging at the end of an impossible path in the heart of Aspromonte where you can only get there by crossing streams and slippery slopes in a powerful 4 × 4. Every September 2, the highest exponents of the three commandments (Ionico, Tirrenico and Reggio) met in this silent place to ratify the appointments. It was known, no one had seen it. But the Reggio Prosecutor's Office placed microphones and cameras in 2009 that confirmed it. Right in front of the statue of the Virgin, Domenico Oppedisano was confirmed as capo crimine (supervisor for one year of the organization). The appropriation of the place, with the connivance of the ecclesial community and the parish priest of the place, Pino Strangio (accused by the anti-mafia Prosecutor's Office), was total. The capo paid and the priest put the pot. The meetings continue to be held somewhere in the mountains, police sources confirm. But Strangio was dismissed, the temple protected with cameras and in the place of the statue of the Virgin of Polsi the bust of a priest killed by the ‘Ndrangheta was placed. The message was clear.

‘Ndrangheta Territory: The multinational crime company

Upstairs, two agents review a merchandise. Below, containers at a dock in the port, where 17,000 kilos of drugs have been intercepted in the last decade, not much for what they think they enter.
Upstairs, two agents review a merchandise. Below, containers at a dock in the port, where 17,000 kilos of drugs have been intercepted in the last decade, not much for what they think they enter.

Pope Francis took the matter personally and visited Calabria in 2014. After decades looking the other way, the Vatican excommunicated the mobsters. A hook to the stomach of the most widespread criminal organization in Italy, so concerned about the Catholic alibi. Two months later, after a rebellion by the ‘Ndrangheta prisoners who refused to go to mass in the prisons, the Pope propped up the wall naming Francesco Oliva bishop of Locride. At the bishopric headquarters, accompanied by two Filipino nuns who live with him, he remembers how he rejected the "dirty money" of the ‘Ndrangheta as soon as he landed. Tough, dry and humble. A shepherd of those who smell like sheep, as Francisco likes to define his collaborators. “A mobster cannot be a benefactor without renouncing crime. That help is to grow your popular consensus, we do not want money stained with blood. You cannot go hand in hand with the mafia because they will always ask for something ”. There were consequences. Anonymous calls to the bishopric, threats. "I prefer not to talk about it," says don Franco.

The response was a novelty in a territory where the ‘Ndrangheta has supplied for decades an absent state. Calabria has 1.9 million inhabitants and one in three lives on the poverty line. The rent per capita (16,500 euros) is the lowest in Italy, almost three times less than that of Bolzano (41,100). If you are born here, you have a life expectancy four years less than in the north. “There has been a total abandonment. Only a military, control profile has been maintained. People still see the state very far away and that has facilitated the occupation of the territory. They help people, they collaborate. But when a mobster offers work, it creates dependency: it is a trap. We know that they frequent churches. And that they have appropriated religious symbolism. We see them often with the image of the Madonna of Polsi. But it is a deviant religiosity. I have been very clear with the priests: here it is no longer possible omertà”.

The ties of blood

The power in Calabria has the same surnames for more than a century. The fundamental pillar of ‘Ndrangheta is the family. Its horizontal structure, based exclusively on blood ties and rigid acceptance processes from the age of 14, makes it a fort where there are hardly any repentants, who dynamited Cosa Nostra from within. In the villages, from Locri to Reggio Calabria, no one says a word about it. The 'Ndrangheta does not exist. “They will never finish her. Unlike the Cosa Nostra or the Camorra, this is a mafia based on blood ties. And families are not so easily broken, ”says the bodyguard of one of the most threatened prosecutors in Italy. You are right, but something has changed.

After decades looking the other way, in 2014 the Church excommunicated the mobsters and the Pope appointed another bishop

The revolution, all experts consider, will come with women. On the top floor of the Reggio Calabria Juvenile Court, in an austere office, awaits the person most convinced of it. Justice Roberto Di Bella, a lean and calm 54-year-old man who has spent the past 25 years fighting organized crime, is the harbinger of a historic script twist. “In 2011 I found myself judging the children of those I prosecuted in the 1990s. They all bore the same surnames, belonged to the same ‘Ndrangheta families and committed the same crimes. And that made me reflect. If the same families have been in the territory for 70 or 80 years, it means that the mafia culture is inherited. So we thought that we could not go without doing anything to a phenomenon according to which parents educate their children in crime ”.

Di Bella and the Libera anti-mafia association started a project to remove custody of the children from the ‘Ndranghetista families and offer them a life in the north, away from the criminal environment. They have already applied it in about 50 cases, also with mothers who want to collaborate, with the legal basis for the mistreatment they suffer when forced to commit a crime. “We avoid that they have a written destination. We never intervene preventively just because the family is a mobster. We do not inculcate a state ideology. Only when there is indoctrination or evidence of that mistreatment ”. Di Bella gives as an example an intervened conversation between a father and a son: “I am the gospel of the ‘Ndrangheta (second level of the greater society), my son. And you should know that the State is there… and then we are there, which is very different ”. True. And for longer than anyone thought.

Expansion in northern Italy

On the night of June 26, 1983, the Turin magistrate Bruno Caccia finished dinner and went out with his dog. It was Sunday and his escort had permission. As he headed up the slope of Sommacampagna street at number 15, two people fired 14 shots at him from a car. He fell dejected and they opened fire three more times to finish him off. No one saw anything. But these were the lead years in which the Red Brigades and the fascist groups of the Revolutionary Armed Nuclei (NAR) competed for the assassinations of public officials. Caccia was a methodical and courageous magistrate who had stuck his nose in all those organizations. So for some time it was easy to assume that this was the reason for his death. Caccia, however, was the first and only judge – apart from Antonio Scopelliti, who was killed as a favor to Cosa Nostra in 1991 – assassinated by the Calabrian mafia.

