Mafia Excellence: Inside the ‘Ndrangheta’s Criminal World

With apologies to Andrew Machin for taking way too long to post this first-rate story (probably the longest story in this blog's history).

By Andrew Machin

The 'Ndrangheta is a secret society. Its organizational and operational rules and rites are based on this inherent characteristic. Therefore, it is no coincidence that there are various similarities with Freemasonry, which has a particularly large membership in the Italian region of Calabria, where the 'Ndrangheta is rooted. A valuable source in this regard proved to be Giuliano De Bernardo, former Grand Master of the Grande Oriente d’Italia (GOI). The GOI was and is the principal Masonic obedience in Italy. In his testimony at a trial in Reggio Calabria in 2019, De Bernardo explained the fundamental trait that unites the two organizations as follows:

“I tried to figure out what the specific [nature] of the 'Ndrangheta-Freemasonry relationship was... I believe the joint point is in the ritual. Even though they use completely different terminologies, the rituals practiced within Freemasonry and the rituals practiced within the ‘Ndrangheta have a common basis. Namely, a ritual is used to enter Freemasonry. Another ritual is used to enter the 'Ndrangheta, but they both have the same meaning: to bind yourself to the secret once you are inside.”

Of course, the ‘Ndrangheta is a criminal organization, and Freemasonry is not. As a result, breaking the secrecy rule is the most serious infraction for both of them. However, only the ‘Ndrangheta punishes it with death without exception.

[In this case, the blood law establishes the code of conduct. The blood law is a pillar of the ‘Ndrangheta regulatory system. According to it, the one who has stained the honor of his blood family must be murdered by his own family members. Otherwise, the latter may suffer indirect revenge killings (vendette trasversali, in Italian).]


For the record and for completeness, the picture just sketched did not stop at the similarities. According to De Bernardo in the same testimony, during his tenure (1990-1993), he learned that the 'Ndrangheta controlled 28 of the 32 GOI lodges in the Calabria region. Along with others, this information enabled him to realize the close connections between the two organizations.

[After learning this news, which also concerned Sicily, albeit in a less serious form, De Bernardo appeared before the Duke of Kent, Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE), to inform him of his findings and request instructions. Indeed, the GOI was subordinate to the UGLE, which had formally recognized the Italian obedience in 1972. On that occasion, the Duke of Kent told De Bernardo that he was already aware of the situation thanks to information from the British secret services.]




Secrecy is, therefore, a key feature for understanding the 'Ndrangheta. It takes this practice to the highest level to protect itself. In essence, secrecy serves as the first form of defense for the organization:

from the outside, by not providing any information to anyone who is not a formal member;

from the inside, by limiting and grading members' knowledge based on their rank.


The impenetrability ensured by secrecy explains why the 'Ndrangheta is so difficult for states to defeat. Its strict adherence enables establishing and maintaining a closed criminal entity, inaccessible from the outside and only partially known by its members.

After all, the 'Ndrangheta does not hide that it selectively shares information within itself. Not casually, one of its most prestigious ranks, Trequartino (transl. Three-quarters), gets its name from the fact that members who receive it will symbolically have three-quarters rather than all the knowledge of their organization. Because the fewer members who are aware of specific and relevant crimes, the less likely prosecutors will be able to shed light on them through the testimony of any former members who have turned government witnesses.

[Law enforcement agencies combating the ‘Ndrangheta should adopt a similar model, namely that of a secret service. The reference is to an organized body that typically employs highly sophisticated and unconventional investigative methods and tools. But it also secures information, even internally, to prevent news leaks. Indeed, wherever there is a powerful mafia organization, there are police officers who pass confidential information to it in exchange for benefits. Therefore, effective action against mafia organizations requires absolute confidentiality and, in addition, specialization. The latter, in turn, needs a dedicated anti-mafia agency that performs or coordinates at least the five closely related functions listed below:

Investigative activity. In this regard, audio surveillance through spy listening devices and, more recently, Trojan horses that consent to activate the listening microphones of the cell phones on which they have been installed is crucial. All mobsters fear it. Instead, law enforcement agencies use wiretaps primarily to track and trace their targets' movements. This is because 'Ndrangheta members refrain from communicating relevant information over cell phones. However, they also often avoid carrying them with them (a top boss from the Italian region of Lombardy said in 2013: “… understand me… cell phones are… I tell you… I have a cell phone in my pocket… it’s like having a Carabiniere [Italian police officer] in my pocket…”).

Prosecutors. The following video gives an example of prosecutors' specialization:


 It shows the arrival at Rome airport of Roberto Pannunzi, cl. 1948, one of the largest cocaine brokers for the ‘Ndrangheta in history. He had been arrested in Bogotá, Colombia, in Jul. 2013 (see photo above) and immediately deported to Italy. Awaiting him was prosecutor Nicola Gratteri. He had pursued Pannunzi for many years with mixed results, developing that close relationship between hunter and prey. This story illustrates how important it is for prosecutors to sustain an intense, focused commitment over time. Indeed, given the complexity and global reach of the ‘Ndrangheta, continuity of investigations is essential.

Witness protection. It is a prerequisite for having government witnesses (the primary weapon against mafia organizations). Before they take the plunge, former mobsters must be convinced that they and their families will be adequately protected. Short sentences and the provision of new identities and means to start a new life in a distant place complete the conditions authorities must meet.

Surveillance inside prisons. In this regard, the essential measure is to isolate top bosses from the outside world. It prevents them from receiving news and information and sending orders to their relatives and subordinates outside.

