The Piromalli Ndrina of Gioia Tauro

The Calabrian port run by the Ndrangheta.
Steven Trotter is the guest blogger who wrote the following story. He also operates an organized crime news page on Facebook called Global Mafia News.

On a ridge above the Calabrian town of Gioia Tauro sits a house overlooking the coastal settlement and the surrounding area. Gioia Tauro is located in the middle of a long plain adjacent to the Tyrrhenian Sea in the deep south of Italy. The house occupies a position that feudal lords in medieval times would have envied as it dominates the local area.

And that is exactly the point.

This is the home of the feared Piromalli mafia family, ironically or intentionally situated next to the town’s graveyard. Historically the Piromalli’s are one of the most powerful clans in the Calabria ‘Ndrangheta, Italy’s richest and strongest mafia group today. Not much is known about the early history of the ‘ndrina (clan) but the family patriarch and Capobastone (chief cudgel), Don Gioacchino Piromalli, was related to many of the top mafia clans on the Gioia Tauro plain.

The Piromalli family are what one would call mafia aristocracy and one of the oldest ‘ndrina’s in the ‘Ndrangheta, a mafia-style criminal society that emerged from the Italian prison system in the late 19th century. Gioacchino fathered five sons and two daughters, the eldest son Girolamo, known as “Mommo” was born in 1918. Unlike the Sicilian Mafia across the straits of Messina, the ‘Ndrangheta has always been a blood-family business. The ‘ndrina is centred on a patriarch and his brothers, sons, nephews and cousins with each ‘ndrina connected to each other by important marriage alliances. Girolamo along with his brothers Domenico, Giuseppe, Gioacchino and Antonio were no different with all of them entering the family business. Although he was officially a cowherd, Girolamo managed to earn himself a litany of police charges throughout his teens and twenties which included assault, robbery and murder.

The patriarch of the family, Don Gioacchino Piromalli, passed away in 1956 after a long reign as Capobastone of Gioia Tauro. Like a feudal succession his power passed to the eldest son Girolamo. However the transition did not go smoothly with the Ventre-Carlino ‘ndrina challenging the new leader’s authority in the town. One of Mommo’s brothers, Antonio, was killed in the war for control that raged over the next year. Mommo instigated a bloody vendetta against his enemies in retaliation for the death of his younger brother. Dozens of members of the rival ‘ndrina were shot down, bludgeoned to death or simply disappeared.

The survivors of the Ventre-Carlino clans fled the Gioia Tauro plain in terror never to return. The Piromalli’s had asserted their power in the town and with their position now secure they sought to expand their influence by marrying into local ‘ndrina’s in the region. They were closely allied through marriage and blood ties to the Molè clan, also based in Gioia Tauro. The Piromalli’s were also affiliated to the potent Belloco and Pesce clans, based in the nearby town of Rosarno, and to other ‘ndrina on the plain and across Calabria.

The “Highway of the Sun” motorway project that was to connect Calabria with the city of Salerno to the north reaped the Piromalli’s a lot of money throughout the 1960s and beyond. The project was badly managed, wasteful and thoroughly infiltrated by mafia clans. The Piromalli’s earth-moving and trucking companies creamed off a huge profit from the massive construction project. By the mid-1960s the Piromalli’s had emerged as one of the most powerful ‘ndrina’s in the entire ‘Ndrangheta and were also one of its largest clans with at least a couple of hundred members. Don Mommo Piromalli was part of a triumvirate of the most powerful bosses in Calabria. The other two were Don Domenico Tripodo of Reggio Calabria, the largest city in the region, and Don Antonio Macri of Siderno, on the Ionian Coast. All three capobastone’s were involved in the Sicilian Mafia’s lucrative cigarette smuggling business and they were initiated members of Cosa Nostra too. The Sicilian’s brought Neapolitan and Calabrese mobsters into their organisation to keep a closer eye on them.

