10 Chilling Facts About The Secretive ‘Ndrangheta Mafia
Spanning from Canada to Australia but centered in Calabria, Italy, the ‘Ndrangheta is a global Mafia. It has been described as an octopus because wherever there is money to be made, you will find its tentacles. Police have been unable to understand this odd, ritualistic Mafia, with a Florida district attorney once describing the organization as “invisible, like the dark side of the Moon.”
Wherever there is a crisis, the ‘Ndrangheta will be there to profit, destroying human lives and the environment along the way. Today, the ‘Ndrangheta are the world’s largest criminal organization, with annual revenue surpassing that of McDonald’s and Deutsche Bank combined.
Originally, the term “mafioso” had no criminal connotations. It meant “manly,” referring to a young man who was suspicious of central government. The island of Sicily had a history of being ruled by foreign invaders, and these mafiosi would band together to protect the people.
In the 19th century, feudal barons in need of money sold off their lands to private citizens. When Italy annexed Sicily in 1860, they turned over even more land to the people. Having lost their wealth, the barons released their private armies. As the state had not yet organized its police force on the island, the suddenly rich citizens fell prey to bandits. The mafiosi were hired to protect landowners and businesses. Soon, they were also paid to collect debts and enforce contracts.
Before long, the mafiosi realized that they could boost their profits by becoming both bandits and protectors. This was the beginning of the protection racket and the Mafia in Sicily. They called themselves, La Cosa Nostra (“Our Thing”). Hollywood has made many movies about them, including The Godfather.
9A Severed Ear
For nearly a century, the ‘Ndrangheta remained in Calabria, a Mafia growing in the shadows among the poor. In 1888, a Calabrian prefect received a letter from an anonymous informant alerting him to the presence of “a sect that fears nothing.”
In 1975, the ‘Ndrangheta was divided. The older generations wanted to stay local and hidden. The younger generations wanted to grow their operations and expand their territory. This led to the murder of a godfather, igniting a civil war within the gang. After 300 deaths, a young, ambitious faction rose to the top. Their first order of business was to kidnap and ransom wealthy businessmen, hiding them in the caves of Calabria.
The young faction had known success with kidnapping in the past. In 1973, they kidnapped the grandson of oil tycoon John Paul Getty, demanding a ransom of $17 million. At first, Getty refused to pay, claiming that it would put his 14 grandchildren at risk. After all, if he paid for one, it might encourage criminals to kidnap the rest. So the ‘Ndrangheta sliced off his grandson’s ear and sent it to Getty in the mail.
Getty’s son begged his father to pay the ransom. At last, Getty relented, agreeing to pay the kidnappers the reduced amount of $2.2 million on one condition: His son had to repay the debt to Getty at 4 percent interest. Our sources are unclear on whether the elder Getty demanded simple or compound interest. Another factor appeared to influence the amount that Getty was willing to pay: $2.2 million was the maximum that was tax-deductible.
Fortunately, the ‘Ndrangheta accepted the smaller ransom and returned the grandson. When his grandson called Getty to thank him, Getty refused to take the call.
8The Decline Of La Cosa Nostra
Using the ransom money from their kidnappings, the ‘Ndrangheta plowed money into the narcotics business. But Sicily’s La Cosa Nostra was still the most powerful Mafia at that time. So at first, the ‘Ndrangheta had to buy all their cocaine through La Cosa Nostra.
As ‘Ndrangheta grew, it made its own contacts in Colombia. Eventually, the Colombians preferred ‘Ndrangheta over hotheaded La Cosa Nostra. The ‘Ndrangheta were reliable, they didn’t talk, and they paid on time.
La Cosa Nostra didn’t invest as much in cocaine, pushing most of their resources into selling heroin. This backfired on them when the heroin market dried up in the 1980s because of the AIDS scare.
La Cosa Nostra had once operated under an inviolable code of silence, too. But that changed in 1959 with the arrest of Joe Valachi. He agreed to rat on his organization in exchange for dodging the death penalty. With the code broken, an increasing number of mobsters turned to the authorities for protection. This led to the Mafia Commission Trial of 1987, which debilitated La Cosa Nostra.