Search for fugitives (the existence of fugitives presupposes that judicial authority directs repeated anti-mafia projects).

This agency will be staffed with other agencies' most qualified and motivated officers.]

However, preventing outside intrusions is even more crucial. Specific precautions are taken in this regard. So, for example, the Italian Project Crimine (2010), a milestone in the fight against the ‘Ndrangheta, devoted an entire chapter to describing the reasons, the background, and the planning of a high-ranking member's trial before the organization's internal "Tribunal”. The accusation against him was that he had brought an unaffiliated person to attend a formal ‘Ndrangheta meeting.

From this point of view, the habit of using a heavy dialect mixed with allusions, idioms, and subtleties (as a non-trivial and effective counterintelligence measure), also serves the same purpose.

Basically, the 'Ndrangheta considers itself a world unto itself, "another state," according to a former Reggio Calabria member who became a government witness (Consolato Villani, rank of Vangelo, transl. Gospel), with a collection of rules, duties, and sanctions that differ from and oppose those of the state. Together, they make up a real alternative legal system, very effective because the rules and sanctions are varied, precise, and unquestionable. This system results in an articulated code of conduct. It is essential, primarily for the organization's protection and self-preservation.




The first rule concerns acquaintances: it is forbidden to associate with police informants, police officers, and their family members (note that even the latter suffer such ostracism). This rule is communicated during the baptism ceremony when the candidate receives the lowest rank in the 'Ndrangheta hierarchy (Picciotto, transl. Young man).

It is also forbidden to file complaints or testify to the authorities.

Other duties are solidarity-based. The most significant of these is support for fugitives, inmates, and their families (it is common for 'Ndrangheta members to spend years in prison, and the longer they have been incarcerated, the more respect they get within the organization). In this regard, a former member, Rocco Varacalli, rank of Sgarrista, told the court during a 2012 trial, “… without shame, because I believed in it [in the 'Ndrangheta]... ", a significant incident. He had spent one night sleeping in the car with his wife and children to leave his home for the women of a top boss's family. That was because they were on their way to visit their family member, who was imprisoned in a city in northern Italy where the former member lived.

[In general, the duty of hospitality is so broad and sacred that, even in conflict situations, it is assured by one specific rule. According to it, a ‘Ndrangheta member cannot harm a guest in his home, even if he is his worst enemy. After that, the host must give the guest three days to leave. Anyone who breaks this rule is considered a traitor.]

Other duties are related to matters of honor (as understood by the 'Ndrangheta). They are among the most delicate and dangerous.

To begin with, a 'Ndrangheta member must never be a coward (in other words, he must always avenge an offense). Then he must behave righteously: do not drink too much (Calabrians are usually big eaters but not big drinkers) and do not take drugs. Yet, this latter prohibition is much less respected than it once was. Extensive involvement in drug trafficking, particularly cocaine trafficking, has led some of its members to become users, especially among the younger generations. This evolution poses high risks to the organization in the event of police audio surveillance (as is known, cocaine makes men talkative).

Each member must also respect his wife and always remain faithful to her, even if changes have occurred in this regard too. According to Antonino Belnome, former top boss (rank of Padrino, transl. Godfather) in the Milan area, during his testimony in a trial in 2023, “… in the ‘Ndrangheta, it is allowed to have a lover, but it is not allowed to leave the wife unless the honor has been stained.… [in that case] he [the ‘Ndrangheta member] will have to act to safeguard it …” (see better below). At the same time, even his family members must behave appropriately. To explain what we mean, we can still quote Rocco Varacalli. Recalling the case of his top boss, whose daughter had divorced her husband, he said, “It is a bad thing for a ‘Ndrangheta member…”.

A stain on honor can cause a member to be temporarily suspended. But in extreme cases, it can even lead to his expulsion. It occurs when he is no longer worthy of belonging to the organization. In these instances, the only possibility is to regain the lost honor through facts.

Below, we quote how a former member described another member’s situation after his wife had an extramarital affair with "a tire repairer" while he was in prison:


“... then, if he didn’t do this thing [kill the tire repairer, which happened later, even if not by his hand, although he tried once he got out of prison], his affiliation was withdrawn, especially in matters of honor. He must remove this stain ...” (….)

“Because at least this is possible in the ‘Ndrangheta... regain lost honor.

Finally, each member must always obey the orders of his superiors without objection (duty of obedience). In particular, lower-ranking members are required to perform various tasks. Among the most common are escorting their bosses and acting as lookouts during meetings (in this case, they serve as sentinels rather than guards because the 'Ndrangheta refuses to use any term associated with law enforcement, particularly military forces with police duties). But at the same time, lower-ranking members are required to commit serious crimes, such as bombing, burning, robbing, threatening, beating, shooting, and murdering. For this reason, they are also generically called azionisti (transl. action men). By acting with accuracy and courage, these men gain the merits necessary to aspire to higher ranks (therefore, to hold a high-ranking position, a member must first have committed violent crimes).

After all, 'Ndrangheta members admire courage in action. Here's how one of them described another member during a conversation in 2013, as recorded by a listening device in his car:

 “… he’s from here too... he loves me like a brother... he walks with two guns on him... he doesn’t care about anyone... he faced all kinds of people... he never gave a damn about anyone... a perfect person...”


Yet these actions carry serious risks. The main one is death (for example, during a firefight), but another is arrest and long-term imprisonment.




