The Italian Mafia moved in quickly. For the mob it was the firesale of the century when almost everything and everyone could be had on the cheap, from discotheques to material for nuclear bombs.

In the moment when the Berlin Wall was breached 20 years ago, Italian investigators intercepted a telephone conversation to overhear a mafioso ordering his agent in the city to cross immediately to the east and start buying.

“What?” the agent asked. “Restaurants, discotheques, everything,” the boss replied. “Everything! Everything!”

Among the unexpected and insidious consequences of the collapse of the Soviet bloc, anti-Mafia prosecutors say, was the dawn of a “world without frontiers” for organised crime groups.

In particular, it propelled the Calabrian Mafia, known as the ‘Ndrangheta, rooted in the far south of Italy, towards a global reach and status unmatched by other criminal organisations.

Italy’s parliamentary anti-Mafia commission has compared the ‘Ndrangheta’s cell-like, family-based structure to the organisational model of al-Qaeda, and its reputation in the criminal world to that of a multinational brand. Eurispes, a research institute, estimated the ‘Ndrangheta earned €47bn ($70bn, £42bn) in 2007.

“The process of globalisation, the fall of the Berlin Wall, European Union enlargement, the new Schengen areas were all used by the Calabrian clans to give an impetus to their building of new routes, not just for narcotics trafficking but also illegal capital flows,” the commission said in a report last year.

As the Soviet meltdown brought an arms bonanza, the ‘Ndrangheta was emerging as the dominant force trafficking cocaine from South America.

In the same period EU and national development funds were pouring into Calabria, Italy’s poorest region, much of it ending in the hands of the mob.

What began in the 19th century as village-based clans focused on kidnapping evolved into a sophisticated organisation, sustained locally by extortion rackets and government tenders, and internationally through trafficking in drugs, arms and the disposal of toxic waste.

“In those times they were mountain people,” says Francesco Fonti, an ex-Mafia boss, reflecting on the early days of his life with the ‘Ndrangheta in the late 1960s.

“But then these mountain people sent their children to university. Now they are professionals – lawyers, consultants, computer experts, engineers. They left Calabria and move round the world, organising investments with family money. A lot of this money sees the light of day through legitimate enterprises.”

Mr Fonti, was speaking from a location in northern Italy where he is serving a 50-year sentence. He is collaborating with the authorities.

An important sideline in the 1990s, and still possibly today, was trafficking in nuclear material, mostly from the former Soviet bloc but also from the former US Atoms for Peace programme that sent nuclear fuel round the world.

“When the Berlin Wall came down,” Mr Fonti recalls, “all those working for the KGB found themselves out in the street, so they started trafficking – in plutonium and weapons.”

Mr Fonti, 61, claims an ‘Ndrangheta clan in the southern city of Reggio Calabria obtained six cylinders containing uranium, each worth €20m. “Five were recovered by the CIA, the sixth no one knows. They came from Russian nuclear reactors.”

Alison Jamieson, writing for the UK’s Research Institute for the Study of Conflict and Terrorism, reports that formal contacts between Russian and Italian Mafia began across eastern Europe in 1991, focusing on drugs, arms and nuclear components. In 1993 two Italians were arrested near the Belarus-Russia border and charged with smuggling 36kg of enriched uranium.

In the post-communist cornucopia Mr Fonti also describes being offered 50 Ilyushin cargo planes by a KGB colonel through an Italian intermediary. He declined and claims they were acquired by Victor Bout, an alleged Russian arms dealer, who he says flew them to Liberia. The US wants Mr Bout’s extradition from Thailand, where he was arrested last year.

Trafficking took Mr Fonti round the world, including Somalia, a big market for dumping waste and selling arms, and Afghanistan, where he bought drugs. Singapore was a favourite haunt – “all the trafficking in the world was there …ships, missiles”.

The Italian authorities are currently searching for three ships Mr Fonti claims he personally scuttled off the coast of Calabria with toxic waste in their holds, including nuclear material.

An articulate and soft-spoken man, Mr Fonti studied maths, physics and commerce at university. He entered the ‘Ndrangheta in 1968 to protect his father from attacks on his business but then found he could never leave.

“Only horizontally,” he was told.

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