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The world’s most global mafia

The real Spectre

The ’Ndrangheta is the least heralded of Italy’s three great mafias. But, as John Hooper reports, it’s by far the most successful internationally

The ’Ndrangheta is the least heralded of Italy’s three great mafias. But, as John Hooper reports, it’s by far the most successful internationally

John Hooper | December/January 2017

Osvaldo Scalezi Junior has a dark sense of humour. “If I’m murdered one of these days,” he says, leaning forward in a chair in the police station in the Brazilian city of Santos, “I fear it’ll be very difficult for my colleagues to work out who killed me.” The 37-year-old Scalezi is a senior agent in the Polícia Federal (PF), Brazil’s equivalent of the FBI. Wiry, smartly dressed in a tight suit and with dark stubble across his chin and cheeks, he could be taken for a middle-ranking executive at one of the shipping firms that abound in South America’s busiest port. He has about him a slightly diffident air of the kind that is seldom encountered in successful detectives.

Yet in his 15 years as a law-enforcement agent, Scalezi has notched up an impressive list of potentially mortal enemies. He arrested one of the leading Colombian narcos, Marcos de Jesús (“Marquitos”) Figueroa, who now stands accused of over 250 murders. He has led a string of operations against the Primeiro Comando da Capital, the largest criminal organisation in Brazil. And between 2012 and 2013 he directed the Brazilian end of a global operation mounted against the ’Ndrangheta, arguably the most sinister – and certainly the most cosmopolitan – mafia of them all. It has so far led to the seizure of more than 1.5 tonnes of cocaine in ports across the Western hemisphere.

Brazil does not produce cocaine. But it plays a crucial role in the international trafficking of the drug, which even Brazilians know little about. Cocaine is smuggled by the Colombian cartels and other South American producers through Brazil’s porous borderlands, which stretch for almost 17,000km. “The big problem is that [the authorities] are more worried about capital flight and tax evasion than they are about drugs,” says Luiz Augusto Sartori de Castro, a São Paulo lawyer who has defended several alleged narcotics smugglers. “The other day I drove to Uruguay to visit friends. At the border, you actually have to leave the road and go to a nearby town to get your passport stamped. You can go in or out of the country there without anyone needing to know about it.”

The drugs are most likely to end up in Santos, a sprawling, rundown place 50 miles south of São Paulo. No city of its size – it has a population of less than half a million – has such a prominent position in Brazilian history. Santos FC nurtured Pelé, Brazil’s greatest footballer. It was in Santos that most of Brazil’s European immigrants landed, and it was from Santos that most of its coffee departed. In the ornate but decrepit city centre you can still visit the old coffee exchange where dealers used to sit in throne-like chairs and negotiate prices.

The PF are responsible for the harbour. They patrol in a bullet-proof launch, accompanied by a black-uniformed officer nursing a submachine pistol. They look intimidatingly efficient. But in reality there are just 17 agents to check nearly 8m square metres of wharves stacked with hundreds of thousands of containers, any one of which could contain cocaine.

“It’s very difficult to find drugs without a tip-off,” admitted the helmsman as he nudged the PF’s boat down the main waterway. Nicola Gratteri, the deputy chief prosecutor of Reggio Calabria and Italy’s leading authority on cocaine smuggling, estimates that 80% of the “snow” reaching Europe slips through Santos – and most of this is trafficked by the ’Ndrangheta, the world’s first criminal multinational.

The ’Ndrangheta (pronounced ehn-DRANG-eh-ta, with the stress on the second syllable) originated in Calabria, the toe end of the Italian “boot”. Over the past 20 years its reach has extended to the farthest corners of the world. It is perhaps the closest organisation in existence to SPECTRE, the felonious brotherhood with which James Bond grappled once again on the world’s cinema screens last year. Since the mid-1990s, Italian prosecutors and police have been warning that the almost impenetrable ’Ndrangheta, with its intractable name and its roots in the most godforsaken corner of their country, was the coming force in organised crime.

When most people think of an Italian crime syndicate, they have in mind the Sicilian Mafia and its transatlantic branch, the Cosa Nostra – outfits that gave rise to the Godfather novels and films, and provide much of the iconography of the fictional international underworld. Roberto Saviano’s 2006 bestseller “Gomorrah” and the eponymous TV series that began showing in America in August has focused attention on the Camorra, the mafia of Naples and its surrounding region. Yet, says Antonio Nicaso, a Toronto-based author who has written a series of books on the Calabrian mob, “It is difficult to make people outside Italy, and especially Americans, comprehend the importance of the ’Ndrangheta. They can’t even pronounce the word.”

