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Gang link suspected in slaying of six Italians in German city

A 'Ndrangheta feud crossed the border, a Rome official says.

August 16, 2007|Tracy Wilkinson and Christian Retzlaff | Times Staff Writers

ROME — The Italians were seated in two cars outside Da Bruno's pizzeria in the German city of Duisburg, fresh from a birthday party, when gunmen approached in the dark early Wednesday.

In a matter of minutes, the Italians were dead or dying, their cars sprayed with bullets in what officials described as a sharp escalation in a feud within a criminal organization.

The six victims, among them a 16-year-old, were from the southern Italian region of Calabria, domain of one of Italy's most ruthless crime gangs, the 'Ndrangheta. And so, officials say, probably were the killers.

The slayings -- shockingly, on foreign soil -- also suggested a reach of the 'Ndrangheta far beyond what had been acknowledged.

In Rome, Italian Interior Minister Giuliano Amato said the slayings probably were part of a vendetta between clans within the 'Ndrangheta.

"This is the tail-end of a crime between families in San Luca," Amato said at a news conference, referring to the Calabrian town where the feud erupted more than 15 years ago. Authorities were bracing for retaliation in the province, which forms the toe of boot-shaped Italy.

Unlike its more famous counterpart in Sicily, the Costra Nostra, which has focused recently on less spectacular profiteering through corruption and bribes, the 'Ndrangheta is involved in kidnapping, extortion and running drugs, guns and women through southern Europe. It is believed to be one of Europe's largest traffickers of cocaine, with ties to Colombian cartels.

And though the Calabrian organization has been accused of scores of slayings over the years, including the killing of one of the region's top politicians in 2005, it is highly unusual for the violence to spill outside Italy's borders.

Piero Grasso, Italy's senior anti-Mafia prosecutor, said such a case of multiple homicides abroad was an "absolute novelty."

"From the barbarity of it, I'd say they were looking to put a final end to this" feud, he said on Italian television.

Deputy Interior Minister Marco Minniti, appearing with Amato, said, "The presence of the 'Ndrangheta in Germany was known. But the fact that these killings took place not just outside the region where these clans are based, but outside Italy, is extraordinary and unprecedented."

The victims were believed to be members of the Strangio-Nirta family, which has been fighting with the Pelle-Romeo family. They had a truce for a while but the cycle of revenge resumed again last Christmas with the slaying of a clan boss' wife.

One of the men killed in Duisburg had been in Calabria as recently as the weekend, Italian officials said, and reportedly had been seeking ways to protect himself. That may have been the reason he fled to Germany, Amato said.

Duisberg, in western Germany, was once a flourishing industrial center that saw an influx of Italian workers in the 1950s and '60s. It has since slumped along with the steel industry that was its economic base.

Duisburg police were less hasty to link the killings to gang in-fighting.

"We are investigating in all directions," Heinz Sprenger, head of the homicide squad, said at a news conference. "We also can't exclude a family tragedy or a love drama."

About 2 a.m. Wednesday, a passerby heard shots near the city's train station and notified police. A squad car arrived to find two vehicles parked in front of the pizzeria, their windows shattered and doors pocked with bullet holes.

Four of the victims were dead, another died later on the scene and the sixth died on the way to a hospital. Sprenger said the victims had "a large number of gunshot injuries," but he refused to provide more details. Most were shot in the head.

A witness reported seeing two people, possibly the killers, fleeing the scene, Sprenger said.

Two of the dead were visiting from San Luca, and the others, who included two brothers, either worked at the pizzeria or had "financial dealings" with it, officials said. Sprenger would not confirm reports that the pizzeria was suspected of money-laundering but said one of the dead men was "known to police" in connection with counterfeiting.

Italian reports suggested that the pizzeria belonged to a member of one of the Calabrian clans and was the site of a birthday party for one of the slain men.

Italian police were traveling to Duisburg to join in the German investigation, which is expected to rely in part on video from surveillance cameras.


Wilkinson reported from Rome and Retzlaff from Berlin.

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