Despite all these obligations and risks, membership in the 'Ndrangheta allows its members to earn money and, in some cases, become very rich. This is mainly possible thanks to international and national drug trafficking (particularly cocaine). Over the last decades, the ‘Ndrangheta has specialized in this trade, generating enormous profits. Interestingly, blood families with deep cultural roots from a peripheral region of Europe were able to internationalize and engage in large-scale criminal activities.

[Men with traditional cultural values forged in rural and pastoral economies ensure high reliability but also unparalleled brutality in criminal affairs. In this regard, the Albanian and Turkish mafias provide interesting analogies.]

Following this evolution, ‘Ndrangheta families frequently operate in two dimensions:

a local dimension, as they are deeply rooted in their respective territories. To understand this rootedness, consider that in most of Calabria, every village, town, and city district is under the criminal control of one or more of these families.

[Territorial control is so pervasive that it is difficult for police investigators to infiltrate many towns, villages, and neighborhoods. Everyone knows each other, and any stranger is immediately noticed. Cameras are one of the few options available in these operating environments.]


Mafia control over a territory leaves no way out for commercial and construction activities and various services. They are all subject to systematic extortion unless they are directly or indirectly related to a boss. Traditionally, a portion of the profits from this racketeering activity is used to support incarcerated members and their families (money for inmates, called a salary, is typically handed over to their wives periodically). Such an allocation reduces the probability that one or more of them, with no income and feeling economically abandoned by their organization, will become government witnesses (according to intercepted conversations, in 2019, the 'Ndrangheta rooted in a single small town, Isola di Capo Rizzuto, on the Ionian side, had 200 imprisoned members to support economically).

In these contexts, the same criminal activities undergo heavy conditioning. Indeed, they are forbidden unless conducted or expressly authorized by the ‘Ndrangheta. It, therefore, imposes a real criminal monopoly. 'Ndrangheta members refer to it as the Good Order because they believe the (criminal) Order can only be ensured by a single, formally recognized ‘Ndrangheta body on the territory. As a result, competing criminal organizations or groups are not conceived and tolerated.

[These observations on the Good Order were made by the Italian Project Rinascita Scott (2019) prosecutors during the final indictment of the related trial in 2023.]


In particular, serious consequences await those who rob businesses that pay extortion. This is because extortion is presented to victims as a regular payment in exchange for protection. As a result, theft, like any other criminal act committed against a company that pays extortion, is an open and intolerable affront to the ‘Ndrangheta families. It contradicts the reasons for demanding extortion payments, which presuppose total control of the territory.

However, this control also entails obligations for those who exercise it. First, top bosses cannot leave their territories to maintain power. The following sentence sums up this principle: "He who is present commands." It emphasizes the need for a physical presence to lead a mafia organization in a given territory and explains the use of underground bunkers for hiding (see photo below). Now they are assets that every self-respecting top boss owns.

Yet, even so, internal struggles for supremacy erupt cyclically (not only in Calabria but wherever there is a concentration of 'Ndrangheta blood families).

an international dimension, which is functional, particularly for drug trafficking and money laundering.

The presence abroad can be: A. Occasional or B. Permanent.

When it is Permanent, it can be:


B.1 Structured, replicating the same organizational units and structures typified and formally recognized by the 'Ndrangheta in Calabria (in particular, the reference is to: ‘ndrine (pl.), locali (pl.), crimini (pl.), which we will deal with later), just as, to explain and maintain the analogy, Freemasonry does when it starts a new lodge.

In turn, these stable and structured presences may have resulted from:

B.1.1 Historical migratory processes that affected the Calabrian population in the last two centuries (particularly towards Australia and Canada).

B.1.2 More recent migrations (for example, towards Germany).

B.2 Individual or limited to a few men; this is the case, for example, of drug brokers who live permanently in South America to organize large cocaine shipments to Europe (we mentioned the infamous Roberto Pannunzi above).

[In Colombia, even if the Calabrians wanted it, local criminal organizations would probably not allow the establishment of one or more official 'Ndrangheta branches.]


In recent decades, there has been a significant increase in the propensity to operate abroad. It is such an advanced internationalization process that, in June 2022, Giuseppe Lombardo (together with the previously mentioned Nicola Gratteri, one of the leading Italian prosecutors in the fight against the 'Ndrangheta) stated:


“… investigating the 'Ndrangheta in Italy is no longer enough. The most important branches are located abroad for a trivial and worrying reason at the same time: certain phenomena are not receiving the attention they should. (…) They are a transnational phenomenon that, in order to be countered, requires a global contrast, which does not yet exist."





After these preliminary considerations, one might wonder how so many men can imagine living a life that is potentially very profitable but also very risky. In a few words, a life spent committing crimes, even violent ones, without ever considering working honestly.

However, there is an explanation. It implies the presence of an effective and credible intermediary body. Over time, it prepares its young members for formal entry into the organization. This entity is the blood family. It teaches, first and foremost, the blood law. According to it, every family must constantly prepare and take action to defend their blood and eventually attack the enemy's blood (for example, by working to always have an arsenal of ready-to-use weapons available).

So, an individual may be punished for committing one or more harmful or violent acts. But if the perpetrator becomes untraceable, another individual may be targeted just for being related to him. In this way, the latter will still be heavily affected, albeit indirectly. These same logics underlie the previously mentioned indirect revenge killings, the so-called vendette trasversali in Italian, which target government witnesses' relatives.