A study from the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, commissioned by the Italian interior ministry and presented in 2013, concluded that the earnings of the ’Ndrangheta rivalled the Camorra’s, and were almost double those of the Sicilian Mafia. But there was a significant difference that set it apart from its rivals. Whereas the other two groups derived an estimated 40% of their revenue from outside Italy, in the case of the ’Ndrangheta that figure rose to 80%.

Many criminal organisations smuggle drugs, arms and other illicit merchandise across international borders. Their activities make them the equivalent of import-export companies but not multinationals. To be considered a multinational, an enterprise needs to have subsidiaries in several countries. This is where the ’Ndrangheta stands out. “It is the only mafia that has been able to replicate itself,” says Nicaso. “In the United States, Cosa Nostra transformed itself from something specifically Sicilian into a sort of Mafia melting pot”, allowing Italians from the mainland to be sworn in. “But the ’Ndrangheta has always, and throughout the world, remained faithful to itself.”

Three postcards from the ‘Ndrangheta:
April 2014:
At around 2pm on a spring afternoon, Carmine Verduci, also known as “The Animal” because of his violent rages, left the Regina Café in Woodbridge, a suburb of Vaughan in Ontario in Canada. As he made his way across the parking lot, a short, slim man wearing a dark hoodie pulled out a gun and shot Verduci repeatedly. The killer ran towards his accomplice, who was waiting at the wheel of a car. With a screech of tyres, the two men fled the scene, leaving the hefty, 56-year-old Italian-Canadian dead on the asphalt.

June 2007: Customs officers in Melbourne were laboriously working their way through a container offloaded from a Liberian-registered bulk carrier. Australian police had picked up intelligence that a shipment of drugs had been dispatched from Europe. The officers had no idea which container from which ship held the contraband, what sort of drugs to expect, or even what was the port of origin. But when they opened one of the cans of Italian tomatoes that filled the container, they knew they had struck lucky: it was packed with Ecstasy tablets. The drug is more expensive in Australia than anywhere else in the world and this haul is still the biggest ever seized, both in volume and value: more than 15m party pills worth around A$440m.

August 2007: It was late – around 2.30 in the morning – when the party broke up. Six men, all of Italian origin and ranging in age from 16 to 38, were leaving the Da Bruno pizzeria in Duisburg in Germany when they ran into a blizzard of gunfire. The bloodbath was prompted by a feud in the little Calabrian hill town of San Luca, from where the six victims and their executioners originated. According to initial reports, the dead men had been celebrating the 18th birthday of one of their number. When forensic experts examined the corpses, they found in the young man’s pocket a charred fragment of an image of St Michael the Archangel.

The party in Duisberg was no ordinary birthday celebration. It also marked the entry into the ’Ndrangheta of the young man found with the burnt picture. Of the three leading mafias in Italy, the ’Ndrangheta is the keenest on ranks and rituals, many of which mimic those of the Roman Catholic church. Uniquely, it has a foundation myth. This tells of three proud knights – Osso, Mastrosso and Carcagnosso – who fled their native Spain to escape punishment for avenging the rape of their sister. Osso landed in Sicily where he entrusted himself to the protection of St George and founded the Mafia. Mastrosso adopted the Virgin Mary as his patron and went to Naples where he founded the Camorra. Carcagnosso ended his wanderings in Calabria where, with the help of St Michael, he estab­lished the ’Ndrangheta. Francesco Fonte, an ’Ndranghetista who turned state’s evidence, told magistrates that, at the climax of the ’Ndrangheta’s initiation ceremony, the novice pricks his finger with a needle, or his arm with a knife, and lets a few drops of blood fall onto a picture of the archangel. The image is then set alight as the head of the lodge solemnly intones the words: “As the fire burns this image, so shall you burn if you stain yourself with infamy.”

Beginning in the late 19th century, grinding poverty drove millions of southern Italians to seek a better life overseas. The Calabrians often chose to emigrate to Australia or Canada. After the second world war, large numbers left to work in German factories – and among them was a small but steady trickle of ’Ndranghetisti. In the diaspora, the mobsters set about replicating the institutional structures of the old country. Italian-led investigations in recent years have found evidence of ’Ndrangheta cells in such unlikely places as Engen, a picturesque German town close to the Swiss border. The ’Ndrangheta has set up lodges in France, Switzerland and Holland. It is believed to have a cell in Bulgaria and affiliates in several other former communist states.

