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Daily Archives: July 17th, 2010

Big business, clockwise from top left: Domenico Oppedisano, boss of the 'Ndrangheta crime organisation; a woman demonstrating against Mafia killings (her gloves read "Certitude of Punishment"); and another of those arrested this week. Photographs: Adriana Sapone/AP; Mario Laporta/AFP

Sat, Jul 17, 2010

The leading members of the ’Ndrangheta crime gang who were arrested this week look more like a group of grandfathers on an outing to the local bowling club than capos in Italy’s most powerful crime syndicate

TO LOOK AT THEM as they file through the iron-gated entrance to the sanctuary you could mistake them for the local bowling club on their annual bus-trip outing. They are a group of casually dressed middle-aged and elderly men, some wearing hats, some with walking sticks, some with their denim jackets slung over their shoulders.

They have come on a pilgrimage to the Marian shrine of La Madonna Della Montagna in Polsi, Calabria, have they not? Well, not quite. There is nothing innocent about this particular group of old-timers, for they are in fact La Commissione, the governing board of Italy’s most powerful crime syndicate, the ’Ndrangheta, or Calabrian Mafia.

They have come to the shrine for what is, in effect, the company agm. Except that this is an agm to which shareholders and media are most definitively not invited. As the men stand around, a distinguished, grey-haired man, who looks not unlike an ageing Laurence Olivier, does a lot of the talking. He talks about office holders and the way the organisation is divided up, and he then appears to modestly accept his own appointment as Il Crimine, the boss of ’Ndrangheta bosses.

The speaker is 80-year-old Domenico Oppedisano, the ’Ndrangheta’s main man. He was arrested on Tuesday of this week as part of a spectacular police operation, involving more than 3,000 officers in both Lombardy, in the north, and Calabria, in the south. It led to the arrest of 305 Mafiosi, prompted 55 police raids and saw an estimated €60 million’s worth of ’Ndrangheta goods sequestered.

The ’Ndrangheta agm was recorded in a fascinating police surveillance film. It is just one of many invaluable elements thrown up by a two-year inquiry that generated 64,000 hours of film and included the tapping of 1.5 million phone conversations.

Among those to have headed the investigation is the Milan-based magistrate Ilda Boccassini, a former member of the

Milan “Clean Hands” team, which took a number of cases – for tax evasion, bribery, corruption and illegal party financing – against the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi.

In time this investigation may be seen as ground-breaking in relation to the ’Ndrangheta. For a start it provides ample documented evidence of something that Calabrian investigators have been saying for years, namely that the ’Ndrangheta has some very solid organisational structures, far from Calabria and, in this case, especially in and around Italy’s business capital, Milan. In particular, the prospect of the Expo 2015 exhibition in Milan has apparently whetted ’Ndrangheta appetites.

Furthermore, evidence gathered would appear to prove conclusively not only that the ’Ndrangheta has infiltrated key sections of the Lombardy public service but also that it has established important contacts with members of Berlusconi’s ruling Freedom Party (PDL). Among those arrested this week were Michele Berlingieri, a policeman alleged to be on the ’Ndrangheta payroll, and Carlo Antonio Chiriaco, head of state health services in Pavia, near Milan. And wiretaps suggest that the ’Ndrangheta was busy “gathering votes” for Lombardy PDL figure Giancarlo Abelli – whether of its own volition or by way of a favour.

None of this could be described as a surprise. Investigators have known as much for years. One outstanding discovery does, however, emerge from this inquiry. Until

now investigators had been tempted to

credit individual ’Ndrangheta families, in Calabria and elsewhere – Australia, Canada, Germany and so on – with a large amount of autonomy. From this investigation, as evidenced by the film of the agm, another reality emerges: that of a tightly run vertical power structure in which sbagli (errors) tend to cost you your life and in which Il Crimine runs the show.

Another police film records the election of the leader of the Lombardy section of the ’Ndrangheta in October of last year. Once again it looks like it might be the Rotary Club’s annual outing: 23 men sit around a horseshoe-shaped table in an old people’s centre in a little town called Paderno Dugnano, 20km north of Milan. Ribbons, rosettes and party bunting adorn the walls of the building, which, ironically, is named after Italy’s two most celebrated Mafia investigators, Giovanni Falcone and

Paolo Borsellino, killed by Cosa Nostra in 1992.

Local grand old man Pino Neri takes the microphone. He talks about the need to remain united and basically to obey orders from “down below” – that is, Calabria. He then calls for a toast to Nunzio Novella. A frisson goes through the gathering. The point about Novella is that he is dead, killed in August 2008 because he had dared to suggest that the Lombardy section might branch out on its own. Pino Neri’s call for a toast to Novella’s memory was a timely reminder to his dinner-party guests of just what might happen if any of them had similar ideas.

Lest anyone have doubts about the ferocity of the ’Ndrangheta, this investigation provides further documented evidence. Faced with a less-than-co-operative builder-cum-business- partner, Mafioso Salvatore Strangio suggests to his associates that they leave the bloody head of a goat or a dog at the guy’s front door, preferably with a crucifix attached, adding that if that does not scare the builder, then “the solution is to get him and put him in the boot of a car, take his mobile phone from him and take him out to the countryside somewhere and hang him up. Now, I’ve got

to be there for this, waiting for him, to hang him upside down and leave him hanging there”.

Hanging there, too, is an Italian state that never seems to win its eternal battle with the Mafia Hydra. According to ’Ndrangheta investigator Nicola Gratteri, even as Tuesday’s arrests were being made, new 14-year-old recruits were being enrolled into the organisation. Business is business.

Traditionally, four organised-crime syndicates have operated out of southern Italian bases: Cosa Nostra in Sicily, the ’Ndrangheta in Calabria, the Camorra in Campania and the Sacra Corona Unita in Puglia.

For the past decade, at least, the ’Ndrangheta has been the most powerful of these, a point underlined internationally by the ’Ndrangheta gangland war that saw six men gunned down outside a restaurant in the German town of Duisburg in the summer of 2007 (right). According to SOS Impresa, an anti-mafia monitoring group run by the national retailers’ association, the ’Ndrangheta last year had a turnover of €78 billion, and all organised crime in Italy accounted for €135 billion of turnover, or almost 9 per cent of Italian GDP