||Last Updated: Dec 29, 2007 - 9:26:00 AM
GIOIA TAURO, ITALY -- Europe is fast
overtaking the U.S. as the leading destination for the world's cocaine, and a
single Italian mafia is largely responsible.
The 'Ndrangheta crime syndicate, a ruthless and mysterious network of 155
families born in the rough hills here in southern Italy's Calabria region, now
dominates the European drug trade. By establishing direct ties with Colombian
producers and building a multibillion-dollar empire that spans five continents,
the syndicate has metamorphosed into one of the craftiest criminal gangs in the
world, authorities say.
" 'Ndrangheta is king," said Sabas Pretelt de la Vega, a former
Colombian interior minister who is his country's ambassador to Rome.
The 'Ndrangheta (pronounced en-DRAHN-geh-tah) peculiarly combines the modern
skills of multinational-corporation high finance with a stubborn grip on
archaic rural traditions. Some members live in garishly opulent villas outside
Madrid and invest in bustling restaurants and hotels in Germany, whereas
others, including key bosses, remain in the dreary, closed Calabrian mountain
villages of their birth. It is a mafia of businessmen in Dolce & Gabbana,
of sheepherders in scruffy woolens.
Its success stems from moving early and unwaveringly into cocaine trafficking
while avoiding the kind of public limelight (and police crackdown) focused on
its better-known Sicilian counterpart, the Mafia, or "Cosa Nostra."
Working from "the toe of Italy's boot," a region historically
neglected and ignored, the 'Ndrangheta maintains a hard-as-stone code of
silence that repels most penetration efforts by police and other authorities.
And because each family is a cell cooperating only loosely with other families
and without a central hierarchy, the capture of a leader here or there does not
even dent the organization.
Over the last two decades, the syndicate has deployed its members to strategic
locations along trafficking and distribution routes, in Colombia and Venezuela,
Canada, Africa, Spain and as far as Australia. It takes orders from buyers in
Europe (including other mafiosi) and brokers deals with the suppliers in
The 'Ndrangheta gained the confidence of the Colombians, eliminated the
middlemen and dealt as readily with the leftist guerrillas of the Revolutionary
Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, as with the right-wing paramilitaries of the
United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, two groups that exercise major
control over cocaine production in Colombia.
The personal contact, the guarantee of secrecy and the reliability of the
business transactions all have made the 'Ndrangheta mobster an appealing
partner for the Colombians.
"He is seen as a man of his word. He pays in cash. He pays
immediately," said Renato Cortese, a regional commander of the state
anti-mafia police. "And he never talks."
For income, the 'Ndrangheta has chosen a lucrative and expanding market.
By some estimates, including that of Pretelt de la Vega, the Colombian diplomat,
the amount of cocaine being shipped to Europe exceeds that going to the United
States, a reversal of the historical pattern. Italian authorities give lower
figures, saying cocaine shipments are divided half-and-half between Europe and
the United States, and U.S. officials cite older statistics that show more
cocaine flowing to American shores.
Whatever the amounts, no one disputes that the cocaine market in the United
States has stabilized, whereas that of Europe is growing. Seizures of cocaine
in Europe have doubled in the last five years, although they remain a small
portion of global interceptions, according to the latest report from the United
Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Usage of cocaine in Europe, meanwhile, has skyrocketed, up by a million users
last year, to 4.5 million continent-wide, according to the European Union's
drug-monitoring center in Lisbon. Leading the pack are Britain, Spain, Denmark
"The decline in the United States is offset by alarming increases in some
European countries," the U.N. said.
Although Cosa Nostra has dominated international headlines and popular culture
for a generation, it has been eclipsed by its Calabrian counterpart in terms of
power and wealth, said Nicola Gratteri, the region's top anti-mafia prosecutor.
The 'Ndrangheta, which is thought to have business assets worth at least $50
billion, grew as a protection racket in impoverished southern Italy after World
War II and then began to make big money with kidnappings (including the
abduction and grisly mutilation of the grandson of oil billionaire J. Paul
Getty in 1973). The name comes from a Greek word meaning "virtue" or
Eventually the group shifted to drugs and weapons trafficking, and by the '90s
was awash in cash, which it began laundering through real estate and other
A turning point
The fall of the Berlin Wall was a turning point, recalled Piero Grasso, Italy's
senior anti-mafia prosecutor. In conversations recorded by police, members of
the Calabrian mob plotted a mad buying spree in the newly available former
Soviet bloc. "Buy everything!" was the watchword.
"And today they know no borders," Grasso said.
Here in Calabria, they also enjoy access to the Gioia Tauro port, one of the
largest and busiest of the Mediterranean. Authorities say it is a transshipment
point for unmeasured pounds of cocaine. Of the estimated 3,500 40-foot cargo
containers that arrive daily, only about 25 are opened for inspection, so
finding drugs is as much luck as skill, police say.