The first ’Ndranghetisti are supposed to have reached Australia in 1922. By the end of the decade, there were already cells in Melbourne, Perth and Sydney. Over the years, the Australian ’Ndrangheta – often known there as the Honoured Society or simply the mafia – has been behind a campaign of bombings and killings in Queensland in the 1930s; a deadly struggle for control of the vast Queen Victoria market in Melbourne in the 1960s; and, most recently, a scandal over the lobbying of senior Liberal politicians to secure a visa for one of the organisation’s godfathers. The ’Ndrangheta has also been accused of orchestrating two of Australia’s most notorious assassinations: those of Donald Mackay, a prominent anti-drugs campaigner, in 1977; and of assistant commissioner Colin Winchester, the most senior police officer to be murdered in Australia, in 1989.

A police intelligence report of 2013 warned that the ’Ndrangheta posed an “extreme” risk to Australia and had “infiltrated members into, or recruited people from, public organisations, government and law-enforcement agencies”. But, until recently, many Australian officials remained sceptical about the extent of the co-ordination between the ’Ndrangheta in Italy and the mafia on their doorstep. The giant Ecstasy haul in Melbourne in 2007 proved the high degree of inter­dependency between the two. It was a classic example of a multinational reaping the benefits of vertical integration.

The ’Ndrangheta’s history in Canada stretches back even further than in Australia: at least one noted Calabrian mobster was active there before the first world war. In the 1950s, however, ’Ndranghetisti began arriving in substantial numbers. Today, according to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, there are five lodges in Toronto, and two in Thunder Bay at the head of Lake Superior. Italian officials warned last year that they had picked up intelligence that the ’Ndrangheta in Canada could be inching towards a bloody power struggle. One explanation for the death of Carmine Verduci is that he was the first victim of a civil war.

Farther south, Calabria’s mobsters do business with Los Zetas, a Mexican cartel, and can be found living in almost every country in Latin America, where they act like apparently irreproachable businessmen. Some of their cocaine is funnelled through the impoverished African state of Guinea-Bissau where they also have a fixed presence. An active cell in South Africa controls another drug route that extends through Namibia.

“There is no other criminal group with the same ability to insert itself in unfamiliar social environments by means of day-to-day infiltration,” says Federico Cafiero De Raho, the chief prosecutor of Reggio Calabria, the biggest city in the organisation’s native region. “The ’Ndrangheta colonises.”

Though they have considerable autonomy, many expat bosses return each September for a pilgrimage that culminates at the sanctuary of Our Lady of Polsi, high in the Aspromonte, the wild, upland district that spans Calabria as it narrows towards the toes of Italy’s foot. The event has traditionally served as cover for a meeting of the highest-ranking members of the ’Ndrangheta and the election of its governing body, known either as the Crimine, or the Provincia.

“It’s like McDonald’s,” says Gratteri. “Wherever you go, you find the same hamburger. With the ’Ndrangheta, you find the same institutions, the same rules, the same code. That is one reason for its strength.”

There is a paradox in the ’Ndrangheta’s global reach. If anything characterises Calabria more than backwardness, it is isolation. Even today, the only convenient way to visit the region from elsewhere in Italy is by air. Between Calabria and the rest of the peninsula lies the Sila massif. Snow-covered in winter, it represents a formidable obstacle to access by rail and road. The train journey from Rome to Reggio Calabria can still take more than seven hours.

Historically, for most Italians, Calabria has been a place to be ignored: a benighted land of illiterate shepherds, incomprehensible dialects and distasteful traditions that long ago died out elsewhere on the peninsula. Greek, Albanian and Occitan are still spoken there and one of the region’s Catholic dioceses follows the Oriental rite. Rural Calabria is the last place in Italy where people continue the ancient Roman practice of eating roasted dormice.

The region has been heavily influenced by Greece since classical times and the word ’Ndrangheta is thought to derive from two Greek words, andros and agathos, meaning “brave/good man”. Like much that is related to this shadowy organisation, however, the etymology is no more than speculation.

References to a criminal group resembling the ’Ndrangheta first appear in the late 19th century. But it was not until 1955 that a derivative of the name appeared in print – and even then with a slightly different spelling – when the Calabrian writer Corrado Alvaro tried to explain the mindset of the inhabitants of his poverty-stricken birthplace. His fellow Calabrians, he wrote in Corriere della Sera, were helpless in the face of authority, so accustomed to the abuse of power and so confused as to what was legal and illegal, that they were not ill-disposed to the idea of accepting protection “from an ’Ndranghitista”. At the time, the ’Ndrangheta appeared to be no more than a loose federation of violent, provincial crooks. In the cities, its members were small-time racketeers; in the countryside and on the coast, they were rustlers and smugglers. Component factions were prone to savagely murderous feuds, or faide, that could last for generations.

