The 'Ndrangheta, the Most Powerful of Italy's Mafias

“The only thing that can’t be bribed is the weather.”

Southern Italian proverb

The Ndrangheta, based in Southern Italy, is the most powerful organized crime ring in the world
Calabria, Italy, home to the dreaded Ndrangheta.

If not for the Ndrangheta organized crime syndicate, the southern Italian region of Calabria would be a "failed state" due to the Calabrian Mafia's powerful grip on the economy and virtually all aspects of life in that part of Italy.

This sentiment was expressed some five years ago by an American diplomat, whose papers were leaked to WikiLeaks, which published them on Jan. 13.

The American diplomat further noted in the papers that the Ndrangheta had been able to establish itself and flourish due to ineffective and corrupt politicians and port officials, and the absence of strong law enforcement. Also, the focus on the more well-known Sicilian Cosa Nostra had provided this shadowy network the time and space to organize itself and perpetuate.

The diplomat was actually shortchanging the group.

The Ndrangheta controls far more than all of Calabria.

The Ndrangheta is today considered to be the most powerful criminal organization in the world, with alleged revenue of about $72 billion. To Americans, it's known as the group with the unpronounceable name that is not the Mafia.

The Ndrangheta (pronounced "en-drahng-eh-ta," the first syllable silent unless immediately preceded by a vowel) is based in the southern region of Calabria, in the toe of the Italian "boot." In the past decade, the group has aggressively expanded and is considered to be among the world's largest cocaine traffickers, often working closely with Mexico's big time narcotrafficantes to supply Western Europe. Called "the Octopus" by some, the Ndrangheta has wrapped its tentacles around Europe, as well as South America, Australia--and allegedly even America. In 2012 during the investigation of 34 Ndrangheta members, Italian authorities uncovered a stronghold based in New York City, a major stopover along the Ndrangheta's international drug trade, where its members meet up with cocaine-laden members of the Mexican cartels. The FBI, at the time, said the Ndrangheta is among its top priorities. Members of the group landed here much earlier, however, and are known to have run intimidation schemes in Pennsylvania mining towns in 1906.

It has also established a formidable presence in northern Italy, where it launders and invests its blood money in "legitimate" businesses, including hotels, restaurants, supermarkets, and even the health-care sector.

Domenico Oppedisano, alleged "boss of bosses" of Ndrangheta.

The Ndrangheta is one of several crime organizations of Italy. In addition to the aforementioned Sicilian Cosa Nostra, there is the Neapolitan Camorra (and the Apulian Sacra Corona Unita, a unit that was originally formed in the 1970s to rival the traditional Camorra). Although the Ndrangheta operates independently, it historically has worked with Cosa Nostra primarily due to the geographical proximity between Calabria and Sicily; the two groups also share in a common culture and dialect. It turns out the structure of the Ndrangheta is thought to be more Mafia-like than the previous view that it had a more clannish-based, horizontal structure.

It is the unparalleled, shocking brutality of the Ndrangheta that differentiates it from even the explosives-preferring executioners of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra.

It was the Ndrangheta who fed a living man to a group of hungry pigs.

What happened in this burnt out car was horrible.

This week, the group is said to be responsible for the murders of a three-year-old boy, his uncle, and the uncle's Moroccan girlfriend.

From La Gazzetta del A preliminary reconstruction of events found that the automobile with Giuseppe Iannicelli, a special surveillance officer, his Moroccan girlfriend Ibtissam Touss, and Iannicelli's three-year-old nephew aboard had burned for many hours. 

The Carabinieri paramilitary police received numerous calls from relatives and friends concerning Iannicelli's disappearance Sunday night. When carabinieri police found the charred automobile, the bodies were so burnt they had trouble understanding how many there were. ...

Iannicelli did not repay a debt that he owed to a local Ndrangheta boss, it has been claimed.

The American diplomat's confidential papers were written about two years before the 2010 crackdown (one wonders if they were part of the reason for this major campaign by Italian officials) in which 305 alleged Ndrangheta members, including the man considered to be the group's "boss of bosses," Domenico Oppedisano, then age 80, were arrested. In addition, more than $60 million in assets were seized. The effort even generated a handful of turncoats--something this organization is not known for churning out due to the heavy reliance on blood relations.

Described as the largest such effort against the Ndrangheta in 15 years, it involved more than 3,000 police, who raided homes, offices, and "strongholds" across Italy.

In gathering its intelligence prior to the raid, anti-mafia prosecutors infiltrated weddings, baptisms, and other gatherings.

One of the most significant revelations to emerge from the investigation was that the group had a tight hierarchical structure similar to the one used by the Sicilian and American Cosa Nostras; the Ndrangheta, it was learned, is not simply an association of clans, as previously believed.

