The mafias of Italy: the old guard and the upstarts
FILE PHOTO: A US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) officer (L) and Italian police officer (R) escort Thomas Gambino after he was arrested in Palermo during an police/FBI operation called ‘New Connection’ in Palermo on 17 July 2019. (Photo by Alessandro Fucarini / AFP)
Hollywood made the Cosa Nostra famous, but Italy has other organized crime groups, the youngest of which — the “Fourth Mafia”, based in Foggia in the southeast — is making a violent name for itself.
Here is a brief summary of the four main Italian mafias today.
When most people think of the mafia, they think of the “Godfather” movies, which were inspired by the Cosa Nostra.
For years, the Sicilian Mafia terrorized the Italian public and state, with its highest-profile killings that of anti-mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in 1992.
But those attacks brought a fierce state clampdown that diminished its power, with the latest blow the arrest in January of Cosa Nostra boss Matteo Messina Denaro after 30 years on the run.
The Cosa Nostra in recent years has shifted to lower-profile strategies of infiltrating local public administration and businesses, and has links abroad, particularly with New York, according to the most recent report by Italy’s anti-mafia investigators (DIA).
Rooted in the poor southern region of Calabria, the once rural ‘Ndrangheta is considered Italy’s wealthiest and most powerful mafia, with a growing global reach now covering more than 40 countries.
The ‘Ndrangheta’s web of family-based clans is heavily involved in drug trafficking, controlling the bulk of cocaine flowing into Europe. The group is a “privileged partner” of South American drug producers, according to the DIA.
Illegal profits from drugs, extortion, and the rigging of public contracts are laundered and reinvested into the legal economy, from real estate to finance, making it increasingly difficult to trace the ‘Ndrangheta’s billions.
Despite occasional horrific crimes like dissolving victims in acid, the ‘Ndrangheta now prefers to operate under the radar. A huge “maxi-trial” with over 300 defendants opened in 2021, lifting the lid on the web of politicians, lawyers, and businessmen accused of enabling them.
The Camorra operates throughout the southern Campania region and its capital Naples, with its clans controlling different areas.
The lack of a family-based structure like the ‘Ndrangheta results in frequent feuding between clans and in the poor, crowded metropolis of Naples, where the use of teenage recruits helps maintain the mafia’s grip.
Outside Italy, the Camorra is best known from Roberto Saviano’s 2006 book, “Gomorrah”, later turned into a movie and television series, chronicling the mafia’s workings around the gritty housing projects of Scampia, once considered Europe’s largest open-air drug market.
Besides drug trafficking, contract fixing, and infiltrating local public institutions, the Camorra has been heavily involved in the illegal dumping of toxic waste that has polluted vast areas around Naples.
Outside Italy, the Camorra has most of its drug trafficking and money laundering interests in Spain.
Sometimes referred to as Italy’s “Fourth Mafia”, the mafia operating across the vast province of Foggia in the southern region of Puglia is the country’s youngest, and least evolved, with its origins in the Camorra.
Today authorities consider it Italy’s most violent organized crime syndicate, due to its many battalions jockeying for position while carrying out a wide array of crimes.
Extortion of local businesses and farmers is widespread, as well as drug trafficking — with drugs arriving from Albania — armed robberies, theft of property for ransom, and contract-fixing.
The Foggia mafia has recently worried authorities by becoming more successful at infiltrating public institutions, while a high rate of juvenile delinquency has increased locals’ feelings of insecurity.
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