More generally, senior members of blood families pass on certain values through their words and actions. These values derive from a patriarchal and family culture in territories where living conditions have been extremely harsh for centuries, particularly in rural areas.

[The harsh conditions were aggravated by the fact that justice was not served because of the absence of a state capable of preventing and punishing crimes (the typical case was farm animal theft). To get it, members of each family had to act directly and summarily if they had the strength or else suffer.]

Without this upbringing, it would be very difficult for an ordinary young man to adhere to such a life project in the forms required by the 'Ndrangheta.

However, some members go even further, marking their sons' lives from birth. Indeed, these latter may receive the 'Ndrangheta baptism while still in the cradle. This formal rite paves the way for their future affiliation with the organization when they are young men. The reference is to the granting of the title Giovane d’onore (transl. Youth of honor), which “… is not a true rank. It is an affiliation by "right of blood," a title granted at birth and basically reserved for the sons of ‘Ndrangheta members…” (Project Crimine, 2010).

Then, among the various formative experiences, one of the most significant for the sons of 'Ndrangheta members is learning to shoot as soon as they are old enough.

For decades now, the Italian courts called to judge 'Ndrangheta exponents have recognized and understood this upbringing that is contrary to the fundamental principles of civil coexistence. For example, here is how one of these expressed itself in a sentence resulting from another important project (Project Olimpia, 1995). The court granted extenuating circumstances to Carmine De Stefano (see photo below) in consideration of:


“… the family, social, and cultural humus in which they have matured their conscience, learning delinquent behaviors to emulate and absorbing, daily, the teachings of violence and abuse of power, in the total absence of horizons of different values.


[Carmine De Stefano, cl. 1968, is a leading member of the De Stefano blood family, probably taken individually, the most potent 'Ndrangheta blood family. From the infamous city district of Archi, it dominates Reggio Calabria (about 182,000 inhabitants) in the first place by imposing systematic extortion against shops and commercial and construction activities throughout the city. Carmine De Stefano received his last sentence in July 2022: 20 years of imprisonment as part of a Project called Malefix (2020). At the time, the relative arrests (partially) prevented an internal feud between the same De Stefano blood family and a historically subordinate family, which claimed more space on the territory for its criminal activities (the adverb “partially” is used because, presumably in the context of this conflict, in May 2021, there was an attempt to murder a top boss by running him over with a van).]

These values (which are not necessarily wrong in the abstract) combine to form the mafia mentality. Therefore, it is not innate. On the contrary, the primary members of each family must cultivate and nurture it over time (that is why affiliations of members not of Calabrian origin are rare outside of Calabria, although formally permitted). Some manifestations of this mentality are well known. Among them are:

Religious devotion and worship of sacred images as part of a broader religious symbolism that serves to strengthen the sense of belonging to the organization (we can recall the many holy cards in Giuseppe Coluccio's possession at the time of his arrest on Aug. 8, 2008, in Markham, a city in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), as reported here or the Bonavottas’ passion for religious processions, here ). This apparent religiosity (apparent because those who kill and commit all kinds of violence cannot be considered Christians) does not prevent some top bosses from being inspired by or adhering to Masonry, even though the Roman Catholic Church officially condemns it. In this way, top bosses establish relationships with the most influential people in Calabrian society in order to pursue two primary interests: acquiring public contracts with their companies through figureheads and corrupting judges for favorable sentences.

The cult of the family, made up of the wife and children of every 'Ndrangheta member. However, the family of origin receives the same unconditional affection and closeness.

Respect for elders, since seniority determines rank in the 'Ndrangheta. Its members recognize the value of a long criminal experience, including prison time. On the other hand, having and valuing men of great experience strengthens the entire organization, particularly its command group. Therefore, it is no coincidence that not just the 'Ndrangheta but all mafia organizations are usually led by elderly people. This occurs either directly or indirectly through key positions. Think of the Cosa Nostra figure of the Consigliere, transl. Counselor, whose typical function is advising (consigliare, in Italian) his boss based on his extensive criminal experience.

The cult of the dead. It is so strong that, for example, attending funerals is considered a moral and spontaneous duty for relatives and acquaintances. However, participation in funerals also fulfills functions within the criminal environment. In this regard, Project Crimine provided a vivid account. It mentioned the contents of an interception inside a car as follows: “Concerning a funeral that was to take place the next day, Nicola [Nicola Gattuso, cl. 1965, Capo Locale of Oliveto, a village belonging to the municipality of Reggio Calabria] pointed out to his brother that they would have to parade all together to show the compactness of the locale.”

[The locale (s.) is a local body formally recognized by the 'Ndrangheta. It gathers ‘Ndrangheta blood families of a territory, such as a village, town, or city district, over which it has criminal control. The locale (s.) can be composed of more sub-units called ‘ndrine (pl.) in its territory and ‘ndrine distaccate (detached ‘ndrine) if they are rooted outside it. The locale (s.) can also provide formal legitimacy for the establishment of other locali (pl.) outside of Calabria. In this sense, the Calabrian locale can be considered their mother-locale (a term that, however, does not belong to the 'Ndrangheta lexicon). Each locale (s.) is headed by a supreme boss called Capo Locale. He is usually the senior member of the blood family that historically predominates over the others for strength and criminal prestige. Synonymous with locale (s.) is, in some areas, the term società (s.).]


Also, on these occasions, the ‘Ndrangheta can exert its prevaricating force, as when an entire community is called to show visible respect (during a boss's funeral, shops and other businesses must lower their shutters; if they do not, they strongly risk gunshots as retaliation).

