The airport at Lamezia Terme, Calabria, in the toe of Italy’s boot, was built in the 1970s and has not aged well. The cement facade is punctuated by rows of round windows that resemble oversize portholes. The parking lot is poorly paved. Beyond it rises an unfinished concrete tower, open to the elements and covered on one side by an advertisement for amaro.
I was there one day last year to meet Nicola Gratteri, the chief prosecutor for nearby Catanzaro, a small city high in the hills of central Calabria. Gratteri has dedicated the past three decades of his life to fighting a Calabria-based organization known as the ’Ndrangheta—the richest, most powerful, and most secretive criminal group in Italy today. (Pronounced en-drahn-get-ta, the word essentially means “man of honor”; it is believed to be derived from the Greek andragathía, or “heroism.”)
Sicily’s Cosa Nostra has been romanticized by the Godfather movies. The Neapolitan Camorra has become widely known through the film and TV series Gomorrah. But the ’Ndrangheta, the least telegenic and most publicity-shy of Italy’s Mafias, is the most aggressive.
The ’Ndrangheta’s tentacles extend to Italy’s wealthy north, where the organization thrives on skimming off state contracts, especially in construction, and to 31 other countries worldwide—to much of Europe, to the United States and Canada, to Colombia, to Australia. Outside Italy, the city with the most ’Ndrangheta outposts is Toronto. The ’Ndrangheta is on excellent terms with criminal affiliates in Latin America, from which it imports vast amounts of cocaine. The group is said to control more than half the cocaine market in Europe. And it has not wasted the opportunities created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Tens of thousands of small businesses throughout Italy suddenly found themselves on the ropes, without revenue or access to credit. For some, the ’Ndrangheta and other criminal groups stepped in with assistance. They also provided envelopes of cash for the unemployed. Call it an investment. As the Financial Times reported, the organization has also skimmed off public-health funds in Calabria, with disastrous consequences for the region’s health-care system.