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.

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.

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.

Germany Seen as 'Very Soft' on the Mafia

Salvatore Boemi, a prosecutor who investigates the mafia, says that the Germans have "underestimated" the organization in the past. Alberto Cisterna, who is with Italy's Direzione Nazionale Antimafia, agrees, calling German investigators' approach to dealing with the 'Ndrangheta "very soft." Ercole D'Alessandro, an anti-mafia specialist with the Italian police in Calabria, says that the German judiciary should "finally realize" that quick action is needed. The mafia is not just using Germany as a "place to relax," but "also as a field of operations," especially for drug deals, says Hermann von Langsdorff, a federal prosecutor and German member of Eurojust, a European Union investigative unit.

In most cases so far, German prosecutors have only managed to peg individual crimes to individual mobsters. German criminal laws offer much more latitude to prosecutors than they have actually used against organized crime. But it is extremely difficult to build a case based on charges of forming or being a member of a foreign criminal organization. The 'Ndrangheta clan, in particular, adheres strictly to omertà, a mafia code of silence. This makes it difficult to find evidence sufficiently airtight to satisfy the strict standards of German judges.

The Italian mafia was implicated in about two dozen criminal investigations in Germany in 2006, and yet not a single conviction has been handed down to date for membership in the Italian mafia.

Part of the problem is that there are few German specialists who understand the clan structures. Respectable Italian immigrants are often the mafia's advance guard in Germany. Criminal relatives from their Italian villages come to Germany and settle in their neighborhoods. This explains why men from San Luca's 'Ndrangheta clan have shown a preference for Duisburg, while the Corigliano crime family has established itself in the neighboring city of Mülheim.

The German cases being brought against mafiosi are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the true scope of the Italian mafia's dealings in Germany. In 1999, police in Cologne seized assets worth about €9 million from an Italian man from Calabria nicknamed "Billionaire." The man lived in a mansion and drove a Ferrari. According to the police, the "Billionaire" earned his fortune with criminal activities in the construction business, which the BKA believed had already been widely infiltrated by the Italian mafia.

Former mafia killer Giorgio Basile, a member of the Carelli clan in Corigliano Calabro, has played an important role in more recent investigations. Police arrested Basile, nicknamed "Angel Face," in Germany's southern Allgäu region in 1997. When questioned by the Bavarian state Office of Criminal Investigation, Basile admitted to taking part in more than 30 murders. In return for identifying many fellow mobsters in Germany, he was accepted into the Italian witness protection program. His testimony in Italy helped put more than 50 mafiosi behind bars, but most of his former accomplices in Germany have remained at-large to this day.

One of the few exceptions is the current trial in the western German city of Wuppertal against a presumed mafia drug dealer known as "Tony the Pimp." Basile, who testified as the case's star witness by video from a secret location, described how former fellow mobster Tony once harbored him, bought drugs from him and occasionally worked as a driver.

The Basile case highlights how little German investigators know about the ways of the Italian mafia. The judges in Basile's case were not even familiar with the name of his mafia clan, nor did they bother to make the necessary inquiries in Italy. When the district court in Duisburg convicted Basile of one of the many murders, the judges wrote that he was apparently a member of a criminal organization known as the "Trangeda." They were referring, erroneously, to the 'Ndrangheta.

A Second Home for the Mafia

Italian investigations into the captured "bosses of bosses," Sicilian godfathers Salvatore Riina and Bernardo Provenzano, also show that Germany has long been a second home for the mafia. According to the BKA, Riina and Provenzano were "in Germany on several occasions." When Provenzano's wife showed up with her family in the Sicilian town of Corleone in 1993, her children were more fluent in German than Italian.

Many members of the 'Ndrangheta have put down roots in Germany, working as innkeepers, pizzeria owners and hoteliers, especially in the industrial Ruhr region. German investigators have had detailed knowledge -- from Italian sources -- of the 'Ndrangheta's close ties to Duisburg since at least 2000. Virtually all members of the old clans from San Luca and nearby Locri who have moved to the Ruhr region in recent decades are on record. According to the Italian authorities, Duisburg has long served as a washing machine for dirty money from the drug and weapons trades. Sebastiano Strangio, one of the men murdered last Wednesday and the owner of Da Bruno, was also apparently mafia-connected. He came to Germany from Locri in 1987. His name first surfaced in a 1998 German investigation into a mafia murder in Borgia, when investigators discovered Strangio's number stored in the victim's mobile phone.

Strangio's unsuspecting German neighbors remembered him as the friendly Italian from next door, as helpful as he was charming. He called all women "bella signora" and used to wink at them. He and his associates "were only noticeable because of the nice clothes they wore," says a former neighbor. Strangio was apparently detained for a short time in October 2005 in Amsterdam, where he was charged with cocaine trafficking.

No one believes that the hail of bullets that killed the six men last week marks the end of the vendetta. Gianni Venturi, the father of the murdered restaurant trainee, weeps over his son who, as he says, died "so senselessly." He fetches a package containing a silver ring -- a present for the boy on his 18th birthday. Venturi plans to place the ring on his dead son's finger as soon as the forensic pathologists release the body. Will there be revenge? Gianni Venturi, as eloquent as he is bitter, says nothing.

Wolfgang Gatzke, head of the state Office of Criminal Investigation in Düsseldorf, fears that there could be "acts of revenge on German soil." With the help of BKA agents and Italian investigators, Gatzke's team is trying to figure out which Italians in the area belong to which clans -- in other words, which of them could use police protection. Their goal is to save lives -- even those of mobsters.

By the end of last week, hundreds of bouquets had already been placed on the pavement in front of the Da Bruno restaurant. When a young man added two gerbera daisies to the pile, he murmured: "It isn't over yet."

A wax sculpture of two black fists holding a rolled cigarette had also been placed with the flowers in front of the restaurant. An unaccustomed sight in Germany, the cigarette is often seen at mafia funerals in Italy. It is a sign of respect from the members of the clan, and it signifies that the deceased will not lack for anything in the afterworld. It also symbolizes the revenge that will be taken in this life.


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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