The real Spectre. Ndrangheta is the least heralded of Italy’s three great mafias

Alex WIlliamson, Boss of bosses . Eighty-year-old Domenico Oppedisano

John Hoo­per Osval­do Sca­le­zi Junior has a dark sen­se of humour. “If I’m mur­de­red one of the­se days,” he says, lea­ning for­ward in a chair in the poli­ce sta­tion in the Bra­zi­lian city of San­tos, “I fear it’ll be very dif­fi­cult for my col­lea­gues to work out who kil­led me.” The 37-year-old Sca­le­zi is a senior agent in the Polí­cia Fede­ral (PF), Brazil’s equi­va­lent of the Fbi. Wiry, smar­tly dres­sed in a tight suit and with dark stub­ble across his chin and cheeks, he could be taken for a midd­le-ran­king exe­cu­ti­ve at one of the ship­ping firms that abound in South America’s busie­st port. He has about him a slightly dif­fi­dent air of the kind that is sel­dom encoun­te­red in suc­ces­sful detec­ti­ves.

Yet in his 15 years as a law-enfor­ce­ment agent, Sca­le­zi has not­ched up an impres­si­ve list of poten­tial­ly mor­tal ene­mies. He arre­sted one of the lea­ding Colom­bian nar­cos, Mar­cos de Jesús (“Mar­qui­tos”) Figue­roa, who now stands accu­sed of over 250 mur­ders. He has led a string of ope­ra­tions again­st the Pri­mei­ro Coman­do da Capi­tal, the lar­ge­st cri­mi­nal orga­ni­sa­tion in Bra­zil. And bet­ween 2012 and 2013 he direc­ted the Bra­zi­lian end of a glo­bal ope­ra­tion moun­ted again­st the ndran­ghe­ta, argua­bly the most sini­ster – and cer­tain­ly the most cosmo­po­li­tan – mafia of them all. It has so far led to the sei­zu­re of more than 1.5 ton­nes of cocai­ne in ports across the Western hemi­sphe­re.

Ima­ge: Alex Wil­liam­son

Bra­zil does not pro­du­ce cocai­ne. But it plays a cru­cial role in the inter­na­tio­nal traf­fic­king of the drug, which even Bra­zi­lians know lit­tle about. Cocai­ne is smug­gled by the Colom­bian car­tels and other South Ame­ri­can pro­du­cers throu­gh Brazil’s porous bor­der­lands, which stretch for almo­st 17,000km. “The big pro­blem is that [the autho­ri­ties] are more wor­ried about capi­tal flight and tax eva­sion than they are about drugs,” says Luiz Augu­sto Sar­to­ri de Castro, a São Pau­lo law­yer who has defen­ded seve­ral alle­ged nar­co­tics smug­glers. “The other day I dro­ve to Uru­guay to visit friends. At the bor­der, you actual­ly have to lea­ve the road and go to a near­by town to get your pas­sport stam­ped. You can go in or out of the coun­try the­re without anyo­ne nee­ding to know about it.”

The drugs are most like­ly to end up in San­tos, a spra­w­ling, run­do­wn pla­ce 50 miles south of São Pau­lo. No city of its size – it has a popu­la­tion of less than half a mil­lion – has such a pro­mi­nent posi­tion in Bra­zi­lian histo­ry. San­tos FC nur­tu­red Pelé, Brazil’s grea­te­st foot­bal­ler. It was in San­tos that most of Brazil’s Euro­pean immi­gran­ts lan­ded, and it was from San­tos that most of its cof­fee depar­ted. In the orna­te but decre­pit city cen­tre you can still visit the old cof­fee exchan­ge whe­re dea­lers used to sit in thro­ne-like chairs and nego­tia­te pri­ces.

The PF are respon­si­ble for the har­bour. They patrol in a bul­let-proof launch, accom­pa­nied by a black-uni­for­med offi­cer nur­sing a sub­ma­chi­ne pistol. They look inti­mi­da­tin­gly effi­cient. But in rea­li­ty the­re are just 17 agen­ts to check near­ly 8m squa­re metres of whar­ves stac­ked with hun­dreds of thou­sands of con­tai­ners, any one of which could con­tain cocai­ne.

