Vendetta on the Rhine A Mafia Wake-Up Call

Following the recent bloodbath in Duisburg, investigators have concluded that the Italian mafia is now using Germany as more than just a place to take time out. The mafia set up drug-dealing and money-laundering operations throughout the country years ago.

The bodies of Italian men shot in Duisburg. No one believes that the hail of bullets that killed the six men last week marks the end of the vendetta.

The bodies of Italian men shot in Duisburg. No one believes that the hail of bullets that killed the six men last week marks the end of the vendetta.

Even mafia thugs take a break when it comes time to paying respect to the Madonna of the Mountain. In early September, mafia bosses and their foot soldiers will come together at a shrine to the Virgin Mary near San Luca, a village of 4,000 inhabitants in the Aspromonte Mountains in Italy's Calabria region, to worship their patron saint. The annual ritual includes a procession, a church service and the traditional tarantella dance.

What may seem like a quaint folk festival to tourists in fact reveals the current power structure among gangsters to those in the know. Whomever the clan leader invites into the dancing circle, and when, speaks volumes about rank and status in the mafia.

This year German investigators will also be showing a keen interest in traditional rituals at San Luca. Most of the men who will be dancing the tarantella there are members of the 'Ndrangheta, one of the most vicious mafia organizations. Italian mafia investigators estimate that its 7,000 members rake in at least €35 billion ($47 billion) a year in revenues from worldwide cocaine, weapons and counterfeit money deals.

It was probably mafia hit men from the village who mowed down six Italians at Da Bruno, a restaurant in Duisburg, last Wednesday. The murders serve as evidence of something that German investigators have long refused to acknowledge: that the mafia has been active in Germany for years.

Giuliano Amato, the Italian interior minister, promptly named the warring clans and their motives. Italian investigators complained that German prosecutors have been far too hesitant to proceed against the types of gangsters believed to be behind the Duisburg killings. In fact, experts with Germany's Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA) had already identified the Da Bruno restaurant as a "base for criminal drug and counterfeit money activities" a full 15 years ago, but it apparently never took any action.

A Birthday Party Turns into a Bloodbath

On Tuesday night, the restaurant was the scene of late-night festivities to celebrate the 18th birthday, at midnight, of Tommaso-Francesco Venturi, a new trainee. Restaurant manager Sebastiano Strangio, 38, locked the door at 2:15 a.m. Then he and five other men walked to their parked cars. These would be the last steps for Strangio, trainee Venturi, the two waiters (Marco and Francesco Pergola, 19 and 21), and two visitors from Italy (Francesco Giorgi, 16, and Marco Marmo, 25).

Police investigators presume that there were probably two killers waiting for the men in an alley. As soon as the six victims were sitting in their cars, the killers fired at least 70 shots at them with automatic weapons. The bullets pierced windshields, metal and the heads, abdomens and lower bodies of the victims -- until all six were dead. Then they shot each victim once in the head for good measure.

Although the authorities insist they are following many leads in their investigation, by late last week, German police were clearly focusing on the connection to San Luca and wading into the midst of a bloody gang war between two warring family clans, the Vottari-Pelle-Romeo and the Strangio-Nirta, both part of the Calabrian 'Ndrangheta.

Police speculate that Marco Marmo was the principal target of the Duisburg attack. Italian investigators say that Marmo was a mafia killer who killed a woman in San Luca last Christmas. The 33-year-old victim, Maria Strangio, was the wife of a man who authorities believe heads the family clan, Giovanni Luca Nirta. According to investigators, Marmo fled to Duisburg, where he had relatives, to escape the clan's vendetta.

Tentacles across Germany

'Ndrangheta men are all too familiar with the journey northward. By 2000, some 160 members of the group, including close relatives of clan leaders, were officially registered in Germany. According to an internal BKA document from 2000, the Calabrian 'Ndrangheta has already expanded its operations from its original base in Duisburg to points throughout Germany.

One of those places is the eastern city of Erfurt, another base for the 'Ndrangheta in Germany since the mid-1990s. According to Italian and German investigators, members of Calabrian mafia families now own various properties in the capital of the German state of Thuringia. They also operate a number of restaurants, some in prime downtown locations.

Graphic: Centers of 'Ndrangheta Activity in Germany

Graphic: Centers of 'Ndrangheta Activity in Germany

According to investigators' documents, some of the mafiosi are already established members of the upper-middle-class in Erfurt, where they have long sponsored the local football club, FC Rot-Weiss Erfurt, and donated money to orphanages and cultural institutions. Indeed, the mafia's roots in the eastern German city go back many years. When police stormed the Paganini Restaurant in 1996 as part of the investigation of a mafia murder, they encountered their boss, Richard Dewes, the state's interior minister at the time, and even his boss, then-state Governor Bernhard Vogel.

A noticeably large number of the staff at the Erfurt Italian restaurant is of Calabrian descent. Many waiters share the same last names as known mafia families whose members figure prominently in Italian police investigation files. Some of the Italian employees previously worked in the Da Bruno pizzeria or in other Duisburg restaurants, which Italian authorities say are controlled by the 'Ndrangheta clan.

Investigators believe that the mafia's bases in Germany are used primarily for clandestine financial transactions. In 1999, the state Office of Criminal Investigation in Stuttgart investigated an Italian from San Luca who had allegedly laundered millions through a local bank, the Sparkasse Ulm. The man claimed that he managed a profitable car dealership, and authorities were unable to prove that the business was not the source of his money.

The BKA concluded -- seven years ago -- that "the activities of this 'Ndrangheta clan represent a multi-regional criminal phenomenon." But despite their certainty, they have done little since then to address the problem.


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