Then, at the family level, a period of mourning is customary before permanently preserving the memory of one or more deceased loved ones (in one of the articles mentioned above, we cited Antonio Coluccio, Giuseppe's younger brother; in his one-million-dollar home in Richmond Hill, north of Toronto, he had a giant oil painting of his father, killed in Calabria many years earlier).

The practice of humility. By showing humility and modesty, the typical 'Ndrangheta boss avoids attracting attention and rousing suspicion among law enforcement. As a result, he appears to lead a simple life devoid of luxury (one of the most common roles played is that of a farmer, whose life is divided solely between home and work). But at the same time, that same boss frequently conceals sealed barrels full of cash in a rural field (another way to hide money is to wall it up), awaiting the right time to invest.




Ordinary people find this kind of family upbringing unnatural. How can male family members such as fathers, grandfathers, and uncles teach their male offspring, such as sons, grandsons, or nephews, to engage in criminal behavior rather than promote honesty?

[It is not unusual for children from 'Ndrangheta families to become orphans at a young age because of internal feuds. Alternatively, they may grow up without a father figure due to the latter's extended incarceration.]

Especially since adults are well aware of the consequences of such a life choice (being killed or languishing in prison for a long time, as happens to all individuals involved in organized crime).

[The second of these two fates is currently probable in Italy. In the rest of the world, where the ‘Ndrangheta has taken root over the decades (particularly in Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Canada, and Australia), mobsters of Italian origin have reasonable hopes of getting away with it. Indeed, repressive activity in these states pays cultural distance, a lack of specific knowledge, and, last but not least, a lack of organizational and legal tools to combat the mafia phenomenon (first, it should be highlighted that there is no crime of mafia association in the various criminal codes).]

In any case, this perverse upbringing has its logic. As a starting point for understanding it, it is appropriate to introduce the following general propositions, which are the basis of Organized Crime as a subject of study:

Ø   Usually from a defined territory, which it controls,

          [The adverb “usually” is justified by the fact that control of a territory is not indispensable for large-scale criminal activity. Among other things, when this control is missing, police investigations are more complicated because there is no limited area to focus on. Think of the Canadian Hells Angels Nomads chapter in the mid-1990s. Unlike the other chapters, it had no geographical limitations and could operate throughout Canada.]

a mafia organization (hence, with specific symbology and a code of conduct) but also a generic criminal organization, to expand and protect its various illegal activities and defend itself from, or attack, enemies and competitors, requires a stable hierarchical power structure with an undisputed and charismatic boss at the top and a large number of members and associates of its own or allied organizations. But not just any men. A mafia organization requires people with advanced criminal skills who are also highly trusted to ensure compliance with the code of silence, even in the face of arrests and long prison sentences. A violation of this code, even by a single member in a prominent position, can cause serious damage and potentially collapse the entire organization.


The typical ‘Ndrangheta blood family knows these needs. As a result, it must involve all its members, whom it educates in a certain way from a young age. They become an increasingly valuable resource for the family's illicit activities as they grow.

Furthermore, the younger generations, such as sons, grandsons, nephews, and sons-in-law, ensure that the family’s criminal power continues and does not die out. By involving all family males, any death (whether by murder or old age) or arrest will never cause a power vacuum. Indeed, even in the worst circumstances (especially after repeated arrests), there will always be at least one free male, even if young and without a solid reputation, to be entrusted with the responsibility of leading the family (maybe someone will remember the passing of command within the powerful Pesce blood family, as reported in In such instances, this member will be promoted to boss. He will hold the position, often strictly following his imprisoned father’s instructions if possible (that is why, in general, the prison system must prioritize the complete severance of any relationship between inmate bosses and outside affiliates). After that, the entire blood family will wait, even for years, for the release of its first prominent member in terms of criminal skills and charisma. This event will immediately revitalize group cohesion (a powerful criminal organization requires strong group cohesion, which only a charismatic boss can create around his figure). The released top member can be the man in charge's father. However, he can also be his grandfather, uncle, older brother, cousin, or father-in-law.

In any case, it is crucial to avoid power vacuums. They paralyze criminal activity and jeopardize the 'Ndrangheta families’ supremacy over their territories in favor of others.

[According to the Italian Project Acero-Krupy (2015), the Società di Siderno (transl. Society of Siderno) was and most likely still is in a power vacuum. But it is not a single-blood family. It is, instead, a collection of blood families divided into various active 'ndrine (pl.) rooted in different areas of the town (the ‘ndrina, headed by a Capo ‘Ndrina, is the smallest organizational unit formally recognized by the ‘Ndrangheta). This difference explains why, in that case, the power vacuum was not caused by a lack of valid, non-incarcerated members. The problem probably was that none of them was authoritative enough to lead and manage such a large criminal organization. All that after the capture of the supreme boss (Capo Società), Giuseppe "The Master" Commisso (cl. 1947), in July 2010 and soon after, of Riccardo Rumbo (cl. 1962), in December 2010, and Antonio Galea (cl. 1962), in March 2011. These latter two were the top members of the Donisi ‘Ndrina (Donisi is a district of Siderno), also known as the Rumbo-Galea-Figliomeni 'Ndrina (for more, see here). In those circumstances, it was allegedly agreed that every 'ndrina (s.) in Siderno and every other branch in the rest of Italy and the world would operate autonomously. As a result, all these sub-units no longer had to request and await instructions on significant matters from a supreme boss (Capo Società) residing in Siderno since this apical figure was no longer in charge.]