“It’s very dif­fi­cult to find drugs without a tip-off,” admit­ted the helm­sman as he nud­ged the PF’s boat down the main water­way. Nico­la Grat­te­ri, the depu­ty chief pro­se­cu­tor of Reg­gio Cala­bria and Italy’s lea­ding autho­ri­ty on cocai­ne smug­gling, esti­ma­tes that 80% of the “snow” rea­ching Euro­pe slips throu­gh San­tos – and most of this is traf­fic­ked by the ndran­ghe­ta, the world’s fir­st cri­mi­nal mul­ti­na­tio­nal.

The ndran­ghe­ta (pro­noun­ced ehn-drang-eh-ta, with the stress on the second syl­la­ble) ori­gi­na­ted in Cala­bria, the toe end of the Ita­lian “boot”. Over the past 20 years its reach has exten­ded to the far­the­st cor­ners of the world. It is perhaps the clo­se­st orga­ni­sa­tion in exi­sten­ce to Spec­tre, the felo­nious bro­the­rhood with which James Bond grap­pled once again on the world’s cine­ma screens last year. Sin­ce the mid-1990s, Ita­lian pro­se­cu­tors and poli­ce have been war­ning that the almo­st impe­ne­tra­ble ndran­ghe­ta, with its intrac­ta­ble name and its roo­ts in the most god­for­sa­ken cor­ner of their coun­try, was the coming for­ce in orga­ni­sed cri­me.

Ima­ge: Alex Wil­liam­son

When most peo­ple think of an Ita­lian cri­me syn­di­ca­te, they have in mind the Sici­lian Mafia and its tran­sa­tlan­tic branch, the Cosa Nostra – out­fi­ts that gave rise to the God­fa­ther novels and films, and pro­vi­de much of the ico­no­gra­phy of the fic­tio­nal inter­na­tio­nal under­world. Rober­to Saviano’s 2006 bestsel­ler “Gomor­rah” and the epo­ny­mous TV series that began sho­wing in Ame­ri­ca in Augu­st has focu­sed atten­tion on the Camor­ra, the mafia of Naples and its sur­roun­ding region. Yet, says Anto­nio Nica­so, a Toron­to-based author who has writ­ten a series of books on the Cala­brian mob, “It is dif­fi­cult to make peo­ple outsi­de Ita­ly, and espe­cial­ly Ame­ri­cans, com­pre­hend the impor­tan­ce of the ndran­ghe­ta. They can’t even pro­noun­ce the word.”

A stu­dy from the Uni­ver­si­tà Cat­to­li­ca del Sacro Cuo­re in Milan, com­mis­sio­ned by the Ita­lian inte­rior mini­stry and pre­sen­ted in 2013, con­clu­ded that the ear­nings of the ndran­ghe­ta rival­led the Camorra’s, and were almo­st dou­ble tho­se of the Sici­lian Mafia. But the­re was a signi­fi­cant dif­fe­ren­ce that set it apart from its rivals. Whe­reas the other two groups deri­ved an esti­ma­ted 40% of their reve­nue from outsi­de Ita­ly, in the case of the ndran­ghe­ta that figu­re rose to 80%.

Many cri­mi­nal orga­ni­sa­tions smug­gle drugs, arms and other illi­cit mer­chan­di­se across inter­na­tio­nal bor­ders. Their acti­vi­ties make them the equi­va­lent of import-export com­pa­nies but not mul­ti­na­tio­nals. To be con­si­de­red a mul­ti­na­tio­nal, an enter­pri­se needs to have sub­si­dia­ries in seve­ral coun­tries. This is whe­re the ndran­ghe­ta stands out. “It is the only mafia that has been able to repli­ca­te itself,” says Nica­so. “In the Uni­ted Sta­tes, Cosa Nostra tran­sfor­med itself from some­thing spe­ci­fi­cal­ly Sici­lian into a sort of Mafia mel­ting pot”, allo­wing Ita­lians from the main­land to be sworn in. “But the ndran­ghe­ta has always, and throu­ghout the world, remai­ned fai­th­ful to itself.”

Three post­cards from the ndran­ghe­ta: April 2014: At around 2pm on a spring after­noon, Car­mi­ne Ver­du­ci, also kno­wn as “The Ani­mal” becau­se of his vio­lent rages, left the Regi­na Café in Wood­brid­ge, a suburb of Vau­ghan in Onta­rio in Cana­da. As he made his way across the par­king lot, a short, slim man wea­ring a dark hoo­die pul­led out a gun and shot Ver­du­ci repea­ted­ly. The kil­ler ran towards his accom­pli­ce, who was wai­ting at the wheel of a car. With a screech of tyres, the two men fled the sce­ne, lea­ving the hef­ty, 56-year-old Ita­lian-Cana­dian dead on the asphalt.

