Little-known mafia is cocaine ‘king’

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Europe is fast overtaking the U.S. as the leading destination for the world’s cocaine, and a single Italian mafia is largely responsible.

The ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate, a ruthless and mysterious network of 155 families born in the rough hills here in southern Italy’s Calabria region, now dominates the European drug trade. By establishing direct ties with Colombian producers and building a multibillion-dollar empire that spans five continents, the syndicate has metamorphosed into one of the craftiest criminal gangs in the world, authorities say.

“ ‘Ndrangheta is king,” said Sabas Pretelt de la Vega, a former Colombian interior minister who is his country’s ambassador to Rome.


The ‘Ndrangheta (pronounced en-DRAHN-geh-tah) peculiarly combines the modern skills of multinational-corporation high finance with a stubborn grip on archaic rural traditions. Some members live in garishly opulent villas outside Madrid and invest in bustling restaurants and hotels in Germany, whereas others, including key bosses, remain in the dreary, closed Calabrian mountain villages of their birth. It is a mafia of businessmen in Dolce & Gabbana, of sheepherders in scruffy woolens.

Its success stems from moving early and unwaveringly into cocaine trafficking while avoiding the kind of public limelight (and police crackdown) focused on its better-known Sicilian counterpart, the Mafia, or “Cosa Nostra.”

Working from “the toe of Italy’s boot,” a region historically neglected and ignored, the ‘Ndrangheta maintains a hard-as-stone code of silence that repels most penetration efforts by police and other authorities. And because each family is a cell cooperating only loosely with other families and without a central hierarchy, the capture of a leader here or there does not even dent the organization.

Over the last two decades, the syndicate has deployed its members to strategic locations along trafficking and distribution routes, in Colombia and Venezuela, Canada, Africa, Spain and as far as Australia. It takes orders from buyers in Europe (including other mafiosi) and brokers deals with the suppliers in Colombia.

The ‘Ndrangheta gained the confidence of the Colombians, eliminated the middlemen and dealt as readily with the leftist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, as with the right-wing paramilitaries of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, two groups that exercise major control over cocaine production in Colombia.

The personal contact, the guarantee of secrecy and the reliability of the business transactions all have made the ‘Ndrangheta mobster an appealing partner for the Colombians.


“He is seen as a man of his word. He pays in cash. He pays immediately,” said Renato Cortese, a regional commander of the state anti-mafia police. “And he never talks.”


Expanding market

For income, the ‘Ndrangheta has chosen a lucrative and expanding market.

By some estimates, including that of Pretelt de la Vega, the Colombian diplomat, the amount of cocaine being shipped to Europe exceeds that going to the United States, a reversal of the historical pattern. Italian authorities give lower figures, saying cocaine shipments are divided half-and-half between Europe and the United States, and U.S. officials cite older statistics that show more cocaine flowing to American shores.

Whatever the amounts, no one disputes that the cocaine market in the United States has stabilized, whereas that of Europe is growing. Seizures of cocaine in Europe have doubled in the last five years, although they remain a small portion of global interceptions, according to the latest report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Usage of cocaine in Europe, meanwhile, has skyrocketed, up by a million users last year, to 4.5 million continent-wide, according to the European Union’s drug-monitoring center in Lisbon. Leading the pack are Britain, Spain, Denmark and Italy.

“The decline in the United States is offset by alarming increases in some European countries,” the U.N. said.

Although Cosa Nostra has dominated international headlines and popular culture for a generation, it has been eclipsed by its Calabrian counterpart in terms of power and wealth, said Nicola Gratteri, the region’s top anti-mafia prosecutor.


The ‘Ndrangheta, which is thought to have business assets worth at least $50 billion, grew as a protection racket in impoverished southern Italy after World War II and then began to make big money with kidnappings (including the abduction and grisly mutilation of the grandson of oil billionaire J. Paul Getty in 1973). The name comes from a Greek word meaning “virtue” or “heroism.”

Eventually the group shifted to drugs and weapons trafficking, and by the ‘90s was awash in cash, which it began laundering through real estate and other businesses.


A turning point

The fall of the Berlin Wall was a turning point, recalled Piero Grasso, Italy’s senior anti-mafia prosecutor. In conversations recorded by police, members of the Calabrian mob plotted a mad buying spree in the newly available former Soviet bloc. “Buy everything!” was the watchword.

“And today they know no borders,” Grasso said.

Here in Calabria, they also enjoy access to the Gioia Tauro port, one of the largest and busiest of the Mediterranean. Authorities say it is a transshipment point for unmeasured pounds of cocaine. Of the estimated 3,500 40-foot cargo containers that arrive daily, only about 25 are opened for inspection, so finding drugs is as much luck as skill, police say.