Don Mommo Piromalli was an innovator of sorts who wanted to modernise the ‘Ndrangheta and move it away from its traditional rural base, which would also enhance his own rising power within the Calabrian mafia. He created a new rank among the ‘Ndrangheta’s top leaders called “La Santa” which would allow them to enter the Free-Masonry, something that had previously been banned for initiated members of the Calabrian mafia. Shadowy Masonic lodges were springing up across Italy and Don Mommo saw this as the perfect way to network with corrupt businessmen and politicians making it easier to infiltrate local government and public works contracts. Don Mommo also wanted to take the Calabrian mafia into previously forbidden criminal rackets, such as drug-trafficking and kidnapping. The Piromalli’s were involved in the notorious 1973 kidnapping of John Paul Getty III, the grandson of an American oil billionaire who had his ear cut off by his captors before a huge ransom was paid. La Santa was vehemently opposed by the more supposedly “traditional” bosses, such as Don Antonio Macri who had been denied membership of the newly invented body. The Piromalli’s also sought to undermine the power of Reggio Capobastone, Domenico Tripodo, by supporting his underlings, the upstart De Stefano brothers from the Reggio suburb of Archi.

The reason for all this jostling for power was in large part due to the Colombo package, an Italian government initiative instituted after the Reggio Calabria revolt in 1970 which had been set off by the decision to move the regional capital to Catanzaro. The revolt was backed by neo-fascists and the ‘Ndrangheta, it was only quelled after the army marched into the city. The government of the day announced the Colombo package to appease angry Calabrian’s after the revolt. A huge steel works and port near Gioia Tauro employing 10,000 people was promised along with other public-works contracts across the region. The ‘Ndrangheta stood to profit enormously from the money pouring into Calabria but it destabilised the underworld as the clans jostled and schemed to be the recipients of the bountiful cash windfall.

The balance that had been maintained in the ‘Ndrangheta by the triumvirate since the mid-1960 would be shattered in 1974. The rising ambitions of the Piromalli’s and the De Stefano’s had shattered the existing status quo and despite repeated attempts at peace by the “traditionalists”, the First ‘Ndrangheta War was inevitable. Especially after the De Stefano’s, backed by the Piromalli’s, started robbing the older Don’s cigarette shipments. The first shots in the war were fired when a hit-squad, sent by Reggio boss Don Mico Tripodo, stalked the De Stefano’s to a popular bar in Reggio Calabria. Giovanni De Stefano, died in a hail of bullets and his brother Gregorio, known as “the Comet” the oldest member of the clan, was wounded. The Piromalli-De Stefano alliance struck back in January 1975 when a four man hit-team gunned down the Siderno Don, Antonio Macri, on his own territory after he had finished a game of bowls.

The following month, Don Mico Tripodo was arrested near Naples where he was hiding out from the De Stefano’s. A year later he was stabbed to death while awaiting trial in Poggioreale prison on the orders of a Camorra boss, Raffaele Cutolo, who was a close ally and business partner of the De Stefano brothers. The First ‘Ndrangheta War claimed the lives of hundreds of men in Calabria. A story recently broke in the world media about an ‘Ndrangheta member feeding a rival to pigs but it was in fact Don Mommo Piromalli who first used this brutal form of punishment during the war bragging to his wife on the telephone that only his rival’s “thigh bones were left”. The Piromalli’s and their allies emerged victorious from the vicious gangland conflict. And to the victors go the spoils, the Piromalli’s now were in a position to take a huge cut from the public-works contracts in the region and also from other criminal ventures such as drug-trafficking and kidnapping.

After the end of the First ‘Ndrangheta War, a large meeting of the top bosses was called by Don Mommo Piromalli which was to be held up on the Aspromonte Mountains. But Don Mommo’s younger brother Giuseppe had a truly Machiavellian intrigue in mind. As Giorgio “the Comet” De Stefano sat down at the important summit a low-ranking ‘ndranghetisti called Giuseppe Suraci stormed out of the trees shooting the new Reggio capobastone dead on the spot. The Piromalli’s killed Suraci and severed his head. They presented his cranium as a peace-offering to the Comet’s younger brother and successor, Paolo, to prevent another war from breaking out. The Piromalli’s told the baffled De Stefano that his older brother had been murdered by Suraci because of a personal vendetta. In fact the Piromalli’s had instigated the killing to cut their upstart allies down to size. The Piromalli’s wanted to prevent the De Stefano’s from benefiting from the lucrative steel works and port that was being built on their territory. The Comet had apparently been attempting to muscle in on the rackets in the Gioia Tauro plain.

