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‘Ndrangheta: The Elusive Powerhouse Behind Italy’s Criminal Underworld

Anurag Mishra

16 July 2023

Through folktales, fiction, film and fashion, the Italian mafia have captured popular imagination for centuries. The latest manifestation of the mafia is the infamous criminal syndicate known as the 'Ndrangheta. From its 19th Century origins in Southern Italy’s Calabria region, the 'Ndrangheta has today evolved to become one of the most powerful criminal organizations in the world.

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Roberto Saviano, a writer-journalist from Naples, Italy, has been living in hiding for the past seventeen years. Reason? He wrote a book that rubbed some people the wrong way. What people? That is the crucial question. Savioni’s book “Gomorrah” was an account of a powerful Italian mafia group Camorra and its dirty businesses. That, however, is not surprising given the long history that Italy has of home-grown organized crime groups, some of which have become too powerful and have gained notoriety far beyond the shores of the troika of the Adriatic, Ionian, and the Tyrrhenian.


In the vast landscape of organized crime, few criminal syndicates rival the infamous ‘Ndrangheta. Hailing from Calabria, the southern region of Italy, this clandestine group has solidified its position as one of the most powerful and elusive criminal organizations worldwide. Operating with a strict code of silence and operating through a complex network, the ‘Ndrangheta’s influence has spread far beyond its Italian roots. This profile article delves into the secretive world of the ‘Ndrangheta, examining its origins, structure, criminal activities, and the unrelenting efforts by law enforcement agencies to dismantle it.


Origins and Evolution


In Italy’s feudal society, the nobility controlled much of the land and administered justice through manorial courts and private armies. The Mafia dates back to the late Middle Ages, but the organization first appeared in Sicily in the 19th century during the unification of Italy. Mafia has its roots in the numerous small private armies, or mafie, that absentee landowners employed to guard their landed estates against robbers during the centuries-long lawlessness that spanned much of Sicily.


The outlaws, however, were soon to grow too strong for the landowners. Over the 18th and 19th centuries they took control of many of the estates, extorting money from the landowners in exchange for the protection of their crops. Successive foreign governments in Sicily were so tyrannical that they alienated the island’s citizens and made popular the Mafia’s particular system of private justice, which was governed by a complex moral code.


In a loose confederation by the year 1900, the numerous Mafia “families” and groups of families centered in the villages of western Sicily controlled the majority of the economic operations in their communities. But it was not to end there. The Mafia groups underwent a complete overhaul in the 20thCentury, and despite having ethically grey origins, went on to become a ruthless criminal force and a continuing cause of worry for the Italian state and countries worldwide.


Much like the other Mafia organizations, ‘Ndrangheta's origins too can be traced back to 19th Century Italy, where it initially emerged as a rural, agrarian-based society designed to protect Calabria’s inhabitants from external threats. Over the years, it transformed into a highly organized and powerful criminal syndicate. Unlike the more well-known Cosa Nostra and Camorra, the ‘Ndrangheta primarily relies on blood ties and family bonds, emphasizing family ties and loyalty above all else. This secretive nature has made it particularly difficult for law enforcement to infiltrate their ranks.


The ‘Ndrangheta’s organizational structure revolves around ndrine, local clans that operate independently yet collaboratively under the larger ‘Ndrangheta umbrella. These ndrine are akin to tight-knit families, with deep-rooted ties and a hierarchical structure. At the top, a select few La Provincia hold ultimate power, overseeing the entire organization’s activities. Each ndrina operates in its territory, controlling various illicit activities, including drug trafficking, extortion, money laundering, arms smuggling, and human trafficking.


The Dirty Works of ‘Ndrangheta


While traditionally centered in Calabria, the ‘Ndrangheta has expanded its global reach, establishing a powerful presence in countries like Germany, Canada, Australia, and the United States. This transnational expansion has allowed the ‘Ndrangheta to maintain control over various criminal enterprises across continents. Leveraging their close-knit connections, they infiltrate local communities and businesses, thereby creating an intricate web that authorities often struggle to dismantle.


The ‘Ndrangheta is a major player in the global drug trade, particularly concerning cocaine. It secures vast quantities of the drug from South America and facilitates its distribution throughout Europe and beyond. This lucrative business has contributed significantly to the organization’s immense wealth and influence. The ‘Ndrangheta engages in sophisticated money laundering schemes to legitimize their illegal profits. They invest in legitimate businesses, particularly in the hospitality and construction sectors, enabling them to integrate illicit funds into the legal economy seamlessly.


The ‘Ndrangheta’s vast network allows them to exert control over various businesses and individuals through extortion and racketeering. Refusing to comply with their demands often results in dire consequences, making it difficult for victims to seek help from law enforcement. As a criminal organization with a global presence, the ‘Ndrangheta is heavily involved in human trafficking. Thousands of vulnerable individuals, often migrants seeking a better life, fall prey to their ruthless operations, enduring unimaginable hardships.


Nipping in the Bud: A Never-Ending Cat and Mouse Chase


Omerta, the vow of silence, is one of the most essential principles of a Mafia organization. The Mafia strictly prohibits and severely punishes any vow-breakers who dare to go against the codes of the family. The institutional secrecy, reticence, ritualistic blood bond, and community introversion make the Mafia difficult to arraign wherever they have a stronghold. Even Al Capone, the legendary Mafia boss of the Chicago Outfit, could not be convicted of any charges except tax evasion.


The fight against the ‘Ndrangheta has continued to prove arduous for law enforcement agencies due to the organization’s secretive nature and its ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Italian authorities have made substantial efforts to combat the syndicate, employing dedicated anti-mafia units and utilizing advanced surveillance and intelligence techniques. Additionally, international cooperation between countries affected by the ‘Ndrangheta has increased, leading to joint operations aimed at disrupting their activities.


However, the ‘Ndrangheta’s insidious influence poses significant challenges. The organization’s deep-rooted connections and ingrained fear within local communities often hinder witness cooperation, making prosecutions challenging. Furthermore, the rapid expansion of the group on an international scale requires coordination and cooperation between multiple jurisdictions, which can be complicated by legal and bureaucratic obstacles.


Needed: Much More than Guns and Bullets


The ‘Ndrangheta’s insidious influence has left an indelible mark on the criminal underworld. Its vast network, characterized by family ties, secrecy, and ruthless determination, has allowed it to thrive and expand globally. Law enforcement agencies continue to relentlessly battle against this formidable organization. However, the eradication of the ‘Ndrangheta requires a multifaceted approach involving international collaboration, legislative reforms, and the unwavering dedication of authorities committed to dismantling this criminal empire.


Moreover, combatting traditionally rooted organizations like the ‘Ndrangheta, and analogous organizations that invoke blood relations or kinships can only be done through cutting their clout. Despite degenerating into a vile, cold-blooded syndicate, the Mafia has carefully and, to some extent, even successfully managed to carry the image of a Robinhood or a protector. The battle to pin the Mafia down requires more than guns and bullets.


Disclaimer: The article expresses the author’s views on the matter and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of any institution they belong to or of Trivium Think Tank and the StraTechos website.

Anurag Mishra

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Anurag Mishra is a Ph.D. candidate at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His research areas include American politics, US foreign policy, American society and culture, Religion in Politics and the Italian-American Mafia. He tweets @RealAnuragM.

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