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Five things to know about Italy's 'Ndrangheta mafia

Five things to know about Italy's 'Ndrangheta mafia
German police arrest a suspect 'Ndrangheta member on May 3, 2023. Photo by Alex Talash / AFP.

The arrests across Europe on Wednesday of 132 people linked to the 'Ndrangheta mafia underscores the international tentacles of this powerful, wealthy Italian organised crime syndicate. 

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The 'Ndrangheta, rooted in the southern region of Calabria, has surpassed Sicily's better-known Cosa Nostra to become Italy's most powerful mafia group, now operating across the world.

Here are five things to know about the organised crime group:

Origins

The 'Ndrangheta is rooted in the poor, rural region of Calabria, at the toe of Italy's boot, and dates back at least to the unification of Italy in 1861.

Its name, derived from Greek, refers to valour, and top members today continue to be sworn into the group in formal ceremonies.

Long dismissed as a purely rural phenomenon - and overshadowed by the more visible Costa Nostra - it came to public attention in the 1980s and 1990s in a series of kidnappings across Italy.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What is Italy's 'Ndrangheta mafia?

Affiliates are believed to have been responsible for kidnapping the grandson of US-born oil tycoon John Paul Getty in 1973, severing his ear to help procure a ransom.

It was only in 2010 that Italy first classified the 'Ndrangheta as a mafia organisation under the law.

A police officer conducts an anti-mafia raid on a garage in Hagen, western Germany, on May 3, 2023.

A police officer conducts an anti-mafia raid on a garage in Germany, on May 3, 2023. Photo by Alex Talash / AFP.

Main activities

Controlling the bulk of cocaine flowing into Europe, the 'Ndrangheta has far surpassed Sicily's Cosa Nostra in power and wealth.

Now extending far beyond its Calabrian rural roots, it now operates internationally, in over 40 countries around the world.

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Besides its main source of wealth, drug trafficking, it is involved in money laundering, extortion, trafficking of illegal waste and other criminal activities, using shell companies to invest illegal gains in the legitimate economy worldwide.

READ ALSO: More than 100 suspected Italian mafia members arrested in Europe-wide raids

Within its home base of Calabria, the extent of the 'Ndrangheta's reach in the local economy - infiltrating public sectors from town halls to hospitals - has made it nearly impossible to eradicate.

Outside Italy within Europe, it is seen primarily in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain, whose ports are the main entry points for cocaine in Europe, with the 'Ndrangheta often working in conjunction with other organised crime groups.

The 'Ndrangheta's family structure - with individual 'clans' based on blood ties - has meant that the mafia has relatively few turncoats, frustrating authorities' attempts to crack down on the group.

How much is it worth?

The 'Ndrangheta's wealth is difficult to establish but authorities believe there are some 150 'Ndrangheta families in Calabria and at least 6,000 members and affiliates in the region, with thousands more worldwide.

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READ ALSO: Italy's 'Ndrangheta mafia 'on all continents' and still growing

Nicola Gratteri, a leading anti-mafia magistrate in Calabria, estimates the group generates an annual turnover of more than 50 billion euros ($61 billion) - much of it from cocaine trafficking.

International response

The international scope of the 'Ndrangheta has forced Italian authorities to seek help from their global counterparts.

In 2020, Italy set up the "I-CAN" program through Interpol to educate other countries where the 'Ndrangheta has a presence about this specific mafia and encourage information-sharing.

A police officer in Vibo Valentia, Calabria, one of the 'Ndrangheta's former strongholds.

A police officer in Vibo Valentia, Calabria, one of the 'Ndrangheta's former strongholds. Photo by Gianluca CHININEA / AFP.

Italy has relied on overseas law enforcement for help in locating - and arresting - fugitive 'Ndrangheta members.

As of last month, 46 'Ndrangheta members had been arrested around the world in conjunction with the program.

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READ ALSO: Top Italian 'Ndrangheta boss arrested after five years on the run

The most famous is Rocco Morabito, one of Italy's most wanted fugitives, who was arrested in 2021 in Brazil, following his escape from a prison in Uruguay in 2019.

Details that emerged during the investigation into Morabito in South America helped shed light on arms' trafficking by the 'Ndrangheta in exchange for cocaine, as alleged by authorities Wednesday in their announcement of the arrests.

Maxi-trial

The 'Ndrangheta is the focus of an ongoing "maxi-trial" in Calabria, with more than 300 alleged 'Ndrangheta members on the dock.

The largest anti-mafia trial in over three decades, which began in January 2021 and is expected to wrap up soon, focuses on just one Calabrian province, Vibo Valentia.

Alleged crimes include murder, money laundering, drug trafficking and abuse of office.

The trial has shed light on the 'Ndrangheta's close contacts with politicians and business figures that have helped the mafia to infiltrate nearly all areas of commerce.

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