The organisation’s fortunes began to improve in the 1970s. As political terrorists caused mayhem in Italy through kidnapping, some of the organisation’s cells saw an opportunity to enrich themselves by similar means. By 1991, they had seized almost 150 luckless financiers, industrialists and heirs. Most were brought from the rich north to Aspromonte, where they were kept in primitive – sometimes barbaric – conditions until their relatives handed over a ransom. One of the earliest victims was John Paul Getty III, the late grandson of the oil tycoon. When his grandfather proved less than forthcoming, his kidnappers cut off his right ear and sent it to the family with a note saying the rest of him would follow in pieces. J. Paul Getty paid up and the Piromalli-Molè clan on the west coast of Calabria pocketed almost $3m.

Long before the ’Ndrangheta gave up kidnapping, its bosses had realised that the most profitable way to invest their rapidly burgeoning assets was in drugs. The more powerful Sicilian Mafia had cornered the market in the most lucrative trade, heroin, so their poor Calabrian cousins turned to cocaine. It was a decision that proved to be the making of the ’Ndrangheta, as it coincided with a reversal in the relative popularity of the drugs.

In Europe, says Gratteri, “the turning point came with a change of habits at the beginning of the 1990s.” Fear of AIDS drove increasing numbers of drug-takers away from heroin. Purported – falsely – to be non-addictive and certainly sexier than heroin, the white powder attracted growing numbers of users. By 1994, according to US government data, 19 out of every 1,000 Americans over the age of 12 acknowledged having used cocaine in the previous year, compared with only two who admitted to having used heroin. To meet the explosion in demand, the South American coca-leaf harvest had doubled in volume since 1985. This windfall was accompanied by two further developments that enabled the ’Ndrangheta to grow.

First, the Sicilian Mafia took a momentously wrong turn. Salvatore “Totò” Riina, its psychopathic capo di tutti capi (“boss of all bosses”), convinced himself he was powerful enough to attack the state itself. In 1992, he ordered the assassination of Italy’s top organised-crime prosecutors, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, prompting unprecedented public outrage. The forceful response of the government was unlike anything the Mafia had experienced since the days of Mussolini. Riina was seized the following year, the first in a string of arrests of top bosses. By the end of the decade, the world’s most fabled mob was a shadow of its previous self.

The other decisive change was the opening in 1994 of the Mediterranean’s biggest container terminal in Gioia Tauro, at the heart of ’Ndrangheta country. By the mid-1990s, the ’Ndrangheta had both the means and the freedom to build a virtual monopoly over the trans-Atlantic traffic in cocaine. Nobody can say with certainty how much of the drug arrives in Gioia Tauro these days. The evidence suggests that, though the ’Ndrangheta smuggles drugs into Holland, Belgium, Germany and Spain, the Calabrian port is its most important point of entry. “Every year, we confiscate around 1,500 kilos of cocaine at Gioia Tauro,” says Cafiero De Raho. “The fact that they continue to use the port shows that many times that amount is getting through.” The rule of thumb among law-enforcement agents is that for every kilo of narcotics they seize roughly ten kilos arrive undetected.

The ’Ndrangheta may have struck it lucky with its rivals’ hubris and the construction of a major shipping terminal on its doorstep, but its membership structure also gives it an advantage. The biggest obstacle to collaboration between intrinsically dishonest people is mistrust. The most effective weapon in Italy’s war on organised crime is its programme of protection for so-called pentiti (“penitents”) – former mobsters who turn state’s evidence. This was a serious concern for Colombian drug barons when they began meeting potential Italian buyers in the 1980s, as Italian prosecutors had already begun to have some success in convincing mafiosi to switch sides. And since the early 1990s, thousands of sworn members of the Camorra and the Sicilian Mafia have agreed to tell the authorities what they know about their respective organisations and their dealings with other criminal syndicates. The tally of ’Ndrangheta pentiti runs only into the hundreds, and no more than a handful have been high-ranking mobsters.

This is because the ’Ndrangheta has a management tool unique among major criminal organisations. Unlike the cells of the Sicilian Mafia – often misleadingly termed “families” or “clans” in English – the ’Ndrangheta ’Ndrine are based on genuine kinship. They sometimes include friends from outside the family and usually join with other ’Ndrine to form a lodge centred on a town or territory. But the most important links are blood relationships, and while criminals may feel no qualms about turning in other criminals, most, it seems, draw a line at betraying the members of their own family.