By the late 1970’s, Don Mommo had taken a step back from the criminal affairs of the ‘ndrina handing control to his younger brother Giuseppe. Don Mommo passed away from natural causes in a hospital in his hometown on 11th of February 1979. The clan leadership passed officially to Mommo’s younger brother Giuseppe now known as “Don Peppe”. Already a wanted fugitive for dozens of murders, Don Peppe spent most of his reign on the run from the law. But he didn’t stray far from his territory and was captured by police in February 1984. He was handed a life sentence for his career of crime but continued to run the ‘ndrina’s affairs from there. Later Don Peppe was subjected to the 41-bis prison regime which sought to prevent Mafia bosses from running their criminal empire’s from jail.

Corrupt politicians campaigned on his behalf to have the harsh conditions relaxed. In 1987, Don Peppe ordered the death of Gioia Tauro’s mayor, a Christian Democrat doctor, who had angered the imprisoned ‘Ndrangheta boss. In a highly unusual and brave move the murdered mayor’s wife testified against the clan. Normally the town council was dominated by Piromalli relatives who made sure that the clan’s bidding was done in the town hall. The town council has been dissolved many times in recent years for Mafia infiltration.
The Second ‘Ndrangheta War erupted in 1985 with the conflict centred on Reggio Calabria. The Second War was ignited when some of the smaller ‘ndrina in the city challenged the power of Reggio Capobastone, Paolo De Stefano. This time the Piromalli’s and the De Stefano’s were on opposite sides with the Piromalli’s backing the opposition ‘ndrina in Reggio. They were angered with the De Stefano’s attempts to muscle in on the rackets on the Gioia Tauro plain. Paolo De Stefano was gunned down in his powerbase of Archi on 13 October 1985.

The war rumbled on until 1991 with over around 700 people killed in the huge gangland conflagration. The De Stefano ‘ndrina was nearly wiped out in the war losing over half their men. Peace was brokered by the ‘ndrina’s of San Luca and the Sicilian Capo di tutti Capi, Toto Riina. A Provincial Commission of the Calabrian mafia’s top bosses was installed at the end of the war to maintain the peace, with the Piromalli’s taking their seat on the twenty-five member body. Despite the huge casualties resulting from the conflict, the Piromalli’s were largely unscathed in comparison to the smaller ‘ndrina’s that bore the brunt of the fighting. The ambitions of the De Stefano’s had been checked for good and the Piromalli’s emerged victorious yet again from another mafia civil war.

By the early 1990s, the Italian government’s plan for a steel works in Gioia Tauro had floundered due to a recession, high-costs, the unviability of the project and infiltration by the local ‘ndrina’s. A further plan to build a huge power-plant in the area also came to naught. However the Piromalli’s were boosted in 1993 when a shipping magnate spotted the huge potential of the unfinished port at Gioia Tauro. Several companies stepped in to develop Gioia Tauro as one of the largest container ports in the Mediterranean Sea. Business was soon booming as the port sits strategically on one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.