Intelligence gathering for the raid began as early as August 2009, when investigators infiltrated the wedding of the children of two crime bosses in Calabria; it was there that Oppedisano was named to his post, according to Calabrian anti-mafia prosecutor Giuseppe Pignatone.

Two weeks later, on September 2, at the feast of Madonna Polsi, Oppedisano's position was formally recognized; undercover agents managed to videotape the event, documenting as well all the group's major bosses being confirmed in their new positions in the structure.

Law enforcement began recording in August 2009 "all of the major negotiations of the various families," Pignatone said at a news conference.
Francesco Raccosta (l.) and his killer Simone Pepe who fed him
to a pack of hungry pigs.
Some 40 meetings in Lombardy were among those recorded. Lombardy, one of the most populous and richest regions in Italy (it is located far in the north) as well as Europe, had become one of the Ndrangheta's chief moneymaking centers, with operations focusing on excavations for construction sites, trash disposal, and real estate. Of all those arrested in 2010, 160 were taken into custody in Lombardy. Among them: Pino Neri, who police said was in charge of the gang's businesses in Milan, that region's capital and also a focus of the Calabrian crime group.

More recently, this past January, 13 were rounded up in Colombia and Italy; they were said to have formed part of a drug ring that connected the Ndrangheta to Colombian drug dealers. Called "Operation Livorno," it involved Colombian police, who arrested nine, and Italian authorities, who arrested four in the northern Italian city of Trento. The group is accused of transporting cocaine to Europe in shipping containers; more than half a ton was recovered during the operation.

Earlier in January, it was reported that police had managed to crack what is described as an ancient code used to initiate new members. Rome investigators found the age-old document, handwritten and spanning three pages, while pursuing leads about a murder of a member of the 'Ndrangheta crime organization, based in Calabria, according to The Telegraph.

The code uses Greek- and Egyptian-like symbols and refers to a "blood and honor" vow that new members must take.

Aside from drugs, the Ndrangheta deals in fraud, counterfeiting, theft, gun-running, loan-sharking, ­kidnapping and people-trafficking.

The organization, though based in Calabria, controls banks, malls, building firms, supermarkets and clubs throughout Italy.

Top anti-mafia magistrate Roberto di Palma warns: “The ’Ndrangheta is like an octopus and wherever there’s money, you’ll find its tentacles.”

The Italian government declared in an official report: “It is one of the most powerful criminal ­organisations in the world.”

One Italian prosecutor said: “The organization has become as adept at money-laundering as it once was with sawn-off shotguns.”

Writer John Dickie inside an entry to a bunker found in Calabria.

And one of its easiest sources of cash is European Union grants. In the past five years, Brussels has given $2.5 billion for projects such as new roads and wind-farms in Calabria.

The Ndrangheta is said to have ­syphoned off millions in “pizzo” – or Mob Tax.

A third of the syndicate’s income is said to be plowed back into crime.

The rest is invested in “legitimate” business and in backhanders to cops and politicians.

Like the American and Sicilian Mafias, the Ndrangheta initiates its members with rituals designed to bind them to silence for life. Membership is concentrated in poor towns and villages, such as San Luca (the ’Ndrangheta equivalent of Corleone, Sicily, ground zero for the Mafia and, yes, where Mario Puzo got the name of his Godfather character). Reggio di Calabria, the biggest and most populated city in the region, and also the home to the local government, is also of vital importance to the group. Only the Strait of Messina separates it from the island of Sicily.

Entry to a bunker was found in this Calabrian villa, owned by
a Ndrangheti.
Members of rival families meet there for sit-downs. It's where they supposedly resolved the war of 1985-1991 that left 700 dead.

From an informant, the Italian Anti-Mafia Commission had learned the extent of high-level corruption as well as details on how crime money was laundered through legitimate business ventures.

Revelations like these helped to push the ’Ndrangheta even deeper underground, including in the literal sense--a network of underground bunkers have been found across Calabria. Read author John Dickie's take on the Ndrangheta's bunkers here.

The bunkers, linked by tunnels, are made from shipping containers welded together; they even include running water and drainage systems.

The linking tunnels were openly dug in the main street of the Calabrian village of Plati.

In addition, it has been learned that the Ndrangheta bosses formed what is called La Santa, a kind of secret society within a secret society.

Rank-and-file members, to avoid wiretaps and any other bugging, use impenetrable dialect and coded whistles used by Calabrian shepherds.

Last year an Italian prosecutor warned: “The ’Ndrangheta runs the international cocaine market. I urge you not to underestimate the organization or it will be too late.”


  1. That's about the best overview of the dreaded 'Ndrangheta I've come across. Good research. It's hard to imagine a mob besting Cosa Nostra in twisted violence.

  2. Finally someone gets it right. I keep hearing Mexicans, Mexicans, Mexicans! It's 'Ndrangheta that is the world's most richest and biggest drug dealers.


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