Suspicions were raised recently about a Uruguayan shipment to Greece marked
"lemons." Why would a Mediterranean country like Greece need to
import lemons from Uruguay? Inside a batch of rotting lemons, inspectors found
220 pounds of cocaine.
"Drugs are burying us," said Col. Francesco Gazzani, regional head of
the Italian finance police.
In their investigations, Italian police and prosecutors working with Colombian,
Spanish and U.S. authorities have recorded thousands of telephone calls and
documented meetings and other communication between the 'Ndrangheta and
In one photographed surveillance stakeout, four people from Latin America and
Calabria can be seen sitting in broad daylight at one of Milan's most
fashionable outdoor cafes, against a backdrop of rose-colored marble columns
and the Duomo cathedral. They discuss a cocaine deal, then one of them casually
walks to a nearby pay phone and places the order.
In another surveillance, a suspected 'Ndrangheta gangster telephones a number
in Colombia, a person with a Calabrian accent answers and then simply whistles,
and the caller says, "I understand." Authorities say it was a signal
that a shipment had departed.
One of the strongest links between the 'Ndrangheta and the Colombians, investigators
say, was Roberto Pannunzi, an alleged mafia chieftain who was one of the top
cocaine brokers in the syndicate when he was arrested in 2004 as part of
Operation Zappa, a five-year investigation named after a gangster code word for
"Every important criminal figure went to him," said Diego Trotta, a
member of an elite police squad that captured Pannunzi.
Pannunzi, 59, married his son Alessandro into a notorious family from
Colombia's Medellin cartel as a way to cement the bonds. At the height of his
activities, authorities say, he was buying 3,300 to 4,400 pounds of cocaine a
month. He boasted of the ease and confidence with which he handled his
"The fact is, Barba [a Colombian trafficker] will give us everything without
even a lira," Pannunzi told alleged 'Ndrangheta operative Paolo Sergi, the
target of another long-running probe, according to a confidential wiretap made
available to The Times.
"What do you think -- is the same amount available like the last time, or
maybe less?" Pannunzi's interlocutor wonders.
"Barba, at least, told me that he has 3 million [3,000 kilograms, or 6,600
pounds, of cocaine] and I'm thinking 500 or 700," Pannunzi responds, using
a numeric code for the price.
A beefy man with dark wavy hair, Pannunzi amassed such an enormous fortune,
investigators say, that he at one point simply threw away millions of dollars
worth of liras because the bills had been stacked so high and for so long that
they became moldy.
Back to ancestral home
Perhaps one of the most surprising features of the 'Ndrangheta is that despite
its fortunes, its members always come back to their ancestral home in Calabria,
almost as a spiritual touchstone. Though they form clones of their home
villages the world over, an internal code obliges them to report back to the
mother ship, said Gratteri, the top regional ant-mafia prosecutor.
"You have to look at what this place gives them. Each top 'Ndranghista is
an emperor," said Gratteri, whose work has earned him round-the-clock
bodyguards and transport in an armored car.
"He has the perverse pleasure to be able to decide the life or death of
3,000, 5,000, maybe 10,000 people. He decides who lives. He decides who is
going to be mayor. He decides who is going to win the state contracts. For the
perverse mind, this is very gratifying."
Each family assigns a member to a certain criminal enterprise; if a son is good
in math, he might get the loan-shark business, whereas an engineer would handle
the acquisition of lucrative state building contracts, a major area of
The tightness of the family network also has thwarted efforts by authorities to
infiltrate the crime gang. Several years ago, when the government offered
reduced jail time to mafiosi who would inform on their cohorts, hundreds of
Cosa Nostra operatives 'fessed up. But only a few people associated with the
'Ndrangheta agreed to become turncoats, and most of these were such minor
figures that they had little to offer.
"Every clan is a little Sparta," militarized and willing to fight to
the end, often egged on by the women of the family, said anti-mafia prosecutor
Through the years, most killings by the 'Ndrangheta have been the result of
internal feuds or have targeted relatively low-level officials, inspiring
little public outrage. That changed last summer with a bloody ambush outside a
pizzeria in Duisburg, Germany. At least two gunmen from one 'Ndrangheta family
killed six members of a rival clan, shocking Italians and Germans because of the
brutality of the attack and the extent to which the mafia had settled in
The slayings were the latest explosion of a long-running internal feud that had
at its root a power struggle over territory and business, investigators say.
In the more than four months since the Duisburg massacre, Italian and German
police have arrested about 40 suspected mobsters, men and women. But no one has
any illusions that this represents a setback for the Calabrian mafia.
" 'Ndrangheta are the leader in Europe when it comes to trafficking
cocaine," Gratteri said, "and their trafficking is getting stronger
all the time."
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