EXPLAINED: What is Italy’s ‘Ndrangheta mafia?

With the Italian mafias in the media spotlight this week following the start of a 'maxi-trial' with more 350 defendants, here's a closer look at the 'Ndrangheta organised crime group.

EXPLAINED: What is Italy's 'Ndrangheta mafia?
Police and soldiers escort suspected 'Ndrangheta boss Salvatore Coluccio following his arrest in 2009. File photo: AFP

When the mafia is mentioned, many people outside Italy will immediately think of Sicily’s notorious Cosa Nostra.

But Italy in fact has five major mafias, and in recent years other groups have become increasingly powerful – across Italy and beyond.

READ ALSO: ‘Ndrangheta: Italy kicks off mafia ‘maxi-trial’ with 355 defendants

The ‘Ndrangheta, rooted in the southern region of Calabria, has surpassed the more famous Cosa Nostra to become Italy’s most powerful mafia group, operating across the world.

The ‘maxi-trial’ now taking place in the groups heartland in Calabria, which has more than 350 defendants, concerns just one ‘clan’ or crime family within the wider ‘Ndrangheta organisation.

Inside the specially-designed courtroom in Calabria as the maxi-trial began on January 11, 2021. Photo: Gianluca Chininea/AFP


Criminologist Anna Sergi, of the University of Essex in England, says the group’s name has Greek origins – the word “andranghateia” refers to a “feat
of bravery”, and “andrangatho” means “to do military actions”.

The group has only been classed as mafia under Italian law since 2010, but it dates back at least to the unification of Italy in 1861.

It came to public prominence in the 1980s and 1990s in a series of kidnappings across Italy, and affiliates are believed to have been responsible for kidnapping oil tycoon John Paul Getty’s grandson.

Main activities

Judge Roberto Di Bella, who has almost 30 years of experience in the methods of the Calabrian mob, describes the ‘Ndrangheta as “perhaps the most
powerful criminal organisation in the world, but certainly the most diffuse, and present on five continents”.

Its activities have expanded well beyond those typical of organised crime groups – drug trafficking, extortion, illegal waste trafficking and money
laundering – to infiltrate practically all areas of public life in Calabria, while using shell companies to invest in the legitimate economy worldwide.


But what makes the ‘Ndrangheta different from other mafia groups is its family structure – it is based on blood ties, rather than external recruitment based on merit, which makes it “very reliable, because there are few turncoats”, Di Bella told AFP.

This is one of the reasons why Colombian or Mexican drugs producers have used the ‘Ndrangheta to sell in Europe.

“The enormous flow of money that comes from drugs allows the ‘Ndrangheta to buy everything – businesses, restaurants – to pollute the economy not just
of Italy but of many other countries in the world,” he said.

Police in Milan display photos of suspected cocaine traffickers, some with links to the ‘Ndrangheta mafia, in 2009. File photo: AFP

Authorities believe there are some 150 ‘Ndrangheta families in Calabria and at least 6,000 members and affiliates in the region. That swells to thousands more when including those worldwide, although estimates are unreliable.
The organised crime group generates more than 50 billion euros ($61 billion) per year, according to Gratteri, who called it the world’s richest such organisation.
Nicola Gratteri, the leading prosecutor at the maxi-trial in Calabria, explained that the ‘Ndrangheta as a network of families, each of which wield power over subordinates.

“I have to start with the idea that there’s an organisation, as in a business, as in a large multinational, with a boss and then down, like a pyramid, to all the other members,” Gratteri told AFP, explaining the need for the “maxi-trial”.

The current trial focuses on just one family, the Mancuso group, and its network of associates who control the Vibo Valentia area of Calabria.

How much is it worth?

The ‘Ndrangheta’s true make-up and wealth are difficult to establish but authorities believe there are some 150 ‘Ndrangheta families in Calabria and at least 6,000 members and affiliates in the region, with thousands more worldwide.

Gratteri estimates the group generates an annual turnover of more than 50 billion euros ($61 billion) – much of it from cocaine trafficking.

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Family of Italian student murdered in Cairo seek justice in new trial

A second trial of four Egyptian security officers accused of kidnapping and brutally murdering student Giulio Regeni in 2016 opened in Rome on Tuesday, with his parents vowing to uncover the truth.

Family of Italian student murdered in Cairo seek justice in new trial

Giulio Regeni, 28, had been conducting academic research when he was abducted in January 2016. His body was found nine days later, dumped on the outskirts of the Egyptian capital, bearing extensive signs of torture.

The murder severely strained ties between Italy and Egypt, while Italian MPs later accused Cairo of being “openly hostile” to attempts to try the suspects.

In 2021, Italian judges threw out the first trial the day it opened because prosecutors had not been able to officially inform the four suspects of the procedures against them.

But the Constitutional Court ruled in September that the case could go ahead in their absence.

On the new trial’s opening day Tuesday, Regeni’s parents, Claudio and Paola, and his sister Irene unfurled a large yellow banner bearing the words “Truth for Giulio Regeni”, before entering the court.

After a hearing that lasted one-and-a-half hours, the family’s lawyer, Alessandra Ballerini, said her clients looked forward to “finally (having) a trial against those who did all the evil in the world to Giulio.”

“We have been waiting eight years for this moment,” Ballerini told journalists outside the courtroom.

None of the four defendants – General Tariq Sabir, Colonels Athar Kamel and Uhsam Helmi, and Major Magdi Ibrahim Abdelal Sharif – were present in court.

All face charges of kidnapping, while Sharif is also charged with inflicting the fatal injuries on Regeni.

Defence lawyers asked that the case be thrown out, arguing that the charges indiscriminately targeted the group without attributing specific acts to each individual.

The court said it would rule on their legal objections at the next hearing on March 18th.

Ahead of the trial, the court-appointed defence lawyer for Kamel, Tranquillino Sarno, told AFP that the four men were “absolutely untraceable.”

Even if they were convicted they would “certainly not serve their sentences”, he said.

Investigators believe Regeni was abducted and killed after being mistaken for a foreign spy. As part of his doctoral work, Regeni had been researching Egyptian trade unions, a particularly sensitive political issue.

His mother later said his body had been so badly mutilated that she recognised her son only by the “tip of his nose”.

Five of his teeth had been broken, 15 of his bones had been fractured and letters had been inscribed into his flesh, according to the family’s lawyer.

An Italian parliamentary commission found in December 2021 – just weeks after the case was thrown out – that Egypt’s security agency was to blame for Regeni’s death.

It also accused Egypt’s judiciary of acting in an “obstructive and openly hostile manner” by failing to disclose the whereabouts of the defendants.

In December 2020, all four suspects as well as a fifth were cleared of responsibility for Regeni’s murder by Egypt’s public prosecutor, who said he would drop the case.

By AFP’s Ljubomir Milasin