Italy’s most wanted

Blood Ties: The ’Ndrangheta: Italy’s New Mafia, by Claudio Antonelli and Gianluigi Nuzzi, Pan Books, 256 pages

The Honoured Society: The Secret History of Italy’s Most Powerful Mafia, by Petra Reski, Atlantic Books, RRP£17.99, 286 pages

A rope tied around his ankles and already roughed up by his abductors, the wealthy accountant is lowered slowly from a railway bridge into the moonlit river Adda some 20 metres below. “We put his head underwater for about a minute and then pulled him up to let him breathe for another three minutes. He started screaming, louder and louder. We repeated the process about 10 times, until he gave in. By then his voice was so shrill it sounded like a woman’s. He promised to do anything we asked him to do. Of course, we wanted his buildings.”

Another mafia extortion operation is successfully completed. What makes this account so remarkable, however, is its direct telling by a mafioso and also that it took place not in the mafia heartlands of southern Italy but near the picturesque lakeside town of Lecco, close to Switzerland. The narrator is Giuseppe Di Bella, that most precious of weapons in Italy’s war against the mafia – a pentito, or penitent, who has turned state evidence against his former bosses and must spend the rest of his life in hiding, in constant fear of a knock on the door.

Di Bella’s account of his life of crime delivers chilling insights into the workings, structure and reach of the ’Ndrangheta, which has emerged in recent years as the most powerful of Italy’s four dominant mafia groups, stretching its cocaine-enriched tentacles from impoverished mountain redoubts in the region of Calabria in Italy’s deep south, through the rich industrial north and beyond into Europe.

Out of the blue, Di Bella, who had been co-operating with anti-mafia magistrates under a protection programme, contacts Gianluigi Nuzzi, an Italian journalist, who together with his colleague, Claudio Antonelli, visits him repeatedly at several clandestine locations. His story is retold dispassionately in Blood Ties, now translated into English from the original Metastasi, which became a bestseller in Italy when first published in 2010.

Eurispes, a research institute, estimated the 2008 turnover of the ’Ndrangheta clans at more than €44bn, almost 3 per cent of Italy’s economy. More than 60 per cent derives from its “semi-monopoly” over the European cocaine trade, supplemented by gun-running, human trafficking and extortion rackets. A constant theme running through Blood Ties is how the ’Ndrangheta successfully launders its income through “legitimate” businesses such as bars, hotels, pizzerias and factories across Europe, often contracting out operations through alliances with foreign criminal organisations, particularly ones from China.

Di Bella relates a turning point in 1992, when ’Ndrangheta bosses met their Chinese counterparts in a basement storeroom near Milan, again in Italy’s vibrant north, to discuss sharing out markets in textiles, clothing, restaurants and other outlets. “It wasn’t just a local agreement; it was a big deal; they were carving up the whole of Italy,” he recounts. Drug dealing was outsourced to Africans; Albanians were given first a remit for prostitution and later arms; the “Slavs” specialised in trafficking women and were used as hitmen “when accounts needed settling”.

The recession plays into mafia hands too, “their supermarket trolley piled high with bankrupt businesses, answerable to no one”. Bound tightly by almost impenetrable family ties, the ’Ndrangheta has corrupted its way into the political world, organs of government, trade unions, courts and the police. Local elections are rigged and politicians reward their sponsors, often with construction contracts.

The ’Ndrangheta is believed to dominate the earthmoving equipment sector in northern Italy, with the authors warning that the “billion dollar cake” of Expo 2015 – the World Fair to be hosted by Milan – “is ready to be sliced up”. Nuzzi and Antonelli reach grim conclusions for the future of a “dithering” Italy faced with this criminal onslaught, and a Europe that does not understand that fighting the ’Ndrangheta should be a top priority. The cancer will spread inexorably until it does.

Little hope, either, for Di Bella. The authors recall how in 2009 a former state witness, Lea Garofalo, was abducted, killed and dissolved in acid. The process is called lupara bianca – “white shotgun”, where no trace of the victim is found. Felice “Angel Face” Maniero, another pentito, escaped an attempt on his life but the next month his 30-year-old daughter fell to her death from a fourth-floor flat. The unconvincing official verdict was suicide.

As if in a novel, the character of Di Bella, both resolute and resigned, builds up as the book progresses. Living with his young disturbed son, he knows they will get him in the end, his confessions having led to the arrests and convictions of dozens of mobsters. “One fine day you’ll be sitting quietly at a table in a restaurant, or maybe at the wheel of your car, lighting a cigarette. Several years will have gone by and you’ll have forgotten all about it. You won’t be thinking you have to die. That’s when they’ll kill you ... It might even take as long as 10 years, because the ’Ndrangheta are quite happy to let a decade pass if they have to. Then someone will come knocking at your door.”

A similarly depressing tale of the mafia grip on society is told by Petra Reski, a German journalist who has lived in Italy since 1989. The Honoured Society: The Secret History of Italy’s Most Powerful Mafia promises, at least according to the book cover, a searing portrait of the criminals who have come to control not only Italy but “vast tracts” of Europe. Its starting point is the August 2007 attack by ’Ndrangheta hitmen on the Da Bruno pizzeria in the German town of Duisburg. Six men were riddled with bullets in a settling of inter-clan scores.

A reader led to expect a ground-breaking account of the ’Ndrangheta’s move into Europe will come away sorely disappointed, however. Reski begins promisingly enough with her account of being a defendant in a German court against an (unidentified) plaintiff who is apparently suing her for libel following the original publication of the German version in 2008. Intriguingly, some passages are blacked out as a result of the lawsuit, seemingly to do with alleged ties between leading German figures and the ’Ndrangheta.

But the bulk of her rambling work is devoted instead to the well-trodden theme of Sicily’s Cosa Nostra. Still, in a structure of chapters built around individuals, Reski does include a frightening image of Don Pino Strangio, a priest in the ’Ndrangheta village stronghold of San Luca, who defends his ministrations to mafia bosses, unwittingly revealing the equivocal relationship between Church and gangsters.

Reski’s reportage colourfully brings to life the sights, smells and sounds of Sicily, highlighting the robustly supportive role given to mafia murderers by their womenfolk. Her own portrait of a pentito is compelling in the figure of Marcello Fava, a former Cosa Nostra killer with “sea-blue eyes, a little double-chin and womanly lips”, whose craving for “respect” and pseudo-religious incantations chill the blood.

Reski’s overriding message – and here she cites her friend Letizia Battaglia, the photographer and anti-mafia activist – is that the “battle is lost”. This may be true in the case of Calabria’s ’Ndrangheta, but it is a matter of dispute in Sicily. Despite their criticism of central government inertia, anti-mafia prosecutors in Palermo believe they are winning the war against Cosa Nostra, in large part because of civic movements that Reski too easily dismisses.

Still, her fears about her homeland seem well grounded. Italy’s tough anti-mafia laws have no parallel in Germany where, Reski says, a mafioso cannot be bugged in public places or at home, membership of the mafia is not a crime, and money laundering is much easier. If the rest of Europe is to come up with a concerted response to the threat of the ’Ndrangheta and its peers, the same bitter lessons may have to be learnt all over again.

Guy Dinmore is the FT’s Rome bureau chief

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