Encounters with the Calabrian Mafia Inside the World of the 'Ndrangheta

Francesco Sbano/ DER SPIEGEL

Part 2: In Search of Higher Profits


In its early days, the organization was little more than a loose collection of rural clans. Their activities centered around controlling their villages, protection money, hold-ups and public contracts.

The clans first attained notoriety outside Italy in the 1970s. The clans from the region near San Luca in the Aspromonte mountains in particular began kidnapping wealthy people and members of their families.

In 1973, for example, kidnappers from the 'Ndrangheta held John Paul Getty III, the grandson of oil tycoon John Paul Getty, captive for five months. The ransom money from such kidnappings -- $2.7 million (€2.1 million) in the Getty case -- was used as seed capital to get into the international cocaine market. The drug trade promised profits that were much higher and, most importantly, reliable. But it also necessitated building a tighter, more efficient form of organization.

The experts with Germany's BKA have studied the current structure of the 'Ndrangheta. According to the BKA report, the syndicate is "no longer structured horizontally in individual family clans, but, like the Cosa Nostra, in the form of a pyramid." In the province of Reggio Calabria, for example, the 'Ndrangheta has divided itself into three so-called mandamenti. A "provincial commission," which rules over the entire organization, elects a "capo crimine," or chairman, each year. Investigators were able to glean this sort of information from the "il crimine" operation conducted by the public prosecutor's office in Reggio Calabria. It focused on Domenico Oppedisano, an 81-year-old man from Rosarno, a small city on the Tyrrhenian coast.

Deals in the Orange Grove

Oppedisano lived the seemingly inconspicuous life of a farmer. Every day he would drive around his orange plantation in his Ape, the three-wheeled vehicle typical of the region. In truth, however, Oppedisano was the capo crimine, or boss of bosses. He directed a global crime syndicate.

For security reasons, he only discussed his business dealings in the orange grove. It was his bad luck, however, that the Italian police had hidden microphones in the trees.

On July 13, 2010, public prosecutors struck in massive raids across Italy. Oppedisano and about 300 of his cohorts were arrested, including politicians, business owners and public officials. The police seized assets worth about €1 billion. The clan, according to the investigators, has invested a substantial portion of its drug money in companies and real estate, including some associated with Expo 2015 in Milan.

In November, Oppedisano and 109 other defendants, including Bruno Nesci, a man investigators say was Oppedisano's capo in the southern German town of Singen on Lake Constance, were sentenced in Milan.

'A Failed State'

Although the 'Ndrangheta operates worldwide, all important decisions are made in Calabria. In an era of globalization, the drug trade remains relatively anachronistic. Cocaine from South America arrives in southern Italy before it is distributed across the European continent. The clans feel safe on their home turf, which they treat as their territory.

According to a diplomatic cable the US consulate in Naples sent to the State Department in Washington in 2008, "no one believes the central government has much, if any, control of Calabria." The cable went on to compare the region to countries such as Somalia, Haiti and Afghanistan: "If Calabria were not part of Italy, it would be a failed state."

The use of the term "failed state" is not as absurd as it might first seem. Gioia Tauro, a city on the Tyrrhenian coast, has one of the largest container ports in the Mediterranean. Because of its strategic location along the route between the Suez Canal and the Strait of Gibraltar, Gioia Tauro serves as a hub for 60 ports in the trade between Europe and East Asia.

According to a US diplomat, two customs officials who had been working in Gioia Tauro as part of the international counterterrorism effort had to be recalled in 2008. One official had been shot at, while the other received a letter containing two bullets, which had been sent to his home address.

Discussing Business at Weddings

The Piromalli-Molé are among the most powerful 'Ndrangheta clans in the region around Gioia Tauro. They are wholesalers in the international cocaine business. They have family connections in South America, and they have their agents in Germany, including people like Carlo.

