Over the last two years, Italy has worked to arrest hundreds of individuals connected to the ‘Ndrangheta. Starting in January of 2021, over 300 members were brought up on trial with charges ranging from murder and drug trafficking to corruption and money laundering. This is the largest trial against organized crime since the famous maxi trials of the 1980s.
A brief history of the ‘Ndrangheta
The ‘Ndrangheta in some ways originated under Bourbon Court, where they overlapped with the up and coming Camorra of Naples. Though this group of individuals was primarily working further south in what we now know as the region of Calabria. 1792 is when we first hear rumors of the criminal group. A royal census visit went around trying to understand who were the reliable or “noble” families, who might align with the Bourbons, and they started to hear rumors of criminal phenomena. They stated about the area: “the murders, thefts, the kidnappings were infinite; the ignorance of the clergy was scandalous; the village notables, obsessed with the idea of enriching themselves and then ennobling themselves, rapacious monopolizers of local administrations, who grew up in the shadow of a decadent nobility whose remains were being prepared.”
With such a lawless community, the ‘Ndrangheta arose as a sort of vigilante urban guard. They were keeping crime in check in the area, while also being behind many crimes being committed. The name itself “‘ndrangheta” is a calabrese twist on the Greek andragathía, meaning “heroism”. The Calabrese take it to mean Man of Honor.
While they floated around with extortion and blackmail as their primary crimes it was not until 1897 that the first in-depth cases against them were brought up and the organization and rules were exposed (more on this below).
The ‘Ndrangheta still continued to work within their own region and primarily only in financial crimes until the 1970s. During this time there were a few changes. First, there was the first ‘Ndrangheta war (where two clans fight amongst themselves). These came about due to disputes over public works contracts, who could sign, and who would get the money. Also during this time, they moved onto new crimes, primarily kidnappings.
From 1969 to 1998, there were over 600 kidnappings by the ‘Ndrangheta, 128 of which happened in the region itself. These ransomed kidnappings sponsored the ‘Ndrangheta’s further activities. Of these hundreds of kidnappings, 8 individuals were never recovered. Fabio Itri explores their story through a beautiful photo narrative here, I highly recommend having a look.
The most famous of these ‘Ndrangheta kidnappings was that of John Paul Getty III, the grandson of the American oil tycoon by the same name. Getty had actually originally been planning to get himself kidnapped as a way of getting money out of his family, but then had called it off. Yet the ‘Ndrangheta realizing who he was, kidnapped him anyway. They requested a ransom of $17 million, his grandfather refused to pay and in return Getty had his ear cut off. After much negotiation, his grandfather paid $2.2 million, but given the torture, Getty was victim to during the time, he lived a very hard life of medical problems and substance abuse.
As time went on and the ‘Ndrangheta had more funds, they began investing in the international drug trade, more legal business, and politics in the 1990s.
The Italian state has actually only classified them as an “official” mafia group in 2010, quite recent given their history of criminal activity. Until the late 20th century, ‘Ndrangheta operated primarily in Calabria since the 2000’s they have moved heavily into Northern Italy, Europe, Latin America, and the US. They control the international cocaine trade, are found in politics throughout Italy, control factories, and businesses throughout all of Europe.
Their control of the cocaine trade makes them very connected to the Los Zetas cartel, in fact, they supply most of the weapons used by the cartel. In politics they are normally found in Northern Italy, but not necessarily in the large cities, you will often find their associates as mayors and councilmen in small cities scattered around. In business, they have their hands everywhere, but Germany is one of their main hubs, where they purchase many businesses to act as money laundering. They even were behind many contracts involved in EXPO Milan 2015.
Other crimes they are known to commit: drug trafficking, extortion and usury, arms trafficking, prostitution and human trafficking
‘Ndrangheta activity accounts for at least three percent of Italy’s GDP. Illicit activity income in 2007:
Drug trafficking €27.240 billion
Comm. enterprise & public contracts € 5.733b
Extortion and usury € 5.017b
Arms trafficking € 2.938b
Prostitution and human trafficking €2.867b
There are over 100 families active within the group, working inboth a horizontal and vertical way. Long story short: There is an overarching pyramid hierarchy which is then meeting in a horizontal structure organized by geographic location.
All members in the geographical sub-organizations are organized into certain groups of the society: La Societa Minore: meaning all the low-level members; La Societa Maggiore: higher bosses and officials, there is also something called La Santa, which is rumored to be very special, with a connection to Freemason membership. Some say this is reserved specifically for those playing in politics more official positions
If you would like to learn the very extensive details of organization and the various titles, check out this Vice article by Roberto Saviano.
While the organization is primarily focused on blood relations, members can renounce family and be “adopted”, swearing that the ‘Ndrangheta are their new family by blood.
Victims and the Recent Trial
While I would love to share the stories of all the victims, given access to news and clarification, it can be a bit foggy, many victims are never named as “‘Ndrangheta victims” because of the case of their death can be shady. There is an ongoing list, but it is not always updated.
The Maxi Trial that began in January of 2021 goes by the name Rinascita Scott- named for a DEA Agent who spent years in Italy fighting the ‘Ndrangheta, only to tragically die in a car accident upon his return home. The key prosecutor in the case is Nicola Gratteri, a Calabrese himself who has spent much of the last years in police protection, developing this case against 335 members of the ‘Ndrangheta. This case is still developing, but it is already revealing much of the ‘Ndrangheta’s inner workings. Read this great article by Slate.