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.

Photo Gallery: Italy's Shadowy 'Ndrangheta Photos
Francesco Sbano/ DER SPIEGEL

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.

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