However, involving the entire family system provides an additional crucial advantage. The fact is that 'Ndrangheta members are almost always extremely reluctant to break the code of silence. One can speak of real inner anguish. That is because such a choice often results in the imprisonment of some close relatives (as well as the severing of relationships with all of them). And no one wants to damage their family members and live isolated from them (a tactic deliberately used by the latter to try to make the relative retrace his steps). All the more so, considering that the involvement of close family members has significant criminal consequences. Indeed, their responsibilities frequently concern serious crimes. The main ones are extortion and drug trafficking, but blood crimes are also common due to recurring internal feuds.




Every 'Ndrangheta blood family is in constant, creeping, or open conflict for control of the territory. For this reason, it must constantly plan and act against its rivals. Consequently, many men are needed in the first place to have a strong military force. The following excerpt from a police audio intercept exemplifies this necessity. It was recorded in the context of a feud in Seminara, a village on the Tyrrhenian side (the ‘Ndrangheta families in the province of Reggio Calabria are formally divided into three macro-areas: the Ionian side, the Center–City of Reggio Calabria, and the Tyrrhenian side; see hereand here). It saw two groups of blood families clash between 2007 and 2009. In a conversation with his associates shortly before the outbreak of open hostilities, a member of one of these families (the Gioffrè blood family) quoted the unequivocal warning he had given to an individual of the adverse group:


“Before shooting a member of the Gioffrè family, I tell you this from experience [demonstrating that this blood family had already been involved in armed clashes in the past], keep in mind that we are twelve, that we are united; [for this reason] never shoot [us]…”


It is, therefore, understood that the greater the number of men available in a blood family (“…we are twelve…”), the greater the number of hands and arms that can hold a pistol or a machine gun during an armed conflict. In such situations, family members feel obligated to defend each other (“… we are united…”), letting the enemies know that, in the event of their armed attack, revenge will surely strike (“never shoot [us]…).

In essence, the existence of a ‘Ndrangheta blood family depends on each member's willingness to give his life to defend it if necessary.

However, many members are needed not only to have an adequate armed force. Some of them, for example, are employed to manage, develop, and protect various economic and money laundering activities, which require trusted men. Therefore, it is not surprising that some of the most powerful families entrust their finances to one of their closest members. This figure may be the top boss's youngest son or his favorite grandson or nephew. Once appointed, he will be prevented from participating in the family's traditional illegal activities (according to typical succession law principles, command over these latter activities and the related responsibilities before justice belong to the firstborn and the brothers who descend in line from him). The above restriction is intended to keep this individual out of criminal proceedings. In such a manner, he can focus on managing the family’s money and investments (in particular, preventing authorities from seizing them) with less risk of being arrested and, even if that happens, with fewer and less serious criminal charges.

In any case, the 'Ndrangheta families involve more than just close family members in their various activities. They usually try to make the most of all their family relationships. Indeed, relatives, even distant ones, are always preferred when assigning different tasks. No one can guarantee the same level of reliability in the name of family ties, which are so strongly felt in that culture. In turn, some of these relatives may use this preference to advance in their roles within their respective crime families.




However, ‘Ndrangheta families also expand their ranks through indirect family ties. First, marriages foster this growth. They generate a range of in-laws, such as sons-in-law, brothers-in-law, fathers-in-law, and others, who become additional trusted family members.

In the 'Ndrangheta environment, marriages are therefore crucial. The various blood families consider them real instruments of criminal strategy. And as such, they are frequently arranged. In doing so, families create or strengthen alliances and, at the same time, expand by involving new in-laws with the same mafia mentality.

Women, in particular, are used, almost always at a young age, and thus often without any resistance, to strengthen and protect their families of origin and those of their future husbands (who accept the same fate for the same reasons). This tradition produces young married couples. They embrace a destiny predetermined to protect their loved ones rather than increase their prestige and power.

In essence, families demand and get obedience (even if it requires sacrifice) in the name of a higher cause.

In these circumstances, the Roman Catholic ceremony and the following wedding party are meticulously planned according to a precise and composite logic of purpose.

For example, the choice of wedding witnesses is finalized to strengthen or create strong extra-family ties.

Invitation management is equally crucial. Guest selection (traditionally, invitations are hand-delivered by the bride and groom's family members) is always aimed at strengthening existing ties or encouraging new ones with other families.

[During August, the traditional month for weddings in Calabria, it is often impossible for the most prominent bosses to attend all the weddings they are invited to. This is due to the large number of such events. But even the advanced age of some top members does not help. As a result, attending weddings can become a thankless job for them. However, sometimes they cannot refuse to please the blood families who invite them. In any case, for the reasons mentioned above (and to avoid attracting law enforcement attention), top bosses sometimes send representatives in their place.]

At the same time, these occasions allow the spread of messages. They may be addressed to unspecified recipients. For example, when the intent is to flaunt wealth and power by planning a lavish wedding between the scions of two powerful families (weddings are one of the few occasions for them—probably the most important—to show their true economic availability). But messages can also be addressed, such as when a figure does not receive an invitation. A non-receipt can be a (very worrying) signal that the families of the future spouses are hostile to him.

Then, weddings are ideal occasions for 'Ndrangheta bosses to hold summits (for this reason, law enforcement often monitors them). These events, on the other hand, cannot be used for affiliation or rank advancement ceremonies. Indeed, ‘Ndrangheta rules forbid them from taking place on the occasion of Roman Catholic ceremonies (evidently to avoid mixing different sacrednesses).