The bust of a priest killed by the 'Ndrangheta.
The bust of a priest killed by the ‘Ndrangheta.

No one had heard of the ‘Ndrangheta before in northern Italy. “We didn't know what the hell that word meant. We called these people the Calabrian clan, ”recalls Paola Caccia, the magistrate's daughter, in the place where her father was assassinated 35 years ago. After some time, a collaborator of the justice decided to set a trap for a local boss named Domenico Belfiore, in prison for other crimes. He stung and boasted of being the mastermind behind Caccia's murder. In the eavesdropping, he is heard saying: "Down there they knew everything." According to Belfiore, Caccia was killed with the permission of the dome in Calabria "because he hindered the availability of the other (magistrates)." In other words, when they eliminated him, the ‘Ndrangheta already controlled some magistrates in the Turin Palace of Justice. That place, a huge red brick complex to the north of the city, today bears his name and the ‘Ndrangheta is no longer invisible. But there was a turning point.

“They need to have a place where interests flourish. In the north and abroad there should be no blood "

On October 23, 2006, Rocco Varacalli, affiliated with a Turin clan, sent a letter to the prosecutor Roberto Sparagna offering his collaboration. Something like when Tommaso Buscetta decided in 1984 to betray Cosa Nostra and explain to judge Giovanni Falcone the ins and outs of the Sicilian organization. Varacalli was the Rosetta Stone that made it possible to decipher the expansion of the ‘Ndrangheta in the north. Sparagna, a stubborn 53-year-old magistrate in love with Ortega y Gasset, was hallucinating. “It was an unexpected revolution. When he said that he was part of Local X (cell composed of at least 49 members) of the ‘Ndrangheta of Turin, I had difficulty understanding him. We were thinking with a northern mindset and we were very disoriented. We did not understand when he spoke of capo giovane, of the local capo or when he explained to us the folkloric rites, which were also practiced in Turin. Varacalli opened the door to an unknown anthropology for us. Today in Piedmont everyone knows what ‘Ndrangheta is and there is no doubt that it exists. But at first all the colleagues doubted it, ”he explains in his office, on whose walls the summaries of the operation that changed everything rest.

Minotaur and Infinite

The ‘Ndrangheta expanded in the sixties through the Calabrian emigration routes. Then, as Operation Minotauro, led by Sparagna in 2011, demonstrated, it did so with purely business criteria. 184 were arrested only in Piedmont and 85% of convictions for mafia association. The first dissolved City Councils arrived (269 from 1992 to 2017 throughout Italy), also in Lombardy, where the Infinite macro-operation took place with more than 200 convictions. For the first time, it was politicians, like the sinister ex-mayor of Leini, Nevio Coral, who were going to look for the mafia. Never seen before in the prosperous and orderly north. Sparagna and his collaborators discovered that the ‘Ndrangheta had its spiritual heart in southern Italy. But the financial muscle had been under his nose for years. Construction, restoration, public concessions, betting houses… Even the all-powerful president of Juve, Andrea Agnelli, declared in 2017 because of the club's ties with the ‘Ndrangheta.

The organization remains practically opaque. But in July 2008, the police intercepted a key conversation to understand how the northern clans operated. He capo locale Giuseppe Gioffrè took his youngest son to a meeting in Turin and wanted to make sure that he had learned his lesson.

"Have you understood what we have talked about?"

"Yes, drugs."

"But have you understood how it arrives?"

"Yes, with the ship."

—I want you to know that with that shipment we eat 50 families. We didn't touch a single gram, but we made two million euros. Then we allocate a part of those profits to usury and without doing anything we receive 20,000 euros a month.

One of the rooms of the sanctuary of the Madonna de Polsi, in a place that is difficult to access in Aspromonte. The bosses of the ‘Ndrangheta met in secret in the sacred compound.
One of the rooms of the sanctuary of the Madonna de Polsi, in a place difficult to access in Aspromonte. The bosses of the ‘Ndrangheta met in secret in the sacred precinct.

Usury is the most profitable way to launder money. But investments in renewable energy or in the purchase of large estates with European aid have also been documented. Between 1992 and 2017, the Anti-Mafia Investigation Directorate seized the ‘Ndrangheta some 2,972 million euros and confiscated another 2,086 million. Sparagna, extremely meticulous and little given to interviews, has spent the last 11 years of his life studying it. But when asked how much we know her, he is silent for a few seconds. “At most, 5%. We have taken so long because it uses the north and abroad as farmland. You have to invest, you need a place where interests flourish. So there should be no blood. If there are murders, there are investigations and the lights are turned on. The strategy in the north and abroad is to be invisible ”.

On the night of Ferragosto 2007 in Duisburg, the ‘Ndrangheta made a major mistake that forced its leadership to reformulate its strategy. Since then, despite being the most widespread mafia in Italy, it is also the one that has killed the least. Nothing to do with the gangs of teenage gunmen of the Camorra or the bloody mystique of Cosa Nostra, greatly weakened after declaring war on the State on the other side of the Strait of Messina. Its expansion and economic power have made it possible to avoid noise and spread infecting the world, as prosecutors Giuseppe Pignatone and Michele Prestipino explain, becoming a wealthy multinational founded in the poorest region of Italy. The telephone conversation intercepted by the police a few months ago, where one capo lectured another, sums up well that colonizing look from which the 'Ndrangheta sees the world: “You have to know that today everything is divided between what is Calabria and what is it will end up being so ”.

. (tagsToTranslate) territory ndrangheta the (t) multinational (t) crime


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