June 2007: Customs offi­cers in Mel­bour­ne were labo­riou­sly wor­king their way throu­gh a con­tai­ner offloa­ded from a Libe­rian-regi­ste­red bulk car­rier. Austra­lian poli­ce had pic­ked up intel­li­gen­ce that a shi­p­ment of drugs had been dispat­ched from Euro­pe. The offi­cers had no idea which con­tai­ner from which ship held the con­tra­band, what sort of drugs to expect, or even what was the port of ori­gin. But when they ope­ned one of the cans of Ita­lian toma­toes that fil­led the con­tai­ner, they knew they had struck luc­ky: it was pac­ked with Ecsta­sy table­ts. The drug is more expen­si­ve in Austra­lia than any­whe­re else in the world and this haul is still the big­ge­st ever sei­zed, both in volu­me and value: more than 15m par­ty pills worth around A$440m.

Augu­st 2007: It was late – around 2.30 in the mor­ning – when the par­ty bro­ke up. Six men, all of Ita­lian ori­gin and ran­ging in age from 16 to 38, were lea­ving the Da Bru­no piz­ze­ria in Dui­sburg in Ger­ma­ny when they ran into a bliz­zard of gun­fi­re. The blood­bath was promp­ted by a feud in the lit­tle Cala­brian hill town of San Luca, from whe­re the six vic­tims and their exe­cu­tio­ners ori­gi­na­ted. Accor­ding to ini­tial reports, the dead men had been cele­bra­ting the 18th bir­th­day of one of their num­ber. When foren­sic experts exa­mi­ned the corp­ses, they found in the young man’s poc­ket a char­red frag­ment of an ima­ge of St Michael the Archan­gel.

The par­ty in Dui­sberg was no ordi­na­ry bir­th­day cele­bra­tion. It also mar­ked the entry into the ndran­ghe­ta of the young man found with the burnt pic­tu­re. Of the three lea­ding mafias in Ita­ly, the ndran­ghe­ta is the kee­ne­st on ranks and rituals, many of which mimic tho­se of the Roman Catho­lic church. Uni­que­ly, it has a foun­da­tion myth. This tells of three proud knights – Osso, Mastros­so and Car­ca­gnos­so – who fled their nati­ve Spain to esca­pe punish­ment for aven­ging the rape of their sister. Osso lan­ded in Sici­ly whe­re he entru­sted him­self to the pro­tec­tion of St Geor­ge and foun­ded the Mafia. Mastros­so adop­ted the Vir­gin Mary as his patron and went to Naples whe­re he foun­ded the Camor­ra. Car­ca­gnos­so ended his wan­de­rings in Cala­bria whe­re, with the help of St Michael, he estab­lished the ndran­ghe­ta. Fran­ce­sco Fon­te, an ndran­ghe­ti­sta who tur­ned state’s evi­den­ce, told magi­stra­tes that, at the cli­max of the ndrangheta’s ini­tia­tion cere­mo­ny, the novi­ce pricks his fin­ger with a need­le, or his arm with a kni­fe, and lets a few drops of blood fall onto a pic­tu­re of the archan­gel. The ima­ge is then set alight as the head of the lod­ge solemn­ly into­nes the words: “As the fire burns this ima­ge, so shall you burn if you stain your­self with infa­my.”

Begin­ning in the late 19th cen­tu­ry, grin­ding pover­ty dro­ve mil­lions of sou­thern Ita­lians to seek a bet­ter life over­seas. The Cala­brians often cho­se to emi­gra­te to Austra­lia or Cana­da. After the second world war, lar­ge num­bers left to work in Ger­man fac­to­ries – and among them was a small but stea­dy tric­kle of ndran­ghe­ti­sti. In the dia­spo­ra, the mob­sters set about repli­ca­ting the insti­tu­tio­nal struc­tu­res of the old coun­try. Ita­lian-led inve­sti­ga­tions in recent years have found evi­den­ce of ndran­ghe­ta cells in such unli­ke­ly pla­ces as Engen, a pic­tu­re­sque Ger­man town clo­se to the Swiss bor­der. The ndran­ghe­ta has set up lod­ges in Fran­ce, Swi­tzer­land and Hol­land. It is belie­ved to have a cell in Bul­ga­ria and affi­lia­tes in seve­ral other for­mer com­mu­ni­st sta­tes.

