From modest beginnings as the local mafia of Calabria, at the toe of the Italian boot, the ‘Ndrangheta has spread far and wide.
It has penetrated Italy’s financial and industrial heartlands, Lombardy and Piedmont, more than any other organised-crime group.
It has a dominant position in the transatlantic cocaine trade, building on alliances with Colombian and then Mexican mobsters. One study put its turnover in 2013 at over EUR 50 billion ($69 billion).
But who controls the ‘Ndrangheta? The question is central to one of Italy’s longest-running mafia trials, which is expected to end shortly after almost three years. The trial arose from an investigation code-named “Operation Goal” that led in 2010 to more than 40 arrests. Among the accused are members of the most notorious families in Reggio di Calabria. One, Pasquale Condello, is known as Il supremo.
The prosecutor, Giuseppe Lombardo, argues that neither Mr Condello nor any other known or alleged mobster is truly supreme; they take their cues from an “invisible” ‘Ndrangheta from the outwardly respectable middle class. In February Mr Lombardo altered the charges to reflect this, inviting the judges to express their view of his case in their written judgment.
The earliest hint of a hidden ‘Ndrangheta emerged in 2007, during an investigation overseen by Mr Lombardo into how the group tried to profit from the construction of a new motorway. Eavesdropping on a trade unionist, Sebastiano Altomonte, police heard him describe his contacts with ‘Ndrangheta leaders and explain to his wife that they were split between “the visible and the invisible, which was born a couple of years ago”. He was among the “invisibles”, he said. It was previously believed that a co-ordinating body, the Provincia, was the ‘Ndrangheta’s high command; it also has an assembly called the Crimine (“Crime”), believed to meet once a year during the pilgrimage to a sanctuary in the Aspromonte uplands.
As the judges who convicted Mr Altomonte and others noted, his remarks open up “an entirely new scenario” in which there exists a separate (and perhaps higher) level of ‘Ndrangheta leadership previously unknown to investigators. The police began a painstaking process of revisiting old cases and reinterrogating state witnesses (known as pentiti). Some pentiti acknowledged the existence of a hidden level; others did not. But, says Mr Lombardo, that was to be expected: according to Mr Altomonte, even some bosses are unaware of the ‘Ndrangheta’s invisible arm.
Not all the evidence in support of his view has been presented in court; what has been is tenuous yet intriguing. One pentito described a Fellini-esque visit with a top ‘Ndrangheta man to an office like a notary’s in the posh Rome district of Parioli. He spoke of a “kind of confessional” in the corridor where he had to wait and a plaque bearing odd letters matching one in the home of his clan’s boss.
Mr Lombardo believes members of the “invisible ‘Ndrangheta” are linked to the laundering of its prodigious income. But it remains unclear whether they are the mobsters’ agents or, as he believes, their masters. He argues that in recent years the police in Calabria have had excellent results against the ‘Ndrangheta. “But the organisation does not get any weaker. So we know that we are hitting it at a level below that which really counts.”
Click here to subscribe to The Economist.
NOW WATCH: Briefing videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.