[There are, however, exceptions in this regard. The already mentioned Project Crimine documented the attendance of Giuseppe "The Master" Commisso, Rocco Aquino (Capo Locale of Marina di Gioiosa Ionica), and other bosses representing the Crimine of Reggio Calabria (see below) at the festivities in a restaurant for a wedding celebrated on Sept. 6, 2009, in the city of Vibo Valentia. The presence of these top bosses at the event was intended to confer the important rank of Santista on the groom and another 'Ndrangheta member. This story is even more noteworthy considering that Vibo Valentia is outside the direct "jurisdiction" of the Crimine of Reggio Calabria. It demonstrates the influence and preeminence of this top criminal body beyond its geographical boundaries. The instrument for exercising its power is precisely the granting of high ranks to a few selected members. Their possession attests to these figures' exceptional criminal standing and legitimizes their supremacy in their respective criminal environments.]

Along with extra-family ties created through marriages, other similar ones are always related to religious ceremonies. They are formed by becoming godparents at Roman Catholic baptisms, communions, and confirmations. Again, the goal is to build or strengthen alliances. These ties are so strong that they find formal recognition within the ‘Ndrangheta with the specific denomination of San Giovanni (transl. St. John).




Finally, the 'Ndrangheta blood families grow their ranks by introducing unrelated men. This inclusion can lead to formal affiliation within the relative locale (s.). It is never improvised or even quick. On the contrary, the formal affiliation is preceded not by days or months but by years of observation. The goal is to determine whether the identified young people have the qualities to join the organization in the future (the boss's children's childhood friends are a typical case). This long-term policy provides modest benefits to some individuals or entire family groups to create bonds of gratitude. In such a manner, the ‘Ndrangheta families attract a select number of men by at least partially supporting them (another way, for example, is recalling past help given to a family member of one of them).

In return, these men often make themselves available for various criminal acts. However, this availability may also be due to a lack of other opportunities in economically depressed areas. But another reason may be the convenience of earning money without working.

In all these cases, some men, after demonstrating their ability to perform the assigned tasks, their seriousness in daily life (as understood by the 'Ndrangheta), and absolute confidentiality, can be invited to join the organization as full members, starting from the lowest rank (Picciotto).

During this attraction work, it is common to evoke the rhetoric of the man of honor to fascinate young people.

After all, properly evaluating and preparing candidates is essential. Indeed, each of them must feel excited and proud when, without prior notice, he is brought before the local ‘Ndrangheta top members to be formally affiliated.

[The first three ranks of the 'Ndrangheta are granted locally. Instead, from the fourth rank onwards (Santista), the Crimine’s approval is necessary because high ranks have provincial importance.]


On the other hand, refusal is not even remotely considered in those circumstances. If it occurred, the candidate would not survive the ceremony.

By doing so, each 'Ndrangheta blood family swells its ranks. As a result, it can develop its formal status or increase or maintain its criminal weight within the organization. It can become a ’ndrina (s.) or a detached ‘ndrina (s.) if it is rooted outside the territory of the locale to which it belongs (for example, in Switzerland). Alternatively, the blood family can acquire or consolidate power within its locale (s.) or società (s.), which includes more blood families or ‘ndrine (pl.).

‘Ndrina (s.) and locale(s.) or società (s.) are comparable, respectively, to cosca (s.) and famiglia (s.) within the Sicilian Cosa Nostra (actually, the term cosca also refers to the 'Ndrangheta, as can be seen immediately below). Considering the central role of family ties, all these terms can come close to the English word clan. However, remaining in Italy, the latter is also used directly. Indeed, the criminal aggregations that make up the Neapolitan Camorra are called clans.

[Sicilian and Calabrian mobsters despise the Camorra for its inability to keep order in its territories, where violent internal clashes occur more frequently than in Sicily and Calabria.]


It is now clear that as the number of trusted and capable members of a 'Ndrangheta family grows, so does its criminal strength. The following transcript of a police audio recording explains what “group strength” means. According to the prosecutors, the man heard was a “ … drug trafficker contiguous to the cosche [pl.] of 'Ndrangheta from the Plan of Gioia Tauro [area belonging to the macro-area of the Tyrrhenian side]” while speaking to another ‘Ndrangheta member. His mention of a "large family" is therefore noteworthy:

I'm pleased to see you. I’m one from the middle of the road [from a street life], I am a Christian of goodness and good friendships, and of [belonging to] a large family that loves me, and I love them too..."


There is no need to highlight the extraordinary quality of the mafia language contained in these few sentences. By introducing himself, the “drug trafficker” indirectly warned his interlocutor. It was an attitude evidently dictated by the awareness of belonging to a powerful 'Ndrangheta family that did not tolerate mistakes by its criminal partners on pain of serious consequences.

After all, the various families are not all the same within the 'Ndrangheta. Some are more powerful than others. Based on these differences, more or less close subordinate relationships are often created between them using the methods for establishing the ties seen above. These connections may involve families from the same or different territories, usually neighboring or relatively close. In the latter case, one or more associated families control a neighborhood or village. At the same time, they will be subjected to a more powerful family dominating another area. Again, due to the highly conflictual environment, these alliances and subordination strategies aim to cause blood families to strengthen each other.