Alex WIl­liam­son, Boss of bos­ses . Eighty-year-old Dome­ni­co Oppe­di­sa­no

The fir­st ndran­ghe­ti­sti are sup­po­sed to have rea­ched Austra­lia in 1922. By the end of the deca­de, the­re were alrea­dy cells in Mel­bour­ne, Perth and Syd­ney. Over the years, the Austra­lian ndran­ghe­ta – often kno­wn the­re as the Honou­red Socie­ty or sim­ply the mafia – has been behind a cam­pai­gn of bom­bings and kil­lings in Queen­sland in the 1930s; a dead­ly strug­gle for con­trol of the vast Queen Vic­to­ria mar­ket in Mel­bour­ne in the 1960s; and, most recen­tly, a scan­dal over the lob­by­ing of senior Libe­ral poli­ti­cians to secu­re a visa for one of the organisation’s god­fa­thers. The ndran­ghe­ta has also been accu­sed of orche­stra­ting two of Australia’s most noto­rious assas­si­na­tions: tho­se of Donald Mac­kay, a pro­mi­nent anti-drugs cam­pai­gner, in 1977; and of assi­stant com­mis­sio­ner Colin Win­che­ster, the most senior poli­ce offi­cer to be mur­de­red in Austra­lia, in 1989.

A poli­ce intel­li­gen­ce report of 2013 war­ned that the ndran­ghe­ta posed an “extre­me” risk to Austra­lia and had “infil­tra­ted mem­bers into, or recrui­ted peo­ple from, public orga­ni­sa­tions, govern­ment and law-enfor­ce­ment agen­cies”. But, until recen­tly, many Austra­lian offi­cials remai­ned scep­ti­cal about the extent of the co-ordi­na­tion bet­ween the ndran­ghe­ta in Ita­ly and the mafia on their door­step. The giant Ecsta­sy haul in Mel­bour­ne in 2007 pro­ved the high degree of inter­dependency bet­ween the two. It was a clas­sic exam­ple of a mul­ti­na­tio­nal rea­ping the bene­fi­ts of ver­ti­cal inte­gra­tion.

The ndrangheta’s histo­ry in Cana­da stret­ches back even fur­ther than in Austra­lia: at lea­st one noted Cala­brian mob­ster was acti­ve the­re befo­re the fir­st world war. In the 1950s, howe­ver, ndran­ghe­ti­sti began arri­ving in sub­stan­tial num­bers. Today, accor­ding to the Royal Cana­dian Moun­ted Poli­ce, the­re are five lod­ges in Toron­to, and two in Thun­der Bay at the head of Lake Supe­rior. Ita­lian offi­cials war­ned last year that they had pic­ked up intel­li­gen­ce that the ndran­ghe­ta in Cana­da could be inching towards a bloo­dy power strug­gle. One expla­na­tion for the death of Car­mi­ne Ver­du­ci is that he was the fir­st vic­tim of a civil war.

Far­ther south, Calabria’s mob­sters do busi­ness with Los Zetas, a Mexi­can car­tel, and can be found living in almo­st eve­ry coun­try in Latin Ame­ri­ca, whe­re they act like appa­ren­tly irre­proa­cha­ble busi­ness­men. Some of their cocai­ne is fun­nel­led throu­gh the impo­ve­ri­shed Afri­can sta­te of Gui­nea-Bis­sau whe­re they also have a fixed pre­sen­ce. An acti­ve cell in South Afri­ca con­trols ano­ther drug rou­te that extends throu­gh Nami­bia.

“The­re is no other cri­mi­nal group with the same abi­li­ty to insert itself in unfa­mi­liar social envi­ron­men­ts by means of day-to-day infil­tra­tion,” says Fede­ri­co Cafie­ro De Raho, the chief pro­se­cu­tor of Reg­gio Cala­bria, the big­ge­st city in the organisation’s nati­ve region. “The ndran­ghe­ta colo­ni­ses.” Thou­gh they have con­si­de­ra­ble auto­no­my, many expat bos­ses return each Sep­tem­ber for a pil­gri­ma­ge that cul­mi­na­tes at the sanc­tua­ry of Our Lady of Pol­si, high in the Aspro­mon­te, the wild, upland district that spans Cala­bria as it nar­ro­ws towards the toes of Italy’s foot. The event has tra­di­tio­nal­ly ser­ved as cover for a mee­ting of the highe­st-ran­king mem­bers of the ndran­ghe­ta and the elec­tion of its gover­ning body, kno­wn either as the Cri­mi­ne, or the Pro­vin­cia.

