SPIEGEL ONLINE

SPIEGEL ONLINE

01/04/2012 03:33 PM

Encounters with the Calabrian Mafia

Inside the World of the 'Ndrangheta

By Andreas Ulrich

The shadowy Calabrian mafia, the 'Ndrangheta, has become one of the most powerful criminal organizations in the Western world through its dominance of the European cocaine trade. For the first time, local syndicate bosses described their business model to SPIEGEL. It's a mixture of entrepreneurial talent, skillful management and deadly ruthlessness.

For the meeting with SPIEGEL, Carlo has suggested a café in a town outside Munich. He is sitting in the shade of tall trees, a fit man in his late 50s, with alert eyes and a shaved head. He explains why men like him never go to prison, even though they bring cocaine to Germany by the ton.

Momentarily blinded by the late afternoon sun, he stops speaking in mid-sentence, blinks, moves his chair to the side and shakes his right hand, as if he were trying to shoo the sun away like a fly. A diamond set in a gold ring flashes for a moment, and then Carlo continues where he left off: "I am an 'illuminato,'" he says, speaking German with an Italian accent. In mafia circles, a distinction is made between "illuminati" ("enlightened ones") and "manovali" ("henchmen"). The diamond is a sign of Carlo's high rank.

Sources in southern Italy had said that Carlo was in charge of the cocaine trade in Germany. On this afternoon, he leaves no doubt that this is the case. "In the summer or around New Year's, when there is the greatest demand, we bring in a ton of cocaine every few days," says Carlo. Although he is constantly aware of what is happening in the drug scene, he adds, he never touches the stuff himself, preferring to let others get their fingers dirty. This reflects the division of labor between the illuminati and the henchmen.

Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) has long had its sights set on the 'Ndrangheta, the Calabrian mafia. The 'Ndrangheta was responsible for almost all of the attention-grabbing mafia crimes committed on German soil in recent years.

Giorgio Basile, who grew up in the western German city of Mülheim an der Ruhr and was involved in about 30 murders until his arrest in 1998, was a member of the 'Ndrangheta. The group of gunmen who killed six people at a pizzeria in nearby Duisburg in 2007 came from southern Italy. And the seven mafiosi who police arrested in the western German states of Baden-Württemberg, Hesse and North Rhine-Westphalia in early 2011 were members of a syndicate that experts believe is the world's most important cocaine cartel. According to an internal BKA report, Germany is a key hub in the European cocaine trade as a "transit and organization country."

'The Myth of Invincibility'

Setting up a meeting with an active member of the 'Ndrangheta is a difficult process. It requires having the right contacts, someone to establish the initial connection, and a lot of time and patience. It also helps to have grown up in Calabria.

Francesco Sbano, 48, was born in Paola, a small city in Calabria on the Tyrrhenian Sea, where he played soccer with the children of the 'Ndrangheta as a boy. He studied communications and photography, and he has taken an artistic approach to the fate of his native region, upon which the 'Ndrangheta has imprinted its bloody stamp.

Little by little, Sbano slowly approached the syndicate. He created portraits of remote Calabrian villages and produced the music of the 'Ndrangheta. Sbano knows the people in the syndicate, and they know him.

During several preliminary discussions, the 'Ndrangheta weighed the risk it would take by being in contact with the media. Sbano believes that the reason that members of the 'Ndrangheta are now willing to speak out is that they feel very strong. "They want to cultivate the myth of invincibility," he says.

Few Traitors

Nevertheless, Carlo, the enlightened one, decided not to show up for the first arranged meeting in Germany. He wanted to check with people in Calabria first. The second time, he rescheduled the meeting several times. When he finally appeared at the café outside Munich, the first thing he asked for was a letter of recommendation, written in Italian. He read it carefully. And he said that he could "provide information," as long it wouldn't jeopardize business.

"My German is better than my Italian," admits Carlo, who has been living in Germany for 30 years. He is wearing a black shirt, black trousers and black loafers -- elegant Italian products, all made of high-quality materials. He was baptized at 18, he says.

He is referring to the secret ritual in which he was accepted into the "onorata società," or "honored society," as the 'Ndrangheta calls itself. His uncle brought him into the organization. This is often the case in such organizations, where cohesion is based on kinship and there are few traitors as a result.

In Italy, such turncoats are known as "pentiti," or "the repentant ones." They are mafia members who, after being arrested, break the "omertà," or vow of silence, and tell all. They become key witnesses for the prosecution. According to statistics compiled by the Italian judiciary, until 2008 there were about 1,000 pentiti affiliated with the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, 2,000 with the Camorra in Naples -- but only 42 with the Calabrian 'Ndrangheta. Members of the 'Ndrangheta, known as 'Ndranghetisti, do not taint the blood of their families through betrayal.

Gaining the Bosses' Trust

Carlo first came to Germany to work in a Bavarian factory during a summer vacation. When he returned home, he got the cousin of a mafioso pregnant. He didn't want to marry her, which the girl's family didn't like at all, prompting Carlo to disappear back across the Alps. He wasn't out of danger until two years later, when the mafioso died. "That was how I escaped a vendetta," says Carlo.

Whenever high-ranking 'Ndrangheta bosses came to Germany, Carlo served as their chauffeur. He drove them around Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, to the industrial Ruhr region in western Germany, and to Bremen and Hamburg in the north, "to the ports where the cocaine arrives." He translated for them, did odd jobs and slowly gained their trust.

