Raised in the shadow of Sicily’s Cosa Nostra for almost a century (according to the FBI, the ‘Ndrangheta was born in the 1860s in the island of Favignana, Sicily), the ‘Ndrangheta has had plenty of time and resources to quietly become a major player in the realm of organized crime thanks to its ability to remain invisible to the interests of the media and the law.
The pyramidal structure of Sicilian Cosa Nostra – which ultimately caused its downfall with the systematic removal of the Capo dei Capi (i.e. the Godfather) – is something of an unknown concept in Calabria. The ‘Ndrangheta is a perfect tapestry based on mutual rapport and respect, born in Calabrian territory, where every thread is represented by a “family” linked to the next one either by blood ties or criminal activity.
Members of the ‘Ndrangheta very rarely sport posh cars, expensive suits, or jewels; modesty is always of paramount importance.
The Code of Silence of non-cooperation with the authorities, also known as “omerta’’, is one of the leading cultural attitudes in the region. It is something of a “code of honor” for those who join the ranks of the ‘Ndrangheta. Breaking it usually results in the death of the informant.
According to statistics, up until 2008 there were 1,000 “pentiti” (informants) from Sicily's Cosa Nostra and only 42 from Calabria’s 'Ndrangheta.
If the most notable activity in the 1970s was kidnapping, then in the 1980s and 1990s international toxic waste disposal was the most lucrative enterprise.
With the help and support of corrupt politicians and secret services, the ‘Ndrangheta succeeded in securing large contracts for the disposal of toxic waste not only from Italy, but also from several European countries.
With a fleet of old and rusty vessels, the containers of death were transported and sunk between Greece and Lebanon, Sicily and Libya, around the Calabrian peninsula, and off the coast of Somalia. Considerable damage was done to its fishing industry, which at that time was the primary source of wealth for Mogadishu.
The ‘Ndrangheta now has the monopoly on cocaine in Europe. Italian officials estimate that 80% of Europe's cocaine now originates from Calabria. Involvement of the ‘Ndrangheta in other continents is also clearly well known. For instance:
- In 2006, Italy’s anti-mafia prosecutor Piero Grasso announced the discovery of a submarine in Colombia which was being constructed on the behalf of the ‘Ndrangheta for the purpose of smuggling cocaine into Europe.
- In September 2008, “Operazione Solare” (“Project Reckoning” in the US) – a multi-agency law enforcement operation led by the American DEA and assisted by Italian officials – resulted in the arrest of 500 drug traffickers in the US, Mexico, and Italy. In addition, approximately $60.1 million was seized, along with 16,711 kilograms of cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, marijuana, vehicles, and weapons. Among those indicted were the leaders of the Gulf Cartel and the leader of Los Zetas – the criminal syndicate considered by the US government to be the “most technologically advanced, sophisticated, and dangerous cartel operating in Mexico”.
Dr. Nicola Gratteri, Italian Public Prosecutor for the Anti-mafia District Attorney's Office of Reggio Calabria, noted that “This operation exemplifies the European vision of the international fight against drug trafficking.”
Typical of a criminal network, the ‘Ndrangheta is entrenched in politics and has infiltrated secret organizations worldwide. It is a major player in the housing markets of several European capitals and in businesses around the world.
In a cable released by Wikileaks in December 2008, a US official said “If it were not part of Italy, Calabria would be a failed state,” noting that the ‘Ndrangheta’s turnover amounts to more than 40 billion euros a year, which is the equivalent of 3% of Italy's GDP.
In October 2010, commemorating the fifth anniversary of the murder of the vice-president of the Regional Council of Calabria by the ‘Ndrangheta, the Italian President Giorgio Napolitano wrote: “Younger generations need to reject and denounce all forms of violence and abuse to win the fight against all mafias.”
Young Calabrians have learned that disapproving of organized crime on one’s own doesn’t pay. So since the appeal of President Napolitano in 2010, they are now organized in a large movement called “E adesso ammazzateci tutti” (“And now kill us all”), which is considered the biggest anti-mafia youth movement in Italy. The group is mainly engaged in promoting the rule of law in a region that hasn’t seen much of it in the past 200 years.