“It’s like McDonald’s,” says Grat­te­ri. “Whe­re­ver you go, you find the same ham­bur­ger. With the ndran­ghe­ta, you find the same insti­tu­tions, the same rules, the same code. That is one rea­son for its strength.” The­re is a para­dox in the ndrangheta’s glo­bal reach. If any­thing cha­rac­te­ri­ses Cala­bria more than bac­k­ward­ness, it is iso­la­tion. Even today, the only con­ve­nient way to visit the region from elsewhe­re in Ita­ly is by air. Bet­ween Cala­bria and the rest of the penin­su­la lies the Sila mas­sif. Snow-cove­red in win­ter, it repre­sen­ts a for­mi­da­ble obsta­cle to access by rail and road. The train jour­ney from Rome to Reg­gio Cala­bria can still take more than seven hours.

Histo­ri­cal­ly, for most Ita­lians, Cala­bria has been a pla­ce to be igno­red: a benighted land of illi­te­ra­te she­pherds, incom­pre­hen­si­ble dia­lec­ts and dista­ste­ful tra­di­tions that long ago died out elsewhe­re on the penin­su­la. Greek, Alba­nian and Occi­tan are still spo­ken the­re and one of the region’s Catho­lic dio­ce­ses fol­lo­ws the Orien­tal rite. Rural Cala­bria is the last pla­ce in Ita­ly whe­re peo­ple con­ti­nue the ancient Roman prac­ti­ce of eating roa­sted dor­mi­ce. The region has been hea­vi­ly influen­ced by Gree­ce sin­ce clas­si­cal times and the word ndran­ghe­ta is thought to deri­ve from two Greek words, andros and aga­thos, mea­ning “brave/good man”. Like much that is rela­ted to this sha­dowy orga­ni­sa­tion, howe­ver, the ety­mo­lo­gy is no more than spe­cu­la­tion.

Refe­ren­ces to a cri­mi­nal group resem­bling the ndran­ghe­ta fir­st appear in the late 19th cen­tu­ry. But it was not until 1955 that a deri­va­ti­ve of the name appea­red in print – and even then with a slightly dif­fe­rent spel­ling – when the Cala­brian wri­ter Cor­ra­do Alva­ro tried to explain the mind­set of the inha­bi­tan­ts of his pover­ty-stric­ken bir­th­pla­ce. His fel­low Cala­brians, he wro­te in Cor­rie­re del­la Sera, were hel­pless in the face of autho­ri­ty, so accu­sto­med to the abu­se of power and so con­fu­sed as to what was legal and ille­gal, that they were not ill-dispo­sed to the idea of accep­ting pro­tec­tion “from an ndran­ghi­ti­sta”. At the time, the ndran­ghe­ta appea­red to be no more than a loo­se fede­ra­tion of vio­lent, pro­vin­cial crooks. In the cities, its mem­bers were small-time rac­ke­teers; in the coun­try­si­de and on the coa­st, they were rustlers and smug­glers. Com­po­nent fac­tions were pro­ne to sava­ge­ly mur­de­rous feuds, or fai­de, that could last for gene­ra­tions.