The ‘Ndrangheta took the title of “world’s most powerful Mafia.” They’ve proven far more difficult to destroy than La Cosa Nostra.
7The Secret Society
The ‘Ndrangheta are a loose federation of Mafia families that come together to coordinate but are otherwise independent. With La Cosa Nostra, if you cut off the head, the body dies. But the ‘Ndrangheta is more like Hydra in Greek mythology, the serpent with many heads that regrew two heads for every one that was cut off.
The authorities have had little luck in getting the ‘Ndrangheta to rat on each other because all the members of this Mafia are literally family, unlike La Cosa Nostra that admits strangers as “family.” With membership in ‘Ndrangheta limited to blood relatives, the bosses try to maximize the number of their descendants.
The ‘Ndrangheta operates as a secret society like the stonemasons. In 2014, Italian detectives recorded rare footage of a Mafia pledge of allegiance. The new members swear their oath in front of a gun and a suicide pill, which they vow to use should they ever be caught.
The ‘Ndrangheta also use their own cryptic messaging system. Authorities recently discovered the organization’s “Rosetta Stone,” a red notebook found in the house of a mobster after a raid. The notebook was so important that even Mafia informants refused to translate it. Eventually, codebreakers were able to crack it. The ensuing arrests dealt a blow to the Mafia, but their wounds heal fast.
The ‘Ndrangheta strictly adhere to old-school, underworld values of honor and loyalty. Their name comes from a Greek word meaning “courage” or “loyalty.”
In March 2006, Giovanni Morabito, nephew of a godfather known as “Joe Go-ahead,” turned himself in to police after having shot his sister in the face. It was an honor shooting. Giovanni’s sister had separated from her husband and become pregnant by a police officer. She survived the gunshot to her face but was only able to communicate by nodding.
Despite these loyalties, the ‘Ndrangheta are prone to interclan feuds. In 1985, disagreements over one clan’s growing power led to the second ‘Ndrangheta war. After six years and more than 600 deaths, there was no clear winner in sight.
The godfathers of ‘Ndrangheta convened a summit to resolve the feud. High-ranking members of La Cosa Nostra also attended. Following La Cosa Nostra’s advice, the ‘Ndrangheta formed a loose council to mediate disputes. They talked things out, and the war ended.
5The Mountain Sanctuary
Deep in the heart of the Aspromonte mountains lies the Sanctuary of Santa Maria di Polsi (“Our Lady of the Mountain“), which was built in 1144 at the bottom of a gorge. Every September, thousands of Catholics make a pilgrimage to the sanctuary to view a statue of the Virgin Mary. Then they carry it in a procession.
This annual festival is actually a repackaged pagan ritual. In place of Mary, they once worshiped the Greek goddess Persephone. Today, the revelers still sacrifice goats and dance in a frenzy.
Against this backdrop, the ‘Ndrangheta bosses meet each September to discuss business strategies and smooth over any feuds. They elect a leader to oversee the assembly, but this person is a mediator, not a boss.
The Italian government decided to build an anti-Mafia community center near the shrine to counter mob influence. The ‘Ndrangheta secured the construction contracts for the community center and profited immensely from building it.
4The ‘Ndrangheta vs. The Pope
Mobsters consider themselves devout Catholics. Upon promotion, they dedicate themselves to a life of crime by swearing on the Bible. They also have chapels in their underground bunkers. Clergymen have supported them, testifying as character witnesses for mobsters on trial. Pope Benedict XVI even baptized the daughter of a high-ranking ‘Ndrangheta at St. Peter’s. In addition, the Vatican Bank has been part of money-laundering schemes for Mafias in the past.
But things may have changed under Pope Francis. In June 2014, the Pope traveled to Calabria to mourn the loss of Coco Campolongo, a boy killed by mobsters. Coco was born into the Mafia, and he had been caught in the cross fire of his grandfather’s assassination. Coco’s charred, bullet-riddled body was found beside his grandfather’s in a burned-out vehicle.
