Inside Europe’s most powerful mafia

Inside Europe's most powerful mafia
05 December 2018, North Rhine-Westphalia, Duisburg: Policemen are standing in an ice cream parlour in the Citypalais in downtown Duisburg. Investigators in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium have raided members of the Italian mafia organisation 'Ndrangheta. Photo: Christoph Reichwein/dpa (Photo by Christoph Reichwein/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Back in 2010, Domenico Oppedisano was often seen taking his fruit to market in the town of Rosarno in southern Italy, chugging around in his three-wheeled van.

But the 80-year old had another job: he was ‘chairman of the board’ of Italy’s most powerful mafia group — the ‘Ndrangheta.

This week, police in four European countries carried out raids on the ‘Ndrangheta’s sprawling empire of money-laundering and drug-trafficking, arresting 90 people.

They described “Operation Pollino” — two years in the making – as a “decisive strike against one of the most powerful Italian criminal networks in the world.”

The operation took place the day after the alleged head, or “godfather,” of the Sicilian mafia, known as Cosa Nostra, was arrested with 46 other people in the Palermo region of Italy on mafia charges.

But Oppedisano, now in jail after being arrested eight years ago, may not be impressed.

The ‘Ndrangheta has been the target of raids and even US Treasury sanctions for well over a decade.

And yet it has entrenched its dominance of the cocaine trade, forging links with organized crime groups in Latin America, New York, Turkey and Albania.

Mafia watchers estimate its turnover is probably in the range of about $60 billion a year — similar to the GDP of Croatia or Bulgaria. And it may control as much as 80% of the cocaine entering Europe.

In the early 1990s, Italian authorities went after the Cosa Nostra in Sicily following the killing of two key prosecutors, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino.

Zora Hauser, a researcher in organized crime at Oxford University, says this both “significantly weakened the Sicilian mafia and absorbed law enforcement resources.”

The ‘Ndrangheta saw an opportunity. It kept a low profile but steadily expanded its activities from its stronghold in the mountain villages of Calabria, the “toe” of southern Italy.

Cecilia Anesi, an investigative journalist who has spent time in the group’s heartlands, says a new generation of leaders wanted to find ways to invest proceeds from kidnapping and protection. The answer was cocaine.

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