The organisation’s for­tu­nes began to impro­ve in the 1970s. As poli­ti­cal ter­ro­rists cau­sed may­hem in Ita­ly throu­gh kid­nap­ping, some of the organisation’s cells saw an oppor­tu­ni­ty to enrich them­sel­ves by simi­lar means. By 1991, they had sei­zed almo­st 150 luc­kless finan­ciers, indu­stria­lists and heirs. Most were brought from the rich north to Aspro­mon­te, whe­re they were kept in pri­mi­ti­ve – some­ti­mes bar­ba­ric – con­di­tions until their rela­ti­ves han­ded over a ran­som. One of the ear­lie­st vic­tims was John Paul Get­ty III, the late grand­son of the oil tycoon. When his gran­d­fa­ther pro­ved less than for­th­co­ming, his kid­nap­pers cut off his right ear and sent it to the fami­ly with a note say­ing the rest of him would fol­low in pie­ces. J. Paul Get­ty paid up and the Piro­mal­li-Molè clan on the west coa­st of Cala­bria poc­ke­ted almo­st $3m. Long befo­re the ndran­ghe­ta gave up kid­nap­ping, its bos­ses had rea­li­sed that the most pro­fi­ta­ble way to inve­st their rapid­ly bur­geo­ning asse­ts was in drugs. The more power­ful Sici­lian Mafia had cor­ne­red the mar­ket in the most lucra­ti­ve tra­de, heroin, so their poor Cala­brian cou­sins tur­ned to cocai­ne. It was a deci­sion that pro­ved to be the making of the ndran­ghe­ta, as it coin­ci­ded with a rever­sal in the rela­ti­ve popu­la­ri­ty of the drugs.

In Euro­pe, says Grat­te­ri, “the tur­ning point came with a chan­ge of habi­ts at the begin­ning of the 1990s.” Fear of AIDS dro­ve increa­sing num­bers of drug-takers away from heroin. Pur­por­ted – fal­se­ly – to be non-addic­ti­ve and cer­tain­ly sexier than heroin, the whi­te pow­der attrac­ted gro­wing num­bers of users. By 1994, accor­ding to US govern­ment data, 19 out of eve­ry 1,000 Ame­ri­cans over the age of 12 ack­no­w­led­ged having used cocai­ne in the pre­vious year, com­pa­red with only two who admit­ted to having used heroin. To meet the explo­sion in demand, the South Ame­ri­can coca-leaf har­ve­st had dou­bled in volu­me sin­ce 1985. This win­d­fall was accom­pa­nied by two fur­ther deve­lo­p­men­ts that ena­bled the ndran­ghe­ta to grow. Fir­st, the Sici­lian Mafia took a momen­tou­sly wrong turn. Sal­va­to­re “Totò” Rii­na, its psy­cho­pa­thic capo di tut­ti capi (“boss of all bos­ses”), con­vin­ced him­self he was power­ful enou­gh to attack the sta­te itself. In 1992, he orde­red the assas­si­na­tion of Italy’s top orga­ni­sed-cri­me pro­se­cu­tors, Gio­van­ni Fal­co­ne and Pao­lo Bor­sel­li­no, promp­ting unpre­ce­den­ted public outra­ge. The for­ce­ful respon­se of the govern­ment was unli­ke any­thing the Mafia had expe­rien­ced sin­ce the days of Mus­so­li­ni. Rii­na was sei­zed the fol­lo­wing year, the fir­st in a string of arrests of top bos­ses. By the end of the deca­de, the world’s most fabled mob was a sha­dow of its pre­vious self.

The other deci­si­ve chan­ge was the ope­ning in 1994 of the Mediterranean’s big­ge­st con­tai­ner ter­mi­nal in Gio­ia Tau­ro, at the heart of ndran­ghe­ta coun­try. By the mid-1990s, the ndran­ghe­ta had both the means and the free­dom to build a vir­tual mono­po­ly over the trans-Atlan­tic traf­fic in cocai­ne. Nobo­dy can say with cer­tain­ty how much of the drug arri­ves in Gio­ia Tau­ro the­se days. The evi­den­ce sug­gests that, thou­gh the ndran­ghe­ta smug­gles drugs into Hol­land, Bel­gium, Ger­ma­ny and Spain, the Cala­brian port is its most impor­tant point of entry. “Eve­ry year, we con­fi­sca­te around 1,500 kilos of cocai­ne at Gio­ia Tau­ro,” says Cafie­ro De Raho. “The fact that they con­ti­nue to use the port sho­ws that many times that amount is get­ting throu­gh.” The rule of thumb among law-enfor­ce­ment agen­ts is that for eve­ry kilo of nar­co­tics they sei­ze rou­ghly ten kilos arri­ve unde­tec­ted.

