GIOIA TAURO, ITALY — Europe is fast overtaking the U.S. as the leading destination for the world's cocaine, and a single Italian mafia is largely responsible.
The 'Ndrangheta crime syndicate, a ruthless and mysterious network of 155 families born in the rough hills here in southern Italy's Calabria region, now dominates the European drug trade. By establishing direct ties with Colombian producers and building a multibillion-dollar empire that spans five continents, the syndicate has metamorphosed into one of the craftiest criminal gangs in the world, authorities say.
" 'Ndrangheta is king," said Sabas Pretelt de la Vega, a former Colombian interior minister who is his country's ambassador to Rome.
The 'Ndrangheta (pronounced en-DRAHN-geh-tah) peculiarly combines the modern skills of multinational-corporation high finance with a stubborn grip on archaic rural traditions. Some members live in garishly opulent villas outside Madrid and invest in bustling restaurants and hotels in Germany, whereas others, including key bosses, remain in the dreary, closed Calabrian mountain villages of their birth. It is a mafia of businessmen in Dolce & Gabbana, of sheepherders in scruffy woolens.
Its success stems from moving early and unwaveringly into cocaine trafficking while avoiding the kind of public limelight (and police crackdown) focused on its better-known Sicilian counterpart, the Mafia, or "Cosa Nostra."
Working from "the toe of Italy's boot," a region historically neglected and ignored, the 'Ndrangheta maintains a hard-as-stone code of silence that repels most penetration efforts by police and other authorities. And because each family is a cell cooperating only loosely with other families and without a central hierarchy, the capture of a leader here or there does not even dent the organization.
Over the last two decades, the syndicate has deployed its members to strategic locations along trafficking and distribution routes, in Colombia and Venezuela, Canada, Africa, Spain and as far as Australia. It takes orders from buyers in Europe (including other mafiosi) and brokers deals with the suppliers in Colombia.
The 'Ndrangheta gained the confidence of the Colombians, eliminated the middlemen and dealt as readily with the leftist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, as with the right-wing paramilitaries of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, two groups that exercise major control over cocaine production in Colombia.
The personal contact, the guarantee of secrecy and the reliability of the business transactions all have made the 'Ndrangheta mobster an appealing partner for the Colombians.
"He is seen as a man of his word. He pays in cash. He pays immediately," said Renato Cortese, a regional commander of the state anti-mafia police. "And he never talks."
For income, the 'Ndrangheta has chosen a lucrative and expanding market.
By some estimates, including that of Pretelt de la Vega, the Colombian diplomat, the amount of cocaine being shipped to Europe exceeds that going to the United States, a reversal of the historical pattern. Italian authorities give lower figures, saying cocaine shipments are divided half-and-half between Europe and the United States, and U.S. officials cite older statistics that show more cocaine flowing to American shores.
Whatever the amounts, no one disputes that the cocaine market in the United States has stabilized, whereas that of Europe is growing. Seizures of cocaine in Europe have doubled in the last five years, although they remain a small portion of global interceptions, according to the latest report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Usage of cocaine in Europe, meanwhile, has skyrocketed, up by a million users last year, to 4.5 million continent-wide, according to the European Union's drug-monitoring center in Lisbon. Leading the pack are Britain, Spain, Denmark and Italy.
"The decline in the United States is offset by alarming increases in some European countries," the U.N. said.
Although Cosa Nostra has dominated international headlines and popular culture for a generation, it has been eclipsed by its Calabrian counterpart in terms of power and wealth, said Nicola Gratteri, the region's top anti-mafia prosecutor.
The 'Ndrangheta, which is thought to have business assets worth at least $50 billion, grew as a protection racket in impoverished southern Italy after World War II and then began to make big money with kidnappings (including the abduction and grisly mutilation of the grandson of oil billionaire J. Paul Getty in 1973). The name comes from a Greek word meaning "virtue" or "heroism."
Eventually the group shifted to drugs and weapons trafficking, and by the '90s was awash in cash, which it began laundering through real estate and other businesses.
A turning point