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Secrecy, family ties mark an Italian mob

The residents of San Luca bury three men killed in a feud as scrutiny falls on the 'Ndrangheta drug cartel.

August 24, 2007|Tracy Wilkinson and Maria De Cristofaro | Times Staff Writers

SAN LUCA, ITALY — Three coffins were delivered to a waiting town just before dusk. Old men and women, their tough-looking sons and their grieving neighbors filled the main square and stood in near silence as church bells tolled and a police helicopter hovered above.

Then the people of San Luca, home to a raging mob feud, broke into steady and loud applause as each coffin was carried into the Santa Maria della Pieta church and laid on an altar awash in white roses and lilies.

Funerals were held Thursday here and in a nearby town for five of the six Italian men killed last week in a machine-gun ambush in Germany, part of what authorities said was a battle involving factions of one of Italy's least known but most powerful criminal gangs, the 'Ndrangheta. The group, which has grown stronger and wealthier in recent years as it shifted from kidnappings to drug and weapons trafficking, is said to take in tens of billions of dollars in illicit revenue annually.

Fearing reprisal killings, police inspected cars arriving at the funerals Thursday and banned the traditional procession from the church to the cemetery. But some relatives vowed not to avenge but to forgive -- wearing white instead of black.

The slayings outside a pizzeria in Duisburg, Germany, cast a spotlight on the highly secretive drug cartel that is based here in the Calabria region of southern Italy. They also stunned Italians because of the level of brutality (one of the dead was just 16) and the way in which the violence had spilled onto foreign soil.

"We have hit bottom," Father Giuseppe Strangio said as he prepared to eulogize Francesco Giorgi, the 16-year-old, and two others. "Something has got to change."

Choosing unusually blunt language, the priest, who shares a last name with one of the feuding clans, implored his congregation to choose justice and "not the weapons of hatred and vendetta."

"My request -- my appeal -- is that we condemn energetically any type of Mafia," he said. "We must condemn and rebel against this evil that perverts the good in each one of us. . . . We are all responsible."

Some in the congregation cast their eyes downward as the priest spoke. Most of the mourners filling the pews were women, with a few rows of men in the back. Several hundred grim-faced men, and more women, stood outside through the hour-long service.

In the 'Ndrangheta's tight-knit and insular culture, it is often said that the women determine the spilling of blood and the waging of vendettas. At the funeral here, both Francesco's mother, Teresa, and the mother of another of the dead men, Marco Marmo, said they were prepared to forgive the killers.

If that proves sincere, another bloodbath that many officials fear might be averted. But some authorities remained convinced that the rancor would continue to fester and eventually explode again.

Police believe Marmo was the intended target of the Aug. 15 hit, with the other five victims becoming collateral damage when the group left the pizzeria together after a birthday party. Marmo had fled to Germany a few days before the ambush purportedly to escape threatened retaliation.

The San Luca feud, as it is known, began 16 years ago when families fought over something involving carnival celebrations. Roughly one person a year was killed until 2000, when something of a truce took effect.

But last Christmas, the feud erupted anew when a gunman (possibly Marmo, according to police) attempted to kill the leader of one clan over disputes in the drug business. The gunman failed, but killed the man's wife, unleashing another spasm of violence.

This kind of internecine killing is, in a way, a mere sideshow to the gigantic business that the 'Ndrangheta manages.

Authorities say the 'Ndrangheta (pronounced en-DRAHN-geh-tah) controls an illicit empire that hauls in an estimated $50 billion annually from drug and weapons trafficking, extortion and counterfeiting. By dealing directly with Colombian cartels and nudging out other competitors, the 'Ndrangheta now has a near monopoly on the cocaine trade in Europe, according to Nicola Gratteri, lead anti-mob prosecutor in Calabria.

Though the Sicily-based Cosa Nostra has dominated the headlines and popular culture for a generation, it has in reality been eclipsed by its Calabrian counterpart in terms of power and wealth, Gratteri said.

Like other crime syndicates, the 'Ndrangheta emerged two centuries ago and evolved after World War II, in part as a protection racket in sorely neglected southern Italy. Its name derives from a Greek word meaning heroism or virtue. It also made big scores by kidnapping the children of Italian industrialists and other wealthy families.

(One of the most notorious cases was the 1973 abduction in Rome of the grandson of J. Paul Getty. His kidnappers cut off his ears and mailed them to a newspaper before a ransom eventually won his release.)

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