The ndran­ghe­ta may have struck it luc­ky with its rivals’ hubris and the con­struc­tion of a major ship­ping ter­mi­nal on its door­step, but its mem­ber­ship struc­tu­re also gives it an advan­ta­ge. The big­ge­st obsta­cle to col­la­bo­ra­tion bet­ween intrin­si­cal­ly disho­ne­st peo­ple is mistru­st. The most effec­ti­ve wea­pon in Italy’s war on orga­ni­sed cri­me is its pro­gram­me of pro­tec­tion for so-cal­led pen­ti­ti (“peni­ten­ts”) – for­mer mob­sters who turn state’s evi­den­ce. This was a serious con­cern for Colom­bian drug barons when they began mee­ting poten­tial Ita­lian buyers in the 1980s, as Ita­lian pro­se­cu­tors had alrea­dy begun to have some suc­cess in con­vin­cing mafio­si to switch sides. And sin­ce the ear­ly 1990s, thou­sands of sworn mem­bers of the Camor­ra and the Sici­lian Mafia have agreed to tell the autho­ri­ties what they know about their respec­ti­ve orga­ni­sa­tions and their dea­lings with other cri­mi­nal syn­di­ca­tes. The tal­ly of ndran­ghe­ta pen­ti­ti runs only into the hun­dreds, and no more than a han­d­ful have been high-ran­king mob­sters.

This is becau­se the ndran­ghe­ta has a mana­ge­ment tool uni­que among major cri­mi­nal orga­ni­sa­tions. Unli­ke the cells of the Sici­lian Mafia – often mislea­din­gly ter­med “fami­lies” or “clans” in English – the ndran­ghe­ta ndri­ne are based on genui­ne kin­ship. They some­ti­mes inclu­de friends from outsi­de the fami­ly and usual­ly join with other ndri­ne to form a lod­ge cen­tred on a town or ter­ri­to­ry. But the most impor­tant links are blood rela­tion­ships, and whi­le cri­mi­nals may feel no qualms about tur­ning in other cri­mi­nals, most, it seems, draw a line at betray­ing the mem­bers of their own fami­ly. This was not the only rea­son why pro­spec­ti­ve forei­gn part­ners felt reas­su­red when dea­ling with the Cala­brians. “The ndran­ghe­ta has great cre­di­bi­li­ty outsi­de Ita­ly becau­se its mem­bers pay promp­tly and always ful­fil their obli­ga­tions,” says Cafie­ro De Raho. “Cocai­ne is nor­mal­ly paid for by buyers in advan­ce. But in the case of the ndran­ghe­ta they are allo­wed to pay in arrears.” It is clear that Reg­gio Calabria’s chief pro­se­cu­tor has a cer­tain grud­ging admi­ra­tion for the men (and, in some cases, women) he pur­sues. Their busi­ness skills are “tru­ly impres­si­ve”, he says. “No one has suc­cee­ded in dea­ling cocai­ne at a glo­bal level in the way that the ndran­ghe­ta has.”

Despi­te the dif­fi­cul­ty of pene­tra­ting the ndran­ghe­ta, poli­ce for­ces in the Uni­ted Sta­tes, Euro­pe and South Ame­ri­ca have recen­tly achie­ved a num­ber of signal suc­ces­ses in coun­te­rac­ting its ope­ra­tions. In 2010, Nico­la Grat­te­ri and other anti-mafia pro­se­cu­tors arre­sted and con­vic­ted the syndicate’s “boss of bos­ses”, 80-year-old Dome­ni­co Oppe­di­sa­no, who was unk­no­wn to poli­ce befo­re the start of their inve­sti­ga­tion and led an out­ward­ly bla­me­less life as a mar­ket gar­de­ner. He was sen­ten­ced to ten years in pri­son in 2012. In March last year, it emer­ged that they had per­sua­ded one of the ndrangheta’s key inter­me­dia­ries in Latin Ame­ri­ca, Dome­ni­co Trim­bo­li, to turn state’s evi­den­ce.

