Secrecy, family ties mark an Italian mob

Times Staff Writers

Three coffins were delivered to a waiting town just before dusk. Old men and women, their tough-looking sons and their grieving neighbors filled the main square and stood in near silence as church bells tolled and a police helicopter hovered above.

Then the people of San Luca, home to a raging mob feud, broke into steady and loud applause as each coffin was carried into the Santa Maria della Pieta church and laid on an altar awash in white roses and lilies.

Funerals were held Thursday here and in a nearby town for five of the six Italian men killed last week in a machine-gun ambush in Germany, part of what authorities said was a battle involving factions of one of Italy’s least known but most powerful criminal gangs, the ‘Ndrangheta. The group, which has grown stronger and wealthier in recent years as it shifted from kidnappings to drug and weapons trafficking, is said to take in tens of billions of dollars in illicit revenue annually.

Fearing reprisal killings, police inspected cars arriving at the funerals Thursday and banned the traditional procession from the church to the cemetery. But some relatives vowed not to avenge but to forgive -- wearing white instead of black.


The slayings outside a pizzeria in Duisburg, Germany, cast a spotlight on the highly secretive drug cartel that is based here in the Calabria region of southern Italy. They also stunned Italians because of the level of brutality (one of the dead was just 16) and the way in which the violence had spilled onto foreign soil.

“We have hit bottom,” Father Giuseppe Strangio said as he prepared to eulogize Francesco Giorgi, the 16-year-old, and two others. “Something has got to change.”

Choosing unusually blunt language, the priest, who shares a last name with one of the feuding clans, implored his congregation to choose justice and “not the weapons of hatred and vendetta.”

“My request -- my appeal -- is that we condemn energetically any type of Mafia,” he said. “We must condemn and rebel against this evil that perverts the good in each one of us. . . . We are all responsible.”


Some in the congregation cast their eyes downward as the priest spoke. Most of the mourners filling the pews were women, with a few rows of men in the back. Several hundred grim-faced men, and more women, stood outside through the hour-long service.

In the ‘Ndrangheta’s tight-knit and insular culture, it is often said that the women determine the spilling of blood and the waging of vendettas. At the funeral here, both Francesco’s mother, Teresa, and the mother of another of the dead men, Marco Marmo, said they were prepared to forgive the killers.

If that proves sincere, another bloodbath that many officials fear might be averted. But some authorities remained convinced that the rancor would continue to fester and eventually explode again.

Police believe Marmo was the intended target of the Aug. 15 hit, with the other five victims becoming collateral damage when the group left the pizzeria together after a birthday party. Marmo had fled to Germany a few days before the ambush purportedly to escape threatened retaliation.

The San Luca feud, as it is known, began 16 years ago when families fought over something involving carnival celebrations. Roughly one person a year was killed until 2000, when something of a truce took effect.

But last Christmas, the feud erupted anew when a gunman (possibly Marmo, according to police) attempted to kill the leader of one clan over disputes in the drug business. The gunman failed, but killed the man’s wife, unleashing another spasm of violence.

This kind of internecine killing is, in a way, a mere sideshow to the gigantic business that the ‘Ndrangheta manages.

Authorities say the ‘Ndrangheta (pronounced en-DRAHN-geh-tah) controls an illicit empire that hauls in an estimated $50 billion annually from drug and weapons trafficking, extortion and counterfeiting. By dealing directly with Colombian cartels and nudging out other competitors, the ‘Ndrangheta now has a near monopoly on the cocaine trade in Europe, according to Nicola Gratteri, lead anti-mob prosecutor in Calabria.


Though the Sicily-based Cosa Nostra has dominated the headlines and popular culture for a generation, it has in reality been eclipsed by its Calabrian counterpart in terms of power and wealth, Gratteri said.

Like other crime syndicates, the ‘Ndrangheta emerged two centuries ago and evolved after World War II, in part as a protection racket in sorely neglected southern Italy. Its name derives from a Greek word meaning heroism or virtue. It also made big scores by kidnapping the children of Italian industrialists and other wealthy families.

(One of the most notorious cases was the 1973 abduction in Rome of the grandson of J. Paul Getty. His kidnappers cut off his ears and mailed them to a newspaper before a ransom eventually won his release.)

Eventually the ‘Ndrangheta halted the kidnappings, which brought undesired police scrutiny, and shifted to drugs and smuggling. A key to its success has been its ability to maintain a low profile and to co-opt local politicians, even as it spread its criminal branches beyond southern Italy to the rest of Europe and to Australia and Latin America.

Another key is its structure, which is almost completely based on family. Couples are generally encouraged to have five or more children to give the syndicate an ample pool of trusted foot soldiers. Families often intermarry, as well, to maintain the networks. This makes the ‘Ndrangheta far more impenetrable than other crime syndicates, authorities say. Several years ago when the government offered reduced sentences to those who would turn state’s evidence, more than 1,000 Cosa Nostra members accepted. But fewer than 50 turncoats have presented themselves from the ‘Ndrangheta, Gratteri said.

“To say anything, a turncoat from the ‘Ndrangheta would have to talk about 300 relatives,” Gratteri, a prosecutor for 18 years, said during an interview in his armored BMW as he drove to an appointment. His bodyguards followed in two police cars.

“They are harder than granite. They are the most compact and the less visible, but by far the most dangerous.”

Whatever great fortunes the Calabrian mob is amassing, they are not visible here in its homeland, where Calabria’s spectacular if shoddily developed coast gives way just a few miles inland to jagged mountains covered with olive trees and cactus.


San Luca, a town that could not be called pretty, sits haphazardly along these ridges at the edge of the Aspromonte range. Its roads are rutted, its trash uncollected. Some houses that started to fall down were left that way; others were halted in mid-construction. There are scores of cars with German license plates, and no outward signs of wealth or even prosperity.

Authorities say the riches are invested elsewhere, in affluent northern Italy and other parts of Europe. It leaves this area as desolate as ever, fertile ground for criminal organizations and despair.

“Young people especially are forced to leave. There is no work and no education,” said a 20-year-old bartender named Giuseppe.

The day before the funerals, the people of San Luca eyed visitors with angry suspicion. They were fed up with prying journalists, resentful of being portrayed as a nest of gangsters and, presumably, were on the lookout for any stranger who might try to carry out the revenge that most people were predicting.

San Luca, like a few rural Italian communities, clings to traditions. Knots of men sat outside cafes, played cards, drank beer and swapped stories in the town’s unkempt plazas. Nary a woman was in sight.

“We are honest people,” a shopkeeper in her 40s said as she scolded a journalist to “write the truth.”

Like everyone spoken to, she would not give her name and mentioned being terrified no fewer than three times in a 20-minute conversation. “Just because there are four or five jerks,” she said, “the whole town is criminalized.”

But when asked about the upcoming funeral, she said she would be there. Out of “solidarity,” she confided.