According to Carlo, the 'Ndrangheta has woven a tight web across all of Germany. He says that the port in Hamburg is one of the major gateways for cocaine coming from South America. "We operate like a trading company," he explains. "We buy the merchandise, have it packaged, hire shipping companies to transport it and pay the duty." He is referring to the bribes for corrupt customs officials. The shipping companies make sure that the bribes get to the officials who make the decisions. "The shippers know their way around the ports."

Over the years, Carlo worked his way up to the top of the German organization. Nowadays hardly any important meetings are held without his presence. "The meetings are the key instrument for the 'Ndrangheta," says Carlo. Everything is discussed face-to-face. Carlo uses prepaid phone cards to make business calls, and then throws them away after each conversation, so that the calls cannot be traced.

Avoiding Risks

"Our customers in Germany are mostly pimps and a large biker gang," says Carlo. "We deliver in units of 50 to 70 kilograms (110 to 154 pounds), often to brothels." He says that he doesn't know what happens to the cocaine there. The 'Ndrangheta are careful not to take risks by committing ordinary crimes. "We don't deal drugs on German streets," says Carlo.

Of course, it is not possible to verify everything the man from Calabria says during the course of an afternoon in a café in Upper Bavaria. On the other hand, the 'Ndrangheta's overall share of organized crime in Germany is well-documented.

The BKA report states that the Calabrian mafia has developed "deep-seated structures" in Germany, complete with "leaders from individual clans, as well as killers." According to Jane's Intelligence Review, a British magazine for decision-makers in the military and intelligence world, Germany is probably the most important base for the 'Ndrangheta in Europe.

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."

Investments in Stocks and Real Estate

According to Vincenzo, the 'Ndrangheta invests in stocks and real estate. "People with no prior convictions or criminal records are often used for these purposes, and they are often financial experts who are capable of completing transactions and who sometimes have offshore channels," say BKA officials, citing Italian sources.

The BKA lists the three most powerful clans in Germany:

Men like Pizzata, 52, are needed to ensure that the cocaine reaches Germany. In the world of the 'Ndrangheta, with its division of labor, they are the middlemen, organizing the transport of drugs from Calabria to where they are sold.

'If They Don't Deliver, We Kill Them'

Antonio is one of these middlemen. He runs a seafood restaurant with a view of the ocean on the Tyrrhenian coast. Pictures in gold frames hang on the walls of his restaurant. "All of this," he says, waving his arm in a semi-circle, "I owe to the 'Ndrangheta."

Antonio says that he is a friend of Vincenzo. The rules for doing business with the South Americans are clear, he says: "We always pay in advance, and if they don't deliver, we kill them."

In such an unfortunate case, says Antonio, a couple of nice Italian families go to South America on vacation. During the trip, the men disappear for a while and take care of the job. Investigators whose work involves mafia drug deals believe that such talk is not bravado, but is in fact deadly serious.

Antonio often delivers to Germany. This is how he describes the way deals are handled: The customer places an order, receives a sample and pays half of the money upfront. Then the drugs are welded into cars and taken across the Alps. Antonio prefers luxury cars. "They have more room to hide cocaine and aren't that conspicuous on the road."

Meetings with the Blinds Down

Antonio isn't revealing anything Nicola Gratteri doesn't already know. Gratteri is the anti-mafia prosecutor in Reggio Calabria. The prosecutor believes that the weakness of the state is also the strength of the 'Ndrangheta. The mob bosses provide jobs, help people sort out problems with the government bureaucracy and recruit their young blood from the army of the unemployed and the hopeless. Gratteri also has no illusions about the police, which he says is already infiltrated by the 'Ndrangheta, because of close family ties.

Even though public prosecutors have had a few notable successes recently, Gratteri considers the future to be as dim as his office, where he prefers to meet with visitors with the blinds closed. As long as humankind exists, the 'Ndrangheta will also exist, he told the US consul in Naples in confidence.

Gratteri's prognosis could be correct, if only because the crime organizations are constantly and effortlessly adapting to circumstances. "Until the end of the 1990s," says Carlo over a second cappuccino in the Bavarian café, "we made 75 percent of our profits with cocaine."

But because the drug became less and less profitable and police pressure was increasing, the 'Ndrangheta had to look into new business opportunities. "We want to go to the source of government contracts and subsidies, politics," says Carlo.

Getting into Politics

A case that was uncovered in 2010 shows how the 'Ndrangheta is doing this. Italians who live in Germany have the right to vote in Italy. This prompted the Farao clan to send some of its members to Baden-Württemberg in 2008 with suitcases full of cash, which they used to buy their fellow Italians' votes in a parliamentary election.

This is how Nicola Di Girolamo, 51, a member of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom party (PDL), is believed to have gained his seat in the Senate in Rome. He was arrested in early 2010 on charges of having helped the 'Ndrangheta to launder about €2 billion through Italian telephone companies, with the help of straw men.

According to his attorney Carlo Taormina, Girolamo has since reached a settlement with the court. He will go to prison for five years and pay the government €5 million. The name of the owner of a top Stuttgart restaurant who is reportedly a member of the Farao clan also appears in the Girolamo files. His activities fill the pages of several investigative reports at the BKA.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

URL:

Related SPIEGEL ONLINE links:


© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2012
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH