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How the 'Ndrangheta became the most powerful mafia in the world

Much more discreet than the notorious Sicilian Cosa Nostra or the Neapolitan Camorra, their Calabrian cousins have now largely supplanted them in Italy and the rest of the world. Here's how.
Comment la ‘Ndrangheta est devenue la mafia la plus puissante du monde

The third of the four circles of the national defence perimeter National security encompasses the management of crises and phenomena that are serious enough to threaten our society, our institutions or our powerful interests. These include organised crime, one of the most powerful forms of which is well known to the general public and originates in Italy: the mafia. This week Athena takes a look at the most important mafia today, the 'Ndrangheta.

In the 1970s and 1980s, under the aegis of its bloodthirsty godfather Salvatore 'Toto' Riina, the notorious and sprawling Sicilian mafia, Cosa Nostra, launched an open war against the peninsula's public authorities. This strategy of violence, marked by hundreds of assassinations of both anonymous individuals and celebrities (such as Judges Falcone and Borsellino), proved suicidal for the organisation, which emerged weakened. In 1982, article 416 bis of the Italian Criminal Code, which defines and punishes "criminal association of a Mafia nature", was created for the Mafia.

The 'Ndrangheta will not be included in this article until 2010. In the meantime, this mafia, which originated in Italy's poorest region in the 19th century, has ended up making a name for itself the world over. "The 'ndranghetists were somewhat underestimated at the start" of the fight against the mafia, sums up the criminologist. Clotilde Champeyrache [1]. "They stayed off the radar for a while, which allowed them to expand." According to Interpol, this "highly sophisticated criminal organisation" is the "only Italian mafia present on every continent". It is now believed to be present in more than 40 countries, with annual sales estimated at between €40 and €60 billion.


Remote, rural and deprived, Calabria, situated at the tip of the Italian boot, has long suffered the contemptuous indifference of Rome and wealthy Lombardy, the country's industrial and financial powerhouse. It is a coastal region with a harsh climate, centred on a mountain range with steep gorges, the Aspromonte, which plunges steeply into the waters of the Tyrrhenian and Ionian Seas that mingle at its foot.

The 'Ndrangheta developed in a different way to Cosa Nostra: no pyramid organisation, but a more transverse form, leaving more flexibility and autonomy to its members. (see box). According to Calabrian journalist Antonio Talia[2]one of the organisation's greatest connoisseurs, its name is said to come from the Greek andròs agathìawhich he loosely translates as "the virtues of the valiant man".

It operates in a more compartmentalised and fluid way than other mafias, but the real specificity of the 'Ndrangheta is something else: "You become a 'ndranghetist at birth, unlike the Camorra or Cosa Nostra", explains Clotilde Champeyrache. So you only join if your parents are already members, "even if you have to prove yourself". This characteristic makes theomertàThe number of 'repentants' is even rarer. A young woman, Léa Garofalo, paid for it with her life in 2009, tortured and then murdered by her companion and other 'ndranghetists, after wanting to collaborate with the justice system.

More than 60,000 members worldwide

The 'Ndrangheta is an amalgamation of dozens of ndrine or cosche (alliances between several families in the same sector), themselves grouped into different local covering wider areas, both in Italy and abroad. Each local is divided into two strictly separate groups, the "minor society" for the three lower grades of affiliates, and the "major society" for the five older grades. "Often, a new member only knows [...] the three 'ndranghetists who initiated him", writes Antonio Talia. In total, this mafia is said to have more than 300 family clans and more than 60,000 members.

They are not headed by a "godfather of godfathers", but by a higher body, the Crime (also known as Provincia "More federalist than many legitimate institutions, the Crime does not make operational decisions or interfere in specific matters, but its decisions are final when it comes to opening or closing an localThe head of this structure is the president. The head of this structure, the capocrimineis renewed every year.


Initially, the 'Ndrangheta had been operating since the mid-19th century as a "peasant" mafia, extorting, blackmailing and stealing cattle. In the 1970s, it embarked on a new activity: kidnapping people and holding them for ransom. It was after one of these cases was solved that her name became known the world over: the abduction in Rome in 1973 of 16-year-old John Paul Getty III, grandson of American oil magnate J. Paul Getty. The teenager was returned to his family after five months for 3.2 million dollars, after his severed ear was sent by post to a newspaper.

A war between clans then broke out over the sharing of revenues from major construction projects in Calabria. From the links established with the Neapolitan Camorra and Cosa Nostra in cigarette trafficking, the 'Ndrangheta gradually shifted to cocaine trafficking, which was far more lucrative. The 'Ndrangheta's second war, at the end of the 80s, led to the creation of its supreme body, the Crimeto resolve conflicts (see box). Every year, at the end of August and beginning of September, its officers are renewed at a ceremony held in conjunction with a pilgrimage to the Madonna di Polsi, near the small town of San Luca, in the heart of the Aspromonte region. Headquarters of the local the most prestigious, San Luca is the informal capital of the 'Ndrangheta.

It is this position in narcotics that has made the Calabrian mafia so powerful. It now deals on an equal footing with the biggest cartels in South America. "Thanks to the business relationships and positioning it has built up over decades, it is recognised and respected, it has a long history, and it has long proved its reliability and its ability to keep its word", says Clotilde Champeyrache. "The 'Ndrangheta has a reputation, it has become a label accepted by the other players.

The criminologist notes the group's "great ability to project itself abroad, by controlling the diaspora: for example, the Calabrians from San Luca will migrate to one town abroad and not another". From the south via the north of the peninsula, in cooperation with cousins in Italy, the Balkans and elsewhere, the 'Ndrangheta has spread to Eastern Europe (where members of a local Slovakian investigative journalist Jàn Kuciak and his partner were allegedly murdered in 2018), Switzerland, Germany, France, Benelux, the United States, Hong Kong, Canada, Africa, Latin America and as far afield as Australia. Here are just a few examples.


Detailed by Antonio Talia in his book, this story shows how the 'Ndrangheta extends its control over territories far removed from Calabria, both in the parallel world and within the law. In 1989, Francesco Madafferi arrived in Australia to join his brother Antonio, now Tony. He became Frank, and gradually established himself as the "boss" of the Melbourne underworld, with his Irish, Slavic and Australian rivals gradually leaving the game. There were already many Italians in Melbourne, in theunderworld as in the legal spheres: Sir James Gobbo, 25th Governor of Victoria, became the first Governor of Italian origin on the island-continent. His niece Nicola Gobbo has chosen to practise law. She defends various criminals of Calabrian, Irish and Australian origin.

On 28 June 2007, Australian customs blocked a container in the port of Melbourne. Inside were more than 3,000 tins of tomatoes, loaded in Naples for the Australian catering industry. There were no tomatoes in those tins: instead there were 15 million ecstasy tablets "produced in Belgium and then stored in Naples thanks to an agreement between the Calabrians and the Neapolitans", 4.4 tonnes in all. Value of this merchandise at the current rate: more than 300 million euros.

In August 2008, Madafferi and other 'ndranghetists were arrested, including the godfather Pasquale Barbaro, of the powerful ndrine of the same name. They were sentenced to several decades in prison. But at the end of 2010, a scandal broke: to close the case, Australian investigators had received help from several informants, including lawyers who had broken professional secrecy. From a legal point of view, the case is therefore in jeopardy. Among these lawyers, the one who "gave" the ecstasy delivery was known by the alias Lawyer X It was Nicola Gobbo, who had probably been "flipped" by the police because of a youthful error. Madafferi was eventually extradited to Italy; Barbaro is still in prison in Australia.


On the night of 15 August 2007, six 'ndranghetists in their twenties were shot dead in the car park of an Italian restaurant in Duisburg, northern Germany. The country and the whole world were stunned. According to Antonio Talia, "Duisburg has many of the same features as other places infested by the 'Ndrangheta [...]: it's a fairly wealthy city, but it's in the background, living in the orbit of larger economic and industrial areas; it's also a crucial crossroads, through which flows of goods and services continually pass."

As the Calabrian journalist recounts in detail in his book, these murders, which took place on the day of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, actually had their origins in another massacre... 16 years earlier, in San Luca, on Carnival Sunday 1991 (the 'ndranghetists often choose religious festivals to strike at their rivals). In the afternoon, teenagers from the Nirta-Strangio clan had fun throwing eggs at the façade of an association run by a ndrine and shaving cream on Antonio Vottari's car parked out front. Tempers flared, and Vottari ended up shooting dead two young men, a Strangio and a Nirta. This was the beginning of the faida or San Luca war.

Year after year, the number of murders increased on both sides, until Christmas evening 2006, when gunmen burst into a Strangio family home, wounding several members and killing Maria Strangio. A few months later, the Duisburg massacre targeted members of the Pelle-Vottari family. Faced with the worldwide shock caused by this massacre, the Italian authorities chose the following 30 August, the eve of the feast of the Madonna of Polsi, to strike a blow: at dawn, 500 police officers and carabinieri stormed San Luca, while two helicopters flew over the town and the mule tracks and roads leading from it. They discovered a bunker in the basement of a house, where they arrested three important sponsors. A total of 32 people, including 5 women, were arrested.


On 11 July 2023, border police officers (PAF) carried out a check at Perrache station in Lyon. A man presented suspicious papers and was taken into custody. He called his mother in Italy and the Italian police immediately contacted their French counterparts: the man was Michelle Bellocco, 27, a 'ndranghetist wanted since he fled his house arrest in Rosarno (Calabria) in November 2021. He was sentenced in absentia to 8 years and four months in prison for offences against property and persons. On 25 July, France authorised his extradition.

According to Agence France Presse, quoting the Italian media, "the Italian carabinieri have been looking for his whereabouts, analysing the movements of family members and taking an interest in the Lyon area, which has been home to a large Calabrian immigrant community for decades". Lyon is also home to the headquarters of Interpol, which, like Europol and Eurojust, is increasingly active in the fight against the 'Ndrangheta.

From 2020 until the end of 2023, the international police alliance will be conducting the I-CAN operation (Interpol Cooperation Against 'Ndrangheta), financed by the Italian Ministry of Public Security with the aim of "neutralising the global networks of the 'Ndrangheta". Bringing together 13 countries (including France), this operation has so far resulted in the arrest of 46 'ndranghetists, including the boss Rocco Morabito, in 2021 in Brazil.

Elsewhere in France, the presence of 'ndranghetists has been documented on the Côte d'Azur - the Magnoli brothers, based in Vallauris, were arrested in 2015 for cocaine trafficking, following what was described as unprecedented Franco-Italian cooperation. Clotilde Champeyrache notes that at national level, law enforcement is mainly focused on drug trafficking, and less on its sources: "The 'ndranghetists are intermediaries, wholesalers, and they are not present on the ground. We do very few asset investigations, whereas the Italians do them systematically. The criminologist and economist, who wrote her thesis on legal businesses owned by the mafia, regrets this: "In France, if it's legal, there's no problem.


[1] Author of "Géopolitique des mafias", Le Cavalier Bleu, 2022.

[2] Author of "The 'Ndrangheta - Sur les routes secrètes de la mafia la plus puissante au monde", Grasset, 2020.