The subordinate family will assist the dominant family if requested. In return, the latter will support the subordinate family in case of need. In this way, arriving from other villages, towns, or cities, they can approach their victims with their faces uncovered without being recognized.

However, blood families can also form alliances on an equal footing when their strengths and reputations are similar.




The ‘Ndrangheta, therefore, includes groups of blood families associated with each other in locali (pl.) or società (pl.). Blood families welcome close people and subordinate families under their leadership to strengthen themselves. Indeed, every (extended) family must face cyclical actual or potential conflicts, which are endemic within the ‘Ndrangheta. All of this is despite the organization's top members' efforts to keep the peace and focus solely on illegal activities.

[To try to prevent internal feuds in the various territories in which it is rooted and divided into several formally recognized components, locali (pl.) or società (pl.), in Italy and worldwide, the 'Ndrangheta forms superior bodies called Crimini (pl.), Crimine, transl. Crime, in the singular.

For example, consider the former Crimine of Toronto. It allegedly consisted of seven locali (pl.) out of the nine in all of Ontario, according to a fundamental audio intercept dated 2009 within Project Crimine ("In Toronto [understood as Ontario], there are nine of us..."). However, due to serious events, the Crimine of Toronto subsequently turned into the Crimine of Siderno, as reported by the more recent Italian Project Canadian 'Ndrangheta Connection (2019). This renaming reflected its more restricted composition. Indeed, as the name suggests, the Crimine of Siderno included only the locali (pl.) originating from Siderno and excluded the others from Gioiosa Ionica and Marina di Gioiosa Ionica (for more, see here).

In general, the main task of these superior bodies is to mediate internal disputes as well as regulate rank advancements. All Crimini (pl.) existing inside and outside of Calabria are subordinate to the supreme Crimine (s.) made up of all locali (pl.) and società (pl.) situated in the province of Reggio Calabria, thus ensuring the unity of the organization.]

In essence, the ‘Ndrangheta is a catalyst for disputes (caused by ignorance and greed). Rocco Varacalli reported this characteristic again during his testimony in court in 2012:

“… the ‘Ndrangheta is false, it is treacherous… It invents everything. It creates discord, it creates tragedies.”


In 'Ndrangheta jargon, tragedy is a particularly devious machination. In many cases, it consists of falsely accusing someone of violent acts or misconduct against another individual to induce the victim to seek revenge. The one who concocts such a deception intends to strike his enemy (and, even better, provoke a bloody feud) not in the first person but through another. Indeed, the latter will be led to believe that he has suffered a human or material loss from someone who, in reality, has no responsibility (it is interesting to supplement this explanation with the definition offered by the previously mentioned former top boss Antonino Belnome, according to whom tragedy means "... shifting your blame onto others."). Although it is often evoked and harshly condemned by the men of ‘Ndrangheta (not casually, when they talk to each other, they often use the term tragediatore, transl. bearer of tragedies, to denigrate someone), the tragedy is used in their infighting because of its potentially explosive effects.

[When we return to the 'Ndrangheta dynamics in the GTA, we will deal with a typical tragedy allegedly orchestrated by the Figliomenis from Siderno (an offshoot of the Donisi ‘Ndrina) against the Coluccios from Marina di Gioiosa Ionica (both towns are part of the Ionian side macro-area). The reference is to the feud that broke out on Apr. 24, 2014, with the killing of Carmine Verduci in Woodbridge, City of Vaughan, in the GTA (see It is one of the causes—probably the main one—of the previously mentioned split within the former Crimine of Toronto. And, most likely, this conflict had not yet ceased in 2018, given the events following the assassination of Carmelo Muià, cl. 1972, shot dead in Siderno on Jan. 18 of that year. Carmelo Muià was no ordinary figure. He was a trusted man (Italian prosecutors used the title "lieutenant") of Giuseppe "The Master" Commisso, who was the uncontested boss of the ‘Ndrangheta of Siderno until his arrest in 2010. Immediately after the murder, Carmelo's brother, Vincenzo Muià, cl. 1969, took action to identify those responsible and get revenge (for Vincenzo Muià, seeking personal revenge for his brother was a given, but in such circumstances, it is necessary to target the true offender and the blood family that armed his hand by gathering credible evidence). These intentions were revealed by extensive police bugging activities within the already mentioned Italian Project Canadian ‘Ndrangheta Connection. In this way, investigators learned that a man from Canada had brought an embassy to Siderno (in ‘Ndrangheta jargon, bringing an embassy means communicating a verbal message through an intermediary), according to which the Coluccios were the instigators of Carmelo Muià's murder. Vincenzo, however, did not believe that revelation in the first place because he knew there was a tie of the San Giovanni type (see above) between his brother and a member of the Coluccio blood family. Nevertheless, less than two months after the murder, he traveled to Toronto with his cousin to try to collect information from the Figliomenis themselves (see]

Here, for example, is how a former top boss, Francesco Oliverio (Capo Locale of Belvedere Spinello with the rank of Trequartino), described the power of the tragedy in 2012 during an interrogation before a prosecutor:

“… the art of tragedy, the art of infamy, in order to kill Christians [‘Ndrangheta members]. And the tragedy is more potent than any weapon. Eminence [turning to the prosecutor who was questioning him], it is more powerful than a bazooka…”


The dangers existing in the ‘Ndrangheta environment are now better understood. They hover over those who, despite themselves, come into contact with this criminal organization as well as those who are formally members of it. Cunning, envy, and plots of all kinds put them all at constant risk of bloodshed.