Feature Articles

May 2007
The 'Ndrangheta
In Gioia Tauro

By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus

Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

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     The port city of Gioia Tauro (in Roman times, called Tauroentum), population 18,000, province of Reggio Calabria, is located on the west coast of the region of Calabria (toe of Italy), 58 kilometers north of Calabria's largest city, Reggio di Calabria, a seaport on the Messina Strait. Gioia Tauro's economy is based mainly on shipping and summer tourism. It is a primary port on the Mediterranean Sea for seaborne containment shipment traffic. Calabria is the home base of the infamous 'Ndrangheta mafia. Historically, Gioia Tauro has been a major center of its development and power.

     La Piana di Gioia Tauro (the plain includes the city and surrounding territory) is central to the origins and history of the 'Ndrangheta. Organized crime was in its ascendancy before the second half of the 1800s. Documents of that era reveal a considerable presence of mafia factions. There was a "true and effective organization," in 1888, that had been constituted the previous year with the name, Associazione di Picciotti. In 1890, a "sect of camorristi" was indicted, as was the 'Ndrangheta of Palmi, in 1897. Police sequestered a document listing the admission requirements for recruits to the picciotteria (criminal gang).

     The year 1899 saw a massive roundup, a total of 317 miscreants, from several villages who were accused of membership in a criminal enterprise that had as its scope the illegal acquisitions of farm properties. Similar reports continued well into the first decades of the twentieth century.

     The attention that the Fascists gave in the 1920s to the destruction of the Sicilian mafia was not repeated in Calabria. Fascist control in that region had relatively little negative impact on the 'Ndrangheta. If anything, the 'ndranghetisti prospered by adjusting to the new political reality. Unlike Cosa Nostra, they have avoided direct confrontations with the state.

     New opportunities began to abound in the post-World War Two period. The clans in the Plain of Gioa Tauro infiltrated the fruit industries, fixing prices and taking ill-gotten profits. The mobsters also controlled a portion of the olive oil market. One tactic was to offer a risible price to the farmer for the product. The olive grove owners were forced to sell at the price offered because the mob would "discourage" legitimate buyers from making market value bids.

     The 'Ndrangheta clans began a transformation in the 1960s and 1970s as new opportunities arose when that part of Calabria began the process of industrialization and urbanization. The priorities now turned to the more lucrative cigarette contrabanding and narco-trafficking as well as the tampering and infiltration of major public works projects such as the new seaborne containment port in Gioia and the construction of the Salerno-Reggio Calabria autostrada.

     The 'Ndrangheta clans of Gioia, Reggio Calabria, and Jonica saw strength in unity and formed a potent triumvirate in the province of Reggio Calabria. The three bosses of the syndicate became the most influential capibastone of the Calabrian criminal phenomenon. In the most recent decades, the increased importance of the Gioia port offered tempting moneymaking opportunities. In addition, in good mafia fashion, the clans increased their political influence, in the 1990s, by getting many of their representatives elected to seats of town councils in the Piana di Gioia Tauro.

     The Calabrian mafia is well represented in the Gioia plain, with a large number of 'ndrine (clans). There is an estimated one member for every 300 inhabitants. Two large 'ndrine hold sway over the port area, where employees are known to collude with them. Every year over three million containers are processed through the port. Because the port is in a strategic geographic location for the transshipment of goods throughout the Mediterranean and overseas, following 9/11/2001 a special squad of American customs agents check cargo for lethal items. Daily surveillance of the containers is responsibility of the Italian Guardia di Finanza and the police.

     The authorities are on constant alert to the trafficking of arms and especially narcotics. There is a heavy flow of international trafficking through the port destined for European markets. Large amounts of narcotics discovered in the seaborne containers have been sequestered. Criminals are forever devising ingenious methods of transport: drugs hidden in cases of lemons; cocaine packed into large slabs of hollowed out marble; assault weapons mixed with container merchandise; and all manner of contraband. In April 2006, the Guardia di Finanza sequestered 7092 Kalashnikov automatic rifles along with ammunition and bayonets.

     In 2004, authorities uncovered a criminal international narco-traffic network involving gangs in South America, Australia, and Europe. Drugs from Colombia are destined for such countries as Greece and Bulgaria. Italian officials estimate that 80 percent of Europe's cocaine arrives from Colombia via Gioia Tauro's docks. Transshipments from one port to another until the final destination is reached are not uncommon. For every shipment discovered by the police, many others reach their markets.

     "During a 3-hour operation the police arrested 18 Sicilian mafia, 'Ndrangheta and camorra members for trafficking cocaine. The scheme was directed by the Mole - Piromalli gang of Gioia Tauro, Calabria. The drug was being shipped in cargo at the port of Gioia Tauro, with destinations to mob affiliates in various cities in Italy." (La Repubblica, April 23, 2007)

     'Ndranghetisti ensure their clans' continuity into the next generation by grooming their sons to enter the criminal life after their fathers retire to the status of mobsters emeriti. The male child is called primo fiore (first flower). After birth and before family members and mob associates, a knife and a large antique key are placed near the hand of the bambino. If the child touches the knife, his destiny is to follow the family's tradition; if the key, a sbirro, or police officer. To encourage the "correct" decision, the key is placed a bit beyond the bimbo's reach. Females also grow up in the tradition and have functions to perform in the clan. They are known as sorelle d'omerta, sisters of the omerta.

