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Updated: July 15, 2010 03:43 IST

300 held in raids on north Italy’s ‘Ndrangheta mafia

Tom Kington
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A man identified by the Italian police as Domenico Oppedisano, considered the top boss of the powerful 'Ndrangheta crime organisation, rides in a police car, after being arrested in Reggio Calabria on Tuesday.
A man identified by the Italian police as Domenico Oppedisano, considered the top boss of the powerful 'Ndrangheta crime organisation, rides in a police car, after being arrested in Reggio Calabria on Tuesday.

The Italian police mounted one of the biggest crackdowns ever on the shadowy ‘Ndrangheta mafia on Tuesday, seizing assets worth millions of euros and arresting 300 people including the organisation's alleged boss of bosses.

The raids, in which 3,000 officers took part, were part of an investigation which has allowed a glimpse of the Calabrian mafia's new pyramid power structure and exposed its creeping control over businesses and politicians in northern Italy, where 160 of the arrests were carried out.

The Italian Senate stood to applaud the arrests, which were described by Interior Minister Roberto Maroni as “absolutely the most important operation against the ‘Ndrangheta in recent years”.

The arrests of leading members of many of the group's 150 clans, on charges ranging from murder to drugs and arms trafficking to loan sharking, was a blow “to the heart of the ‘Ndrangheta's organisational and financial structure,” added Mr. Maroni.

Once a poor relation of Sicily's Cosa Nostra and the Neapolitan Camorra, the ‘Ndrangheta started life kidnapping for ransom and hiding its victims in the mountainous wilds of Calabria, at the “toe” of the Italian peninsular, before it entered the cocaine trade in partnership with Colombian cartels and built its revenue to an estimated €44 billion, equal to the combined GDP of Slovenia and Estonia.

With clan affiliation based on blood lines, turncoats have been rare and the ‘Ndrangheta has kept a low profile, with the notable exception of the massacre of six men in Duisberg, Germany, in a clan feud in 2008.

Magistrates believed the group was organised in a loose, federation with no overall leader. But after Tuesday's dawn raids investigators said they now believe that, as it has grown, the ‘Ndrangheta has adopted a pyramid-shaped hierarchy similar to Cosa Nostra, and was led by Domenico Oppedisano (80), who was taken into custody in Rosarno, Calabria.

Mr. Oppedisano was reportedly appointed head of the organisation at the marriage of two children of bosses in August 2009 and assumed power at a banquet held at a shrine to the Madonna last September. In one wiretapped conversation he talked of 1,000 affiliates attending one mob congress.

Mr. Oppedisano was “the reference point for the entire organisation”, brokering peace among factions in the south and dividing up public works contracts in northern Italy, said police.

But wiretaps also revealed him to be a consensus seeker.

“For the love of God, when you make a proposal, you listen to the others to see what they think,” he told one mobster.

Mr. Oppedisano's rule extended to Genoa where his alleged local commander, fruit and vegetable trader Domenico Gangemi, was arrested, and to Milan, the new economic hub for the ‘Ndrangheta, where mob-backed businesses have allegedly sought building contracts for the city's Expo in 2015.

In a region that has traditionally ridiculed the south for its fear of the mafia, local businesses were too scared to inform the police of any of hundreds of episodes of intimidation and extortion uncovered by investigators.

Mob justice was equally tough on dissidents within the ranks. In 2008, Milan boss Carmelo Novella was murdered in a bar after he sought to break free from the control of his elders in Calabria.

Investigators said that in addition to the arrest of the mob's alleged current number one in Lombardy, Pino Neri, a number of local politicians, a health authority chief and four policemen were under investigation for collaborating with the ‘Ndrangheta.

Such was the mob's sense of impunity in the north that a get together last October was held in a hall named after Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, a pair of magistrates murdered by the Sicilian mafia. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

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