Pope Francis had asked the murderers to come forward and repent. When no one did, he denounced all Mafia members, saying, “The ‘Ndrangheta are the adoration of evil and contempt for the common good. Mafiosi are not in communion with God. They are excommunicated!”
Francis was the first Pope to excommunicate the Mafia, and the full ramifications are not yet known. In 1993, Saint Pope John Paul II had denounced the Sicilian Mafia, becoming the first Pope to even use the word “Mafia” in public. La Cosa Nostra bombed churches in retaliation, but many mafiosi reformed, becoming informants.
In the wake of their excommunication, the ‘Ndrangheta have been quiet, although they may not take the Pope’s word as law. A Vatican spokesperson said that official excommunication involves a formal legal process.
The businesslike ‘Ndrangheta go to great lengths to avoid detection. Despite the wealth of the mobsters, Calabria is something of a wasteland. The low-level drug runners drive their BMWs through the rundown streets of Calabrian villages. However, the older gangsters are much more careful. The exteriors of their houses look decrepit, with rotting porches and peeling paint. But walk through the front door, and you’ll see opal floors and chandeliers.
The bosses are the most careful, leaving little to chance. They live away from society in caves and in genuine poverty—billionaires in rags. However, they do tend to “live it up” when they travel abroad.
Pasquale Condello is a legendary godfather known as “Il Supremo.” He was the ringleader of the young group that took control of the ‘Ndrangheta in 1975. Pasquale led them to become kidnappers and global drug dealers.
Authorities had been hunting him for 40 years but couldn’t find him. In 2008, they narrowed his cover to 12 suspects in Reggio Calabria. Was he the priest? The blind man? After a two-week stakeout, authorities moved in on all 12. They found Pasquale in an apartment guarded by his nephew and son-in-law. With cool detachment, he admitted his identity and went to jail.
2The Maple Mafia
In September 2015, Italian authorities secretly recorded the conversations of Vincenzo Crupi, a Toronto-based ‘Ndrangheta who had flown back to Italy for the annual meeting at the sanctuary. The wiretaps were obtained while setting up a sting code-named Maple Crupi.
In the recordings, Crupi warns a friend that Toronto may be on the brink of a mob war. Tensions between the Canadian ‘Ndrangheta clans had risen ever since the unsolved murder of Carmine Verduci, a suspected Mafia hit man. He was shot to death outside a sports bar in a Toronto suburb.
Canadian reporters from the National Post reached out to the RCMP anti-Mafia division. One officer said to them, “People seem to be getting along. Everyone is shaking hands and kissing each other. It is either really good or really bad.” He hopes the clans have worked out their differences.
The ‘Ndrangheta have chosen Toronto as a second home because of its favorable banking laws. Canadian banks don’t ask where the money comes from. Toronto is also near the border. The ‘Ndrangheta have been smuggling drugs from Canada into the US since the early 1900s.
The ‘Ndrangheta’s tentacles reach beyond Italy and Canada. Their operation involves 60,000 people with 400 key operatives in 30 countries. They are responsible for 80 percent of the cocaine flow through Europe. They even built a submarine to smuggle cocaine out of Colombia. Aside from drugs, extortion, usury, embezzlement, gambling, prostitution, smuggling people, and counterfeiting goods, they also make money from legitimate business practices.
After strict environmental laws took effect in the 1980s, the ‘Ndrangheta made a killing from discreetly disposing of toxic waste for penny-pinching corporations. They filled ships with barrels of toxic waste, sailed the barrels out to sea, and sank them. Authorities believe there could be as many as 32 of these ships at the bottom of the Mediterranean. Other times, the Mafia sailed these ships to Somalia. The Somalis buried the toxic waste in exchange for guns.
The ‘Ndrangheta have so much money that it is literally rotting in the ground. Police wiretapped two mobsters who had gone to retrieve a stash of money in a forest. As they dug the money out of the ground, one said, “Millions are rotting because of the humidity.”
The other replied, “Just throw them away.”
To see more of Matt’s lists, including Narrative History articles and the Evolution of Folklore series, head over to his blog.