     A vivid example of the 'Ndrangheta extortion racket in Gioia Tauro is the case of Fedele Scarcella, who grew up in the Calabrian Aspromonte Mountains. Opening a retail business in the city meant an excellent opportunity for him and his family to improve their circumstances. He was a hard man who knew the meaning of work and set out determined to succeed. When one morning he was confronted in his shop by two picciotti (young thugs) sent by the clan boss to shake Fedele down and add him to the long list of businessmen who paid to be left in peace.

     The picciotti asked Fedele to turn over to them a percentage of his monthly gross earnings, an extortion gambit called in Calabria la mazzetta, or in usage that is more general, il pizzo. Scarcella checked his rising anger. Outwardly calm and courteous, he responded that he was an honest man, that the business was his alone, and he was not about to give a piece of it to anyone. Rather, he suggested to the pair, instead of being parasitic and riding the backs of humble, laboring folk, they as young and healthy fellows should themselves show initiative and invest in their own economic venture.

     Fedele understood the Calabrian subculture represented by the two young men. He knew that they would return, and they did. What followed were the subtle threats, the small incidents, the irritating persistence so common to that world. Most proprietors in a similar quandary would panic and fold to paying the monthly mazzetta. It was the price of doing business, a tax on top of the other taxes. Better to pay the mob to be protected against the mob itself than to suffer a bomb through the store window or worse.

     Not Fedele Scarcella. Men like him don't scare and don't fold. Without a second thought, he went to the police to denounce the extortion attempt. He named names. Those bloodsuckers were not going to make him crawl and he had faith in the police. Fedele would not have been able to live with himself, to lose all dignity, if he bent to those arrogant pieces of merda.

     Scarcella entered the witness protection program and successfully testified in court. He received damages and expenses incurred. The program provided for a new identity and relocation to the Italian north. He refused to leave Calabria. Not only did he stay, Fedele had the audacity to found the Antiracket Association of Gioia Tauro. Recognizing fully the danger of his proactive stance against the 'Ndrangheta, he asked several times to be issued a pistol license, but was flatly refused.

     Fedele Scarcella's torched car at the beach of Briatico, which is well north of Gioia, near Vibo Valentia, contained his corpse. He had been shot in the nape of the neck and his auto set aflame. The police received a call informing them that there was an offensive stench of burned carogna (meaning carcass, with the additional meaning of a scoundrel or vile person) at Briatico worth investigating. The Calabrians have a saying, La 'ndrangheta non dimentica--"The mob never forgets."

     A native of Gioia Tauro, Giuseppe Piromalli was one of the most famous of the 'Ndrangheta capos. He was born into the tradition on 1 March 1921. While on the run from 1993, Piromalli topped the list of the thirty most wanted Italian fugitives list, known as the Programma speciale di ricerca.

     Piromalli rose to power in 1978 when he took command of his late brother's clan. As capo, he redirected the clan from its rural base to assuming dominance over several public works in the Gioia area, particularly in the construction and operation of the newly opened seaborne containment seaport.

     In 1993, Piromalli became a fugitive from justice to escape being indicted for murder. He was condemned by one of his close associates, Pino Scriva, who turned state's evidence, the first significant 'Ndrangheta pentito in a criminal organization where pentiti are few. In total, Giuseppe was to be charged and convicted of four crimes. The first, in 1973, receiving a life sentence for the double homicides of Antonio and Michael Versace, on 17 September 1991, both riddled with bullets from a Kalashnikov. The second, on 2 November 1994, stemmed from an attempted extortion and subsequent destruction of Fininvest property. The other two involved frauds of the port of Gioia Tauro administration and a move to appropriate illegally public works contracts in the port.

     Problems with the law brought about a reconfiguration of the 'Ndrangheta in Gioia, combining two clans into one, known as the Piromalli-Mole family. The Piromalli branch, commanded by Giuseppe's nephew, also has a presence in the Italian north.

     Giuseppe the fugitive was finally taken into custody without incident on 11 March 1999, alone and disarmed. At three in the morning, a large squad of carabinieri charged an old farmhouse that had been turned into a fortified bunker. Inside sat Piromalli, appearing old and frail. The house contained two levels. The door and windows were reinforced with heavy steel bars, while the second floor featured an escape hatch to the roof. The carabinieri discovered documents "of notable investigative value and a large cache of excellent champagne." On one wall hung sacred pictures, above a small altar.

     Ill with terminal cancer, Giuseppe "Peppino" Piromalli was released to the care of his family in 2003. He died on 19 February 2005 at age 84, attended by relatives and former associates. The elaborate funeral procession and religious ceremony were worthy of the mafia dons of a previous era.

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