With the opening of the new container port the Piromalli’s and other local ‘ndrina demanded that the shipping companies pay them $1.50 per container that docked at Gioia Tauro. The companies refused to give in to this demand which would have cost them about half their profits. But faced with the power of the local ‘Ndrangheta clans they did accede to the awarding of contracts and sub-contracts to mafia-backed companies in the area. They also allowed the Piromalli’s to place their own men in key management positions at the port.
The new container port right on their doorstep also provided the Piromalli’s with the perfect opportunity to get more deeply involved in international drug-trafficking and arms-smuggling, using the port as a base to land huge quantities of drugs and guns. The clan also later expanded its operations in the port to include the dumping of toxic waste, paid for by corrupt Northern Italian companies. The Molè ‘ndrina, also based in Gioia Tauro and considered the “military-wing” of the Piromalli clan, were given the responsibility of liaising with Colombian cocaine cartels and Marxist rebel groups based in the South American country. By the early 2000s it is estimated that 80% of all cocaine shipments to Europe were arriving at the port of Gioia Tauro. The Piromalli’s were awarded by the Colombian guerrilla group the FARC with the sole right to distribute cocaine in Europe after the Sicilian Mafia botched one too many shipments.

With the clan’s Capobastone, Don Peppe, languishing in prison, the day-to-day activities were ran by his nephew, also called Giuseppe. A fugitive since 1993, Giuseppe Jr was captured by the carabinieri in 1999, he was found hiding out in a sophisticated bunker 'worthy of a James Bond movie' located right in the centre of Gioia Tauro. Also in the late 1990s over a hundred Piromalli clan members and their allies were doled out heavy prison sentences for a myriad of crimes including drug-trafficking and infiltration of the port. This was a heavy blow to the ‘ndrina which it is still trying to recover from today. The Piromalli’s sought to have the harsh prison regime imposed on their members relaxed by approaching the corrupt Sicilian politician Marcello Dell’Utri, who is currently awaiting extradition to Italy for mafia-association after fleeing to Lebanon.

Despite the tight conditions of his imprisonment it is thought that Giuseppe Jr still issues orders from prison today. The aging Don Peppe, was released from prison in 2003 on compassionate grounds due to a long battle with cancer. He died in February 2005 and his funeral was attended by over 20,000 people. The leadership of the clan passed to Giuseppe Jr’s son Antonio, who oversaw the clan’s business affairs, and another relative Gioacchino who ran the criminal activities of the clan.

The long-standing alliance between the Piromalli and Molè ‘ndrina’s broke down in dramatic fashion in 2008. On a Friday morning, February 1, Rocco Molè was driving his car on the outskirts of Gioia Tauro when two men drove up to him on a motorbike and shot him three times with a 9mm pistol, they then approached the car delivering a coup de grace to the head. His death sent shockwaves through all of Calabria with many fearing that another huge war would erupt in the benighted region. Rocco was the military chief of the ‘ndrina and he was executed by the Piromalli’s because of a dispute over control of a company at the container port.

Swift retaliation was expected from the Molè clan, who it is worth remembering were considered the military wing of the Piromalli clan. Imprisoned boss Girolamo Molè however urged caution on the younger hawks in his family and told them that “We have one hundred years of history and family ties with the Piromalli’s that we cannot wipe out”. An uneasy standoff followed for months until the Italian police launched “Operation 100 years of history” preventing a war between the ‘ndrina’s in October 2008. The 74-year old Piromalli acting-Capobastone, Gioacchino, was arrested along with his lawyer nephew, also named Gioacchino. A former mayor of Gioia Tauro, his deputy and the mayor of nearby Rosarno were among the other 14 men arrested too and hundreds of millions of assets were seized from the clan. In 2010, the 30-year old Girolamo Piromalli, who was running the ‘ndrina on behalf of his imprisoned older cousin Giuseppe Jr, was arrested along with 6 other relatives and associates for running an extortion ring in Gioia Tauro. Millions of euro’s in assets were also seized from the clan during this more recent crackdown.

Today the Piromalli’s face a more uncertain future than at any point in their long and gory history on the Gioia Tauro plain. Continued pressure by the police has sent the clan scuttling underground and forced it to become more clandestine than ever before. However while the Piromalli’s may no longer strut around the streets like feudal lords, their presence can still be felt casting a long shadow over the small Calabrian town and its huge port. Time will only tell if the once-powerful Piromalli’s will recover enough from the tribulations of recent years and continue to rule this blood-soaked corner of Calabria for another 100 years.