Source AP ©

New Italian crime syndicate eclipses Cosa Nostra

A mysterious crime syndicate rooted in the rugged mountains at the tip of Italy's boot has quietly eclipsed Cosa Nostra in power and reach.

The bullet-riddled bodies of six young Italians who had just dined at a pizzeria in Germany's industrial heartland told the world last week what Italian authorities already knew: the clannish 'ndrangheta crime syndicate had come of age as an international force.

The mob based in one of Italy's most backward regions, Calabria, had once been largely limited to shaking down small town merchants and staging kidnappings for ransom. Composed of clusters of families so loyal they practically pledge their newborns to a life of crime, it has expanded into the biggest player in Europe's flourishing cocaine market.

Prosecutors estimate its operations at home and abroad, which include such traditional rackets as loan-sharking, extortion and arms trafficking, are worth some EUR37 billion (US$50 billion). Much of that gets laundered through legitimate businesses like hotels, supermarkets and pizzerias across Europe that the 'ndrangheta snapped up in a 1990s buying spree.

The 'ndrangheta's horizontal structure of crime families reinforced by marriage has proven largely impenetrable, according to Calabrian prosecutor Nicola Gratteri, who has been investigating the syndicate for the last 20 years.

Gratteri is heading the Italian investigation into the slayings outside Da Bruno's restaurant in Duisburg, Germany - an unheard of explosion abroad of a decades-old feud between crime clans in San Luca, a tiny Calabrian town vying for control of the cocaine trade.

The Italian premier's office presented a report this month before the violence in Germany asserting that the Calabrian underworld had become the dominant criminal force in southern Italy.

The syndicate "has a sizable presence" in Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, the Balkans, eastern Europe and South America, "thanks to consolidated relations with producers and traffickers of cocaine," the report said.

May raids in Milan turned up 250 kilograms (550 pounds) of cocaine which investigators said had been trafficked from South America via Senegal as part of the 'ndrangheta's operations.

Gratteri said the 'ndrangheta invests very little in southern Italy, instead focusing its money-laundering activities on more affluent central and northern Italy as well as eastern Europe.

"After the fall of the Berlin Wall, they went there (to East Germany) and bought cheap properties that were historically or architecturally prestigious," Gratteri said in a telephone interview.

Prosecutors say they then proceeded to set up a network of pizzerias, restaurants and hotels through which they laundered dirty money.

"The Germans must realize that where there is pizza, there's the Mafia," Giorgio Basile, one of the 'ndrangheta's rare turncoats, was quoted as saying by Italian media after he was arrested at a train station in Bavaria in 1998.

The 'ndrangheta used ransom money in the '80s to buy heroin from Turkey and Lebanon but switched to cocaine in the '90s when prices soared. Now it has a virtual monopoly on the trade in Europe, according to Gratteri.

The 'ndrangheta has its own polyglot brokers in northern Europe and in Bogota, Colombia, where its mobsters "buy coke like you buy stock, getting the best price," Gratteri said.

The heartland of 'ndrangheta power lies in a 15 square kilometer (6-square-mile) rocky patch of the Aspromonte mountains. But relatives of clan members who have emigrated as far as Canada, the United States, South America and Australia can provide a convenient support network.

The 'ndrangheta's ascent came as Cosa Nostra was reeling from a massive police crackdown. The "Pizza Connection" probe broke a US$1.65 billion heroin and cocaine smuggling operation that used pizzerias as fronts from 1975-1984. A series of trials in Sicily put hundreds of Cosa Nostra's men behind bars.

In the '90s, when more than 1,000 turncoats had left Cosa Nostra and were cooperating with authorities, only some 40 mobsters from the 'ndrangheta turned evidence, according to Gratteri.

The 'ndrangheta's world is highly disciplined, to the point that its bosses will determine who gets to dance with whom at local feast days. Punishment is swift, decided by a "defense minister" who hands out sentences with no appeal.

Punishments for minor infractions include getting your head stuck in a toilet bowl while it's flushed or a clansman urinating on your leg, Gratteri said. Death sentences are normally handled by a gunshot.

One of the Duisburg victims, who was celebrating a fellow victim's 18th birthday, is suspected by investigators of being one of the hit men who carried out the Christmas, 2006, slaying in San Luca of Maria Strangio, a mob boss' wife.

Investigators believe the woman's husband was the probable target in that attack. The mother of the slain suspected hit man has denied her son had a role in last year's killing.

The San Luca feud turned bloody in 1991, after two masked youths from one clan entered a rival boss's coffee bar in the town and started throwing eggs during Carnival merrymaking. The youths were gunned down later that day.

The egg-throwing "was just an outward display of tensions which had gone on for years" in the town of some 4,000 people, Gratteri said in the phone interview.

Counting last week's victims, the feud has claimed 15 lives.

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