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Mapping the mafia: Italy's web of criminal gangs explained

Mapping the mafia: Italy's web of criminal gangs explained
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By Lillo Montalto MonellaLuca Santocchia
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In the last 20 years Calabrian's 'ndrangheta, of which one of the main bosses was arrested on Monday, has become Italian most powerful criminal syndicate

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The arrest of Rocco Morabito, one of the main bosses of the 'Ndrangheta, is a heavy blow for the Calabrian criminal organization. Before his arrest, 54 years old Morabito was considered the most important Italian fugitive after mafia's boss Matteo Messina Denaro, the heir to the "boss of bosses" Salvatore Riina, who died in prison in 2017.

It remains to be seen whether Morabito's arrest will have the same impact on the Calabrian criminal organization generated on the Sicilian mafia by the capture of its bosses, which since the early 1990s has greatly reduced the power of Cosa Nostra.

'Ndrangheta is one of Italy's main organized crime groups, a multi-faceted network active in the racketeering, drug-trafficking and murder business that is known generically as the mafia outside of Italy. But the Sicilian syndicate has lost prominence in the overall power balance. Hierarchies have changed over the past two decades.

Who is the most powerful mafia in Italy?

“Nowadays criminal groups shoot less than in the 90s but they are extremely vital and, most importantly, they do more business than ever,” Italian magazine L’Espresso wrote in 2016. “A person living in Lombardy fears the ‘ndrangheta and the camorra no differently’ from someone born in the south of Italy.”

Morabito's 'ndrangheta has literally boomed and has slowly became the most powerful syndicate from the early 2000s. This organised group spawns from Sicily’s neighbouring region, Calabria. The syndicate “shows a very dangerous ability to colonise the territories where its members are located. Today it represents the main challenge to the institutions”, said the prosecutor who helped arrest Riina.

'Ndrangheta is completely independent from the Sicilian mafia and can boast a global turnover of 53 billion euros, mainly coming from drug trafficking, an army of approximately 6,000 members globally (other sources put this figure at 60,000) and almost 400 armed groups operating in over 30 countries. In other words, it sits on a pile of cash as high as McDonald’s or Deutsche Bank’s , worth 3.5% of Italian GDP.

The economic crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has brought many companies in Italy to their knees. A new possibility of gain for criminal groups, which have infiltrated the legal economy of the tourism sector.

According to a recent research by Demoskopika, an Italian Institute for Economic and Social Research, there are almost 4,500 companies at high risk of money laundering: a deal worth over 2.2 billion euros in which the 'ndrangheta plays the lion's share, with a turnover of over 800 million euros, equal to 37% of total revenue.

A family affair

If the Sicilian cartel is a top-to-bottom organisation with a pyramid structure, the ‘ndrangheta has wider international ties. But it is still a family business at heart.

Orders to members stem from the small town of San Luca, framed by the foothills of the Aspromonte massifs, the cradle and epicentre of ‘ndrangheta, whose core group is known as “la Mamma”, “the Mother”.

Its blood ties are strong, therefore very few are willing to turn supergrass and collaborate as police informers. No one betrays the family.

An example of this claim dates back to 2009, when a Calabrian-born woman called Lea Garofalo decided to expose her former partner’s illicit trafficking but ended up being killed and burnt alive by a gang, which included her ex.

The port of Gioia Tauro, controlled by the ‘ndrangheta, is know as the European entry point of cocaine, with total seizures for 2016 accounting for 1.7 tons of the white powder, mostly arriving from South America.

Gomorra’s camorra

What Roberto Saviano describes in his famous book Gomorra is the camorra and is based north of Calabria, in Campania and around its capital city, Naples. Camorra is the oldest criminal group in Italy and, unlike the Sicilian mafia, does not have a unique centre of command. It has more of a horizontal structure and features independent clans ready to battle each other for supremacy.

It’s a much more violent organisation compared to the Sicilian mafia and the ‘ndrangheta because of the continuous fights for territorial dominance amongst its factions. Camorra’s tendency is to settle most disputes with the use of brutal force: in the most recent years it has left a bloodier trail than the two other groups.

Lacking a pyramid structure, its illegal revenues have been estimated by Italy’s Minister of Home Affairs as being around 3.75 billion euros-a-year.

The Castel Volturno massacre in 2008 has been possibly the most notable slaughter perpetrated by a confederation of camorra’s clans, the Casalesi, leading to the death of seven people and the deployment of 400 troops in the area by the Italian government.

Casalesi, operating in the province of Caserta, is one of the most influential criminal groups in the world, specialised in international drug trade and boasting alliances with Albanian mobsters and Nigerian crime syndicates. Journalist Roberto Saviano estimates their total assets as being worth around 30 billion euros at the peak of their activity, in 2008.

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If camorra’s groups’ business interests are everywhere in Italy and in Europe, most notably in Germany and Spain, their core territory remains confined to Campania, Naples’ region. International illicit deals happen with the “permission” of ‘ndrangheta, who seems to be the Italian group with the monopoly of the global drug trade. At least for now.

‘Ndrangheta and camorra are also very active not only in drug trafficking and extortion, but also in the allocation of public contracts in the north of the peninsula. In fact, mafia is northern Italy’s problem too, as OpenDemocracy puts it.

Organised crime groups in Italy

What happens in Rome

Despite a recent stream of corruption scandals – which has revealed ties between politics and far-right groups (such as the Magliana gang) – had been named “Mafia Capitale”, the situation in Rome reminds more camorra than the Sicilian mafia.

Various local criminal groups, including right-wing mobsters and family clans with Sinti origins, are fighting to take the spoils of the capital.

Yet, the Eternal City has always been central in every criminal syndicate’s affairs.

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In recent years dozens of restaurants and food business operating in the Colosseum area have been recently seized by authorities with the accusations of being money laundering hubs for camorra’s bosses.

In 2017 Italy’s populist Five Star Movement won a local election in Ostia, a seaside suburb of Rome once ruled by organised crime, where the local government had been dissolved due to its infiltration by the mafia.

Last but not least: Sacra Corona Unita

In Puglia the local mafia is known as Sacra Corona Unita. The youngest of all syndicates, founded in 1981, it consists of about 50 clans with approximately 2,000 members and specialises in smuggling cigarettes, drugs, arms and people.

This is what the National Anti-Mafia Directorate wrote in its last annual report about the province of Foggia: “An element of support for the solidity of these organisations and their impenetrability derives from the civil context of the area, characterised by cultural backwardness, silence and widespread illegality. It seems almost impossible that a modern and flexible mafia crime has developed from this context. The result of this deadly union between modernity and far-sightedness in the objectives, along with archaic values, is a capillary control of the territory, obtained and consolidated with a long trail of blood. No collaborative contribution is given by the population and there is an absence of collaborators of justice.”

Once considered a minor syndicate, the mafia of Gargano is territorially limited but has widespread international connections and leverages on the silent support of some sectors of the population, combining ruthlessness and archaic traditions with the ability to infiltrate the modern economy – taking advantage of the low level of national attention enjoyed so far.

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