In Bra­zil, mea­n­whi­le, Osval­do Sca­le­zi Junior, the Polí­cia Federal’s wry orga­ni­sed-cri­me spe­cia­li­st, was hel­ping them crack open a drug-smug­gling net­work co-ordi­na­ted from Cala­bria. Docu­men­ts rela­ting to this, seen by 1843, reveal just how cosmo­po­li­tan the ndrangheta’s allian­ces are. Ope­ra­tion Buon­gu­sta­io was laun­ched by Grat­te­ri in Ita­ly in 2010 and grew to encom­pass the poli­ce for­ces of nine dif­fe­rent coun­tries. The king­pin was an alle­ged ndran­ghe­ti­sta from a tiny vil­la­ge on the east coa­st of Cala­bria, his part­ner a Mon­te­ne­grin gang­ster based in Hol­land. One of the cocai­ne sup­pliers was a Colom­bian kno­wn as El Cha­to (“Shor­ty”); the other was a Bra­zi­lian gang­ster in lea­gue with Chi­leans and Boli­vians. Bri­tish, Spa­nish, Por­tu­gue­se and Peru­vian cou­riers buz­zed bet­ween Euro­pe and Bra­zil. The main inter­me­dia­ry was a Lon­don-based Bra­zi­lian dolei­ra (black-mar­ket money­chan­ger) named Maria de Fati­ma Stoc­ker, whom her asso­cia­tes cal­led the Direc­to­ra and, the poli­ce noted, was never caught on sur­veil­lan­ce foo­ta­ge without a hat.

From Augu­st 2012, law enfor­ce­ment agen­ts on both sides of the Atlan­tic sei­zed more than 1.5 ton­nes of cocai­ne ship­ped from Bra­zil with a value of around €6m. Sca­le­zi and his fel­low agen­ts also foi­led an ambi­tious plan to secre­te drugs in a life-jac­ket trunk atta­ched to the hull of a ship sai­ling out of Mun­gu­ba, a river port on a tri­bu­ta­ry of the Ama­zon. But they almo­st came unstuck as they pre­pa­red for the cli­mac­tic pha­se of Ope­ra­tion Buon­gu­sta­io: an inter­na­tio­nal­ly agreed plan for the simul­ta­neous arre­st of the suspec­ts at 6am on March 20th 2014. Days befo­re, the Polí­cia Fede­ral lear­ned that one of the pri­me suspec­ts was due to lea­ve Bra­zil on March 19th. Then he chan­ged his depar­tu­re time to March 20th – but at 5am.

“The pro­blem was that the war­rant we had only allo­wed us to enter his home after 6am,” says Sca­le­zi. Just befo­re their quar­ry was due to fly out of São Pau­lo, Scalezi’s unit inter­cep­ted a con­ver­sa­tion with their other lea­ding tar­get: the two men arran­ged a mee­ting at McDonald’s at 11pm on the eve­ning befo­re the flight. Wor­ried about tip­ping their hand, the inve­sti­ga­tors deci­ded they had to arre­st both men if they could, obvia­ting the need to obtain a new war­rant. But the­re was nothing in the wire­tap to indi­ca­te which McDonald’s had been desi­gna­ted. In the muni­ci­pa­li­ty of São Pau­lo alo­ne, the­re are 59 bran­ches. “We star­ted to iso­la­te all the McDonald’s in the city open 24 hours a day. That still amoun­ted to a lot of McDonald’s. So we made a guess: if our tar­get was going to con­ti­nue on to Gua­ru­lhos [the inter­na­tio­nal air­port], it ought to be on the rou­te from his home.” Poli­ce even­tual­ly found the two men deep in con­ver­sa­tion, con­ve­nien­tly enou­gh, in the McDonald’s nea­re­st to the hea­d­quar­ters of the PF.

Thir­teen of tho­se detai­ned opted for a fast track trial in Ita­ly that ended in Octo­ber 2015 (the ver­dic­ts are still sub­ject to appeal). Stoc­ker, the Bra­zi­lian go-bet­ween, Vla­dan Rado­man, the ndrangheta’s Mon­te­ne­grin part­ner, and the alle­ged kingpin’s lieu­te­nant were each given 20 years in jail. None of tho­se con­vic­ted esca­ped with sen­ten­ces of less than nine years and four mon­ths. Perhaps becau­se he has wat­ched the ndran­ghe­ta spread ine­xo­ra­bly around the glo­be for more than 25 years, Grat­te­ri remains scep­ti­cal of the degree to which he and his col­lea­gues are sap­ping its for­mi­da­ble power. Gio­van­ni Fal­co­ne said of the Sici­lian Mafia that it was “a human phe­no­me­non and, like all human phe­no­me­na, it has a begin­ning, an evo­lu­tion and will thus also have an end”. Grat­te­ri takes a less encou­ra­ging view. He was recen­tly asked whe­ther the ndran­ghe­ta could be stop­ped, and if so when. He lea­ned back wea­ri­ly, took a deep breath and said: “I per­so­nal­ly think that orga­ni­sed cri­me will end with the extinc­tion of human­kind on Earth.”

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