The man who brings the drugs across the Atlantic for the Piromalli-Molé clan tells us to call him Vincenzo. It took months to arrange a meeting with him. Things kept coming up. On one occasion, the police had just seized a ton of cocaine in the harbor of Gioia Tauro, and on another he cancelled the meeting because he had been invited to a wedding at the last minute. To this day, strategic alliances are formed between families in the 'Ndrangheta through marriage. Besides, a wedding always presents an opportunity to meet important people and discuss business without attracting attention.

Vincenzo suggests that we meet in the port city's central square, or piazza. There are police surveillance cameras in the square, but this doesn't seem to bother him. Vincenzo, a short man in his mid-30s, is wearing tight black trousers, a shiny red polo shirt and red shoes, and his hair is gelled back. He comes across as cool and relaxed. A slight twitching around his eyes is the only sign of tension.

Ban on Taking Cocaine

Vincenzo has brought along a few people with him. They make sure that no one has followed or will follow us. We get into his car and take a roundabout route, through narrow streets and making many turns, until we finally arrive at a nondescript building surrounded by two-story apartment buildings and garages.

A sign on the door identifies the place as a company dealing in equipment for dental technicians. The door opens into a sparsely furnished apartment, which seems unused. The foyer has a table and four chairs, a wall unit with a few bottles of liquor, and a picture of Al Pacino as Scarface, the drug boss from the eponymous film.

Vincenzo says that he has been in the cocaine business for seven years. He adds that he is from an old 'Ndrangheta family and was put in charge of logistics because he is smart, has business management training and relatives in South America. He immediately said yes when they asked him if he wanted the job, he says. "I was glad that I wouldn't have to commit any bloody crimes," he says -- no murders and no hold-ups. The bosses set one condition: He was never to take cocaine himself. "Or else I would lose my honor," he says. And losing one's honor is life-threatening in mafia circles.

The principle of importing drugs, says Vincenzo, is very simple. He usually waits until he has received a sufficient number of orders from the various clans. The total should amount to at least 200 to 300 kilograms, preferably 500 to 1,000. Then one of his men flies to South America to pay a visit to the relatives, and Vincenzo sends the money. "Officially, we pay bills for furniture or machinery," he says, because the bookkeeping has to remain clean. Sometimes, says Vincenzo, the drug money is disguised as a donation, perhaps for an aid project in the jungle. Sometimes the sellers want arms instead of money. "No problem," says Vincenzo, pointing in the direction of the Adriatic Sea. There are plenty of weapons on the other side of the sea, in the Balkans, he says.

Excellent Connections

Relations with South America are excellent, says Vincenzo. The "fratellanza," or brotherhood, guarantees favorable prices and top quality. It monitors the packaging and shipping in South America, as well as the route through European ports like Hamburg, Rotterdam or Antwerp, all the way to secret warehouses in Calabria. "The chain has no gaps," says Vincenzo, "and the transport routes are reliable." On the few occasions when a shipment is discovered, it is because "the bribe was too small."

Vincenzo pays €1,200 for a kilo of cocaine in Venezuela or Peru, but by the time it reaches Calabria it has already cost him €17,000. "Most of that goes toward bribing officials," he says. By the time it ends up on the wholesale market, the kilo of uncut cocaine will cost €27,000 to €32,000.

The clan earns millions with each new shipment. That's why the most difficult part of his job, Vincenzo explains, is to know "how to invest the money." But nowadays there is no lack of competent businesspeople. Thanks to the drug millions, the mafiosi were able to send their children to the best schools, and today they are lawyers, tax consultants, bankers and doctors. They run money-laundering operations at the highest levels.

While the Cosa Nostra lost some of its power in the 1990s, as a result of the pressure of investigations, the BKA concludes that the 'Ndrangheta is stronger than ever. According to the BKA, the organization has expanded its criminal influence and, in places like the northern Italian regions of Lombardy and Piedmont, has taken the opportunity "to use nonviolent means to fill the vacuum left by the previously existing groups of Sicilian origin."

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