Rising mafia emerges from Italy's shadows

Global drug traffickers compared to Al Qaeda

July 7, 2008

BY CHRISTINE SPOLAR/Tribune foreign correspondent

REGGIO CALABRIA, Italy - The tale of "The Godfather" seems almost quaint from this rocky, remote outpost in Italy.

Prosecutors and lawmakers are increasingly riveted by a more mysterious and blood-bound crime racket rooted in these far southern reaches of Calabria -- not Sicily -- that in the past two decades has put Italy at the heart of the global cocaine market.

The Calabrian mafia, known as 'Ndrangheta, has been described in recent investigations as ruthless, pervasive in the Italian economy and an exporter of criminal businesses that span continents.

In May, the U.S. government placed 'Ndrangheta on its list of narcotic kingpin organizations. Italian authorities say their counterparts in the United States as well as Canada, Germany and other Western countries are among those playing catch-up in understanding an insidious and far-flung family enterprise.

'Ndrangheta operates in cells and in ways so opaque to top law enforcement that those trying to grapple with its spread, including Italy's parliamentary Anti-Mafia Commission, have likened it to Al Qaeda.

"The 'Ndrangheta mafia has infiltrated so many levels of society," said Francesco Forgione, a former commission chairman who detailed its findings in a new book, "'Ndrangheta: Bosses, Places and Business of the Most Powerful Mafia in the World."

"We refer to it as a 'liquid mafia' -- it seeps into everything. And we found it's like Al Qaeda," Forgione said. "It is able to reproduce itself."

Think tanks and the parliamentary report estimate that 'Ndrangheta has annual revenues of $55 billion to $70 billion. Drug trafficking is its lifeblood.

Other activities such as extortion, prostitution, construction contracting and waste management enable 'Ndrangheta to operate with yearly revenues equivalent to 3 percent of Italy's gross domestic product, according to a recent study by the Eurispes research group, a Rome-based non-profit think tank.

With that bounty, 'Ndrangheta acts as a sort of holding company, Eurispes said. It is like a majority shareholder that provides satellite operations -- in this case, the clans -- a network to move people and products, Eurispes said. Drug trafficking alone accounts for an estimated 62 percent of 'Ndrangheta's illegal profits.

Crime's economic impact

The overall picture of all mafia revenues in Italy is remarkable. In a September 2007 report, the Italian confederation of trade, tourism and service company operators estimated that criminal activity by the four Italian mafias (Cosa Nostra in Sicily, Camorra in Naples, 'Ndrangheta in Calabria and Sacra Corona Unita in Puglia) produces revenues of $145 billion, about 7 percent of Italy's economy.

Although mafias have existed for centuries in Italy, Cosa Nostra has been the most pursued in recent history, with joint operations by Italian and U.S. authorities. 'Ndrangheta, which shied away from killing public officials, was given almost a pass by the governments, authorities said, because it was seen as a less-threatening force.

"In some ways, 'Ndrangheta was almost protected. No one was really taking them on," Forgione said.

With few exceptions, 'Ndrangheta never confronted state authority or engaged in sensational murders of prosecutors, such as the infamous 1992 car bombings of Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino that spurred deeper investigations of Cosa Nostra.

And that was the decade when 'Ndrangheta grew. It once relied on Cosa Nostra as its conduit to cocaine suppliers. In the 1990s, it established its own tight relationship with Colombian cartels -- and began thinking globally.

Investigators now say that the Calabria mafia has outstripped other Italian mafias in business acumen to become the world's bagman, collecting criminal proceeds and distributing bribes.

"Now all the world is realizing that this problem is not just Calabria's," said Giuseppe Pignatone, the new lead prosecutor in Reggio Calabria, the regional capital.

Pignatone, a career prosecutor, arrived in April with a long background of fighting organized crime. He had spent years in Sicily pursuing Bernardo Provenzano, a Cosa Nostra legend known as the "Boss of Bosses" who was captured in 2006.

Still, Pignatone said, there is scant comparison between 'Ndrangheta and the better-known Cosa Nostra, a subject of fascination for generations of moviegoers wrapped up in "The Godfather" trilogy.

'Ndrangheta works from a cell-based rather than hierarchal structure. There is no head. Unlike Cosa Nostra, which has captains and commissions, eliminating one part of the 'Ndrangheta mafia doesn't mean undoing its enterprise, he said.

More important, 'Ndrangheta is all about family. It relies on relatives who scattered during Italy's hungry years in the 1920s. Emigrants to Australia, Canada and Mexico were among those who became part of 'Ndrangheta's network, Pignatone said. That family loyalty makes 'Ndrangheta dangerously distinctive when compared with other mafias.

'No turncoats'

"The 'Ndrangheta has no turncoats who tell their tales," Pignatone said. "They are family. Brothers don't turn on brothers. ... This makes Reggio Calabria ... one of the most challenging places for mafia prosecutions."

By some estimates there are as many as 10,000 members of 'Ndrangheta, about a third more than Cosa Nostra or the Naples-based mafia, the Camorra. They lived fairly quietly -- there was only one killing of a Calabrian official in 2005 -- and generally kept a low profile, authorities said.

Last summer in Duisburg, Germany, that changed. The 'Ndrangheta came out of the shadows with a clan killing, the slaying of six members of a family in the street in front of a pizzeria, that shocked Europe. It also put law enforcement on notice that another Italian mafia had jumped borders and was operating when and where it wanted.

Now, disclosures about 'Ndrangheta are part of the daily news cycle in Italy. In June, Italian police found the Calabria mafia investing drug money in resorts in Sardinia. Nine people were arrested, and about $8 million of the property was seized by authorities.

A few days later, anti-mafia police issued arrest warrants for 32 people from a single clan in Cosenza, a pivotal mob town in Calabria, accused of running a loan-shark operation in Italy and a drug-trafficking and money-laundering operation from Spain.

Pignatone said that U.S. agencies are increasing their collaborations but that 'Ndrangheta has a daunting head start.

Pignatone rarely gives interviews but made a statement shortly after he arrived April 15. He had requested a sweep of his offices to ensure the integrity of the court. Authorities found the prosecutors' offices had three bugs -- listening devices -- hidden in assistants' offices and a library. It was a surprise, Pignatone said, but clearly not beyond his imagination.

"Unfortunately, the mafia conditions the Italian life," Pignatone said.