The 'Ndrangheta have surpassed Sicily's famous Cosa Nostra to become the most powerful organised crime group in Italy and one of the largest in the world.
Police across Germany, Italy and Bulgaria have carried out synchronised raids on 46 buildings for possible connection to one of the world’s largest mafia groups, the 'Ndrangheta.
The raids were a part of an investigation under the leadership of the European Public Prosecutor's Office, said German police in a statement on Wednesday
Although Italy's 'Ndrangheta crime syndicate has been around since the late 18th century, the group recently made global headlines, taking centre stage at the world's biggest mafia trial in decades.
On January 13, 355 of their suspected members and corrupt officials were charged with a variety of crimes, including narcotics, mafia association, murder, attempted murder, extortion, loan sharking, disclosure of official secrets and abuse of office.
The suspects had been rounded up by Italian police in December 2019 in a sting operation led by Italian public prosecutor Nicola Gratteri.
This new “maxi-trial” is currently taking place in Italy's southern region of Calabria, where the global crime group originates. It includes more than 900 witnesses and is expected to last more than two years.
Disney Plus created further buzz about the trial earlier this month after announcing an upcoming docu-series that will provide an in-depth look at the 'Ndrangheta, following the story of Gratteri.
But who are the 'Ndrangheta, and how did they become the most powerful organised crime group in Italy and one of the largest in the world?
Big crimes, big money
Today the 'Ndrangheta is estimated to earn as much as $60 billion annually, more than Deutsche Bank and McDonald's put together, according to a study by the Demoskopika research institute in 2014.
To put it in perspective, their annual revenue is more than the GDP of entire countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Uruguay.
More than half of their revenue comes from Europe's cocaine trade, of which it is thought they control more than 80 per cent, reports the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).
Alongside narcotics, the crime network is known for several criminal schemes involving money laundering and tax evasion worth millions of dollars, fraud, extortion, high-level corruption, and trafficking in humans and weapons across the globe.
The word 'Ndrangheta has Greek origins, and is thought to mean "society of men of honour.”
The irony of this is not lost on anti-mafia scholars such as German journalist Petra Reski.
Reski, who is renowned for her anti-Mafia publications, told TRT World, that the organisation’s wide-spread money laundering crimes affects us all, yet often go unchecked.
“A German contractor, for example, knows perfectly well that the (mafia-like) subcontractors he selects do not carry out the work by legal means at these dumping prices, but he selects them anyway because he can hide behind the argument that he has selected the ‘cheapest offer,’” said Reski, author of Mafia. A Tale of Godfathers, Pizzerias and Fake Priests, and several other renowned books.
The group originates in Calabria, the toe of Italy’s boot, and are deeply intertwined with its region's traditions and customs.
A US official once said, “if it were not a part of Italy, Calabria would be a failed state” in a confidential cable from 2008 released by WikiLeaks in 2011.
The diplomat made the comment in reference to the region’s widespread corruption and lawlessness due to the 'Ndrangheta.
While all mafia groups in Italy are interested in power and in profit, the 'Ndrangheta is a “traditional criminal group,” Dr. Anna Sergi, senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Essex, tells TRT World.
"Their rituals resound as old masonic rituals; each rank has its own, and associates make oaths with blood and with repetitions of old formulas," said Sergi.
Italian law classified the 'Ndrangheta as a mafia in 2010, but by then, the group had already become well-known in Italy following a series of kidnappings in the 1980s and 1990s, which involved oil tycoon John Paul Getty's grandson.
In 2007, the international spotlight shone on the group for the first time following the killing of six rival clan members in Germany's Duisburg, as part of a running feud between families from Calabria's San Luca.
While the group is sometimes thought of as one single mob, it is in fact made up of many smaller clans, or 'ndrina, that operate under a "family-based, web-like structure."
The structure can be roughly broken down into two main parts, the Crimine, known as the organisation's supreme council, and the Mandamenti, which consist of regional 'ndrina familial clans.
Each 'ndrina oversees its local operations and mainly consist of over 50 members.
The important clans are represented on an equal footing, making the 'Ndranghet less vulnerable if top bosses are arrested, explains Reski.
“Unlike the other mafia organisations, they can also form cells locally, the so-called "locali,” said Reski. “This is an enormous logistical advantage for them.”
The 'Ndrangheta brand further benefits these "smaller clans and newer clans who could claim connections with the 'Ndrangheta be admitted to global markets of narcotics or be respected as powerful criminals," Sergi said.
This crime web has a striking ability to replicate the same hierarchy and operational system abroad as well.
Europol once called this strategy foreign "colonisation,” and said it differentiates the 'Ndrangheta from other mafia-type groups.
Since the 1950s, the 'Ndrangheta have spread toward Northern Italy. Today, their activities now span the globe, reaching at least 31 other countries, making them far more powerful than the infamous Cosa Nostra mafia, yet surprisingly less famous.
“The 'Ndrangheta is the only mafia present on all continents” Gratteri told journalists in Rome in 2018.
Out of all locations, Toronto is said to be the city with the most 'Ndrangheta outposts.
Experts say the 'Ndrangheta thrive abroad partly because countries like Canada do not have as much anti-Mafia legislation as Italy, making it challenging to bring organised crime to trial.
Former 'Ndrangheta boss, Giuseppe Costa, told The Star that because of these differences in international law, the organisation can produce "exactly the same structure" in Canada as it does in Calabria - "like a cancer."
"That means Canada is ill," said Costa.
Reski told TRT World that anti-Mafia laws are long overdue.
“The Italian Mafia has been able to spread throughout the European Union over the past four decades without being fought,” she said.
“Instead, the finger has only been pointed at Italy, although Germany, for example, is a much bigger money laundering paradise for the Italian mafia,” she added.
In 2020, Interpol launched the International Cooperation Against the' Ndrangheta (I-CAN) initiative, a three-year global plan to dismantle the 'Ndrangheta networks and operations.
Funded by the Italian Department of Public Security, I-CAN aims to raise global awareness about the 'Ndrangheta, understand their modus operandi and share intelligence across borders.
I-CAN includes the cooperation of Italy and ten other countries including the United States, Germany, Canada, and Australia.
European Judicial and Policing Forces also coordinated on a joint sting as part of 'Operation Pollino' to crackdown on the 'Ndrangheta mafia clans, which had been in motion since 2016.
The operation involves hundreds of police, prosecutors and investigative officers, the biggest of its kind to date in Europe. In December 2018, they arrested 84 suspects in Italy, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.
In May 2021, the operation touted another success arresting 31 'Ndrangheta suspects in Italy and Germany, and identified 65 other suspects. The sting involved 800 police officers and tax officials in both countries.
However, how effective the international battle will be against the brutal 'Ndrangheta remains to be seen.