Suspicions were raised recently about a Uruguayan shipment to Greece marked “lemons.” Why would a Mediterranean country like Greece need to import lemons from Uruguay? Inside a batch of rotting lemons, inspectors found 220 pounds of cocaine.

“Drugs are burying us,” said Col. Francesco Gazzani, regional head of the Italian finance police.


In their investigations, Italian police and prosecutors working with Colombian, Spanish and U.S. authorities have recorded thousands of telephone calls and documented meetings and other communication between the ‘Ndrangheta and Colombian traffickers.

In one photographed surveillance stakeout, four people from Latin America and Calabria can be seen sitting in broad daylight at one of Milan’s most fashionable outdoor cafes, against a backdrop of rose-colored marble columns and the Duomo cathedral. They discuss a cocaine deal, then one of them casually walks to a nearby pay phone and places the order.

In another surveillance, a suspected ‘Ndrangheta gangster telephones a number in Colombia, a person with a Calabrian accent answers and then simply whistles, and the caller says, “I understand.” Authorities say it was a signal that a shipment had departed.

One of the strongest links between the ‘Ndrangheta and the Colombians, investigators say, was Roberto Pannunzi, an alleged mafia chieftain who was one of the top cocaine brokers in the syndicate when he was arrested in 2004 as part of Operation Zappa, a five-year investigation named after a gangster code word for “gun.”

“Every important criminal figure went to him,” said Diego Trotta, a member of an elite police squad that captured Pannunzi.

Pannunzi, 59, married his son Alessandro into a notorious family from Colombia’s Medellin cartel as a way to cement the bonds. At the height of his activities, authorities say, he was buying 3,300 to 4,400 pounds of cocaine a month. He boasted of the ease and confidence with which he handled his Colombian suppliers.


“The fact is, Barba [a Colombian trafficker] will give us everything without even a lira,” Pannunzi told alleged ‘Ndrangheta operative Paolo Sergi, the target of another long-running probe, according to a confidential wiretap made available to The Times.

“What do you think -- is the same amount available like the last time, or maybe less?” Pannunzi’s interlocutor wonders.

“Barba, at least, told me that he has 3 million [3,000 kilograms, or 6,600 pounds, of cocaine] and I’m thinking 500 or 700,” Pannunzi responds, using a numeric code for the price.

A beefy man with dark wavy hair, Pannunzi amassed such an enormous fortune, investigators say, that he at one point simply threw away millions of dollars worth of liras because the bills had been stacked so high and for so long that they became moldy.


Back to ancestral home

Perhaps one of the most surprising features of the ‘Ndrangheta is that despite its fortunes, its members always come back to their ancestral home in Calabria, almost as a spiritual touchstone. Though they form clones of their home villages the world over, an internal code obliges them to report back to the mother ship, said Gratteri, the top regional ant-mafia prosecutor.

“You have to look at what this place gives them. Each top ‘Ndranghista is an emperor,” said Gratteri, whose work has earned him round-the-clock bodyguards and transport in an armored car.


“He has the perverse pleasure to be able to decide the life or death of 3,000, 5,000, maybe 10,000 people. He decides who lives. He decides who is going to be mayor. He decides who is going to win the state contracts. For the perverse mind, this is very gratifying.”

Each family assigns a member to a certain criminal enterprise; if a son is good in math, he might get the loan-shark business, whereas an engineer would handle the acquisition of lucrative state building contracts, a major area of corruption.

The tightness of the family network also has thwarted efforts by authorities to infiltrate the crime gang. Several years ago, when the government offered reduced jail time to mafiosi who would inform on their cohorts, hundreds of Cosa Nostra operatives ‘fessed up. But only a few people associated with the ‘Ndrangheta agreed to become turncoats, and most of these were such minor figures that they had little to offer.

“Every clan is a little Sparta,” militarized and willing to fight to the end, often egged on by the women of the family, said anti-mafia prosecutor Alberto Cisterna.

Through the years, most killings by the ‘Ndrangheta have been the result of internal feuds or have targeted relatively low-level officials, inspiring little public outrage. That changed last summer with a bloody ambush outside a pizzeria in Duisburg, Germany. At least two gunmen from one ‘Ndrangheta family killed six members of a rival clan, shocking Italians and Germans because of the brutality of the attack and the extent to which the mafia had settled in Germany.

The slayings were the latest explosion of a long-running internal feud that had at its root a power struggle over territory and business, investigators say.


In the more than four months since the Duisburg massacre, Italian and German police have arrested about 40 suspected mobsters, men and women. But no one has any illusions that this represents a setback for the Calabrian mafia.

“ ‘Ndrangheta are the leader in Europe when it comes to trafficking cocaine,” Gratteri said, “and their trafficking is getting stronger all the time.”


Times staff writers Maria De Cristofaro in Rome and Calabria and Chris Kraul in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.