This was not the only reason why prospective foreign partners felt reassured when dealing with the Calabrians. “The ’Ndrangheta has great credibility outside Italy because its members pay promptly and always fulfil their obligations,” says Cafiero De Raho. “Cocaine is normally paid for by buyers in advance. But in the case of the ’Ndrangheta they are allowed to pay in arrears.” It is clear that Reggio Calabria’s chief prosecutor has a certain grudging admiration for the men (and, in some cases, women) he pursues. Their business skills are “truly impressive”, he says. “No one has succeeded in dealing cocaine at a global level in the way that the ’Ndrangheta has.”

Boss of bosses 

Eighty-year-old Domenico Oppedisano

Despite the difficulty of penetrating the ’Ndrangheta, police forces in the United States, Europe and South America have recently achieved a number of signal successes in counteracting its operations. In 2010, Nicola Gratteri and other anti-mafia prosecutors arrested and convicted the syndicate’s “boss of bosses”, 80-year-old Domenico Oppedisano, who was unknown to police before the start of their investigation and led an outwardly blameless life as a market gardener. He was sentenced to ten years in prison in 2012. In March last year, it emerged that they had persuaded one of the ’Ndrangheta’s key intermediaries in Latin America, Domenico Trimboli, to turn state’s evidence.

In Brazil, meanwhile, Osvaldo Scalezi Junior, the Polícia Federal’s wry organised-crime specialist, was helping them crack open a drug-smuggling network co-ordinated from Calabria. Documents relating to this, seen by 1843, reveal just how cosmopolitan the ’Ndrangheta’s alliances are. Operation Buongustaio was launched by Gratteri in Italy in 2010 and grew to encompass the police forces of nine different countries. The kingpin was an alleged ’Ndranghetista from a tiny village on the east coast of Calabria, his partner a Montenegrin gangster based in Holland. One of the cocaine suppliers was a Colombian known as El Chato (“Shorty”); the other was a Brazilian gangster in league with Chileans and Bolivians. British, Spanish, Portuguese and Peruvian couriers buzzed between Europe and Brazil. The main intermediary was a London-based Brazilian doleira (black-market moneychanger) named Maria de Fatima Stocker, whom her associates called the Directora and, the police noted, was never caught on surveillance footage without a hat.

From August 2012, law enforcement agents on both sides of the Atlantic seized more than 1.5 tonnes of cocaine shipped from Brazil with a value of around €6m. Scalezi and his fellow agents also foiled an ambitious plan to secrete drugs in a life-jacket trunk attached to the hull of a ship sailing out of Munguba, a river port on a tributary of the Amazon. But they almost came unstuck as they prepared for the climactic phase of Operation Buongustaio: an internationally agreed plan for the simultaneous arrest of the suspects at 6am on March 20th 2014. Days before, the Polícia Federal learned that one of the prime suspects was due to leave Brazil on March 19th. Then he changed his departure time to March 20th – but at 5am.

“The problem was that the warrant we had only allowed us to enter his home after 6am,” says Scalezi. Just before their quarry was due to fly out of São Paulo, Scalezi’s unit intercepted a conversation with their other leading target: the two men arranged a meeting at McDonald’s at 11pm on the evening before the flight.

Worried about tipping their hand, the investigators decided they had to arrest both men if they could, obviating the need to obtain a new warrant. But there was nothing in the wiretap to indicate which McDonald’s had been designated. In the municipality of São Paulo alone, there are 59 branches.

“We started to isolate all the McDonald’s in the city open 24 hours a day. That still amounted to a lot of McDonald’s. So we made a guess: if our target was going to continue on to Guarulhos [the international airport], it ought to be on the route from his home.” Police eventually found the two men deep in conversation, conveniently enough, in the McDonald’s nearest to the headquarters of the PF.

Thirteen of those detained opted for a fast track trial in Italy that ended in October 2015 (the verdicts are still subject to appeal). Stocker, the Brazilian go-between, Vladan Radoman, the ’Ndrangheta’s Montenegrin partner, and the alleged kingpin’s lieutenant were each given 20 years in jail. None of those convicted escaped with sentences of less than nine years and four months.

Perhaps because he has watched the ’Ndrangheta spread inexorably around the globe for more than 25 years, Gratteri remains sceptical of the degree to which he and his colleagues are sapping its formidable power. Giovanni Falcone said of the Sicilian Mafia that it was “a human phenomenon and, like all human phenomena, it has a beginning, an evolution and will thus also have an end”. Gratteri takes a less encouraging view. He was recently asked whether the ’Ndrangheta could be stopped, and if so when. He leaned back wearily, took a deep breath and said: “I personally think that organised crime will end with the extinction of humankind on Earth.”  

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