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Mafias and drug trafficking: the ‘Ndrangheta in Latin America

1. Introduction

Matteo Messina Denaro from Trapani was probably one of the first mafia bosses to establish links with the Medellin cartel of Pablo Escobar during the eighties. He was finally arrested on January 16, 2023, after spending almost thirty years on the run. Escobar’s men supplied Cosa Nostra with cocaine, which then was responsible for cocaine distribution in the United States and Italy – landing place to reach the rest of Europe. The Sicilian Mafia, Cosa Nostra, is well known in American popular imagination thanks to Hollywood and namely the Godfather series. Still, 'Ndrangheta is currently the most present and incisive mafia organization involved in inter-oceanic drug trafficking. Partly by chance, partly due to some peculiar traits, the Calabrian Mafia has managed to build a pervasive and highly flexible net of alliances with cocaine suppliers in roughly all Latin American countries. Several investigations led by the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the Europol and various national police forces, including the Italian one, discovered over the years complex drugs’ supply chains and partnerships between affiliates of the 'Ndrangheta or independent brokers, such as Roberto Pannunzi and Salvatore Mancuso, and local suppliers.

‘Ndrangheta’s monopoly in cocaine distribution to Europe is currently threatened by other emerging criminal groups and by the competition of more affluent and centric European ports than the Gioia Tauro Port. However, thanks to its knowledge and connections in Latin America, the Calabrian mafia still holds a leading role in drug trafficking.

2. Roberto Pannunzi

Italian involvement in cocaine trafficking started way before the rise of Colombian cartels, indeed some mafia members were arrested in Brazil back in 1972. At that time nonetheless, cocaine was a secondary business in the portfolio of the mafia’s activities, among others heroin trafficking, and extorsions and trafficking of waste. When the Medellin and Cali’s cartels emerged in the eighties, the Italian mafia was the main gateway for Europe, while Galicians traffickers managed the entire distribution chain across the continent. Gradually, however, the Italians understood that cocaine trafficking could be exploited much more and thought it was better to settle trusted people in Colombia to go directly at the source instead of merely receiving shipments in European ports.

Figure 2: Getty Images

3. Salvatore Mancuso

An emblematic figure of the alliance between 'Ndrangheta and narcos was Salvatore Mancuso Gómez. He was a former commander of the paramilitary army of Colombia called Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) and son of an Italian immigrant. The Galloway-Tiburon operation in 2001 revealed Mancuso to be the world leader in drug trafficking on the Colombia-Calabria route and led to the arrest of Mancuso and his business partner, the Roman entrepreneur Giorgio Sale. The latter acted as the point person for Europe and dealt with the laundering of the profits of cocaine trade, through a network of restaurants highly renowned among the Colombian elite.

Mancuso approached 'Ndrangheta groups proposing an alliance at the time of the paramilitaries’ demobilization, after the agreements with the Colombian government. The reason for doing so was that they controlled vast areas of cocaine production and they needed buyers. Mancuso and his associates ensured to bring cocaine to the main ports of Colombia, from there, the goods were loaded onto ships bound for Venezuela, and then on to Europe.

Figure 3: Mancuso, the first on the left (BBC)

In June 2022, an operating group of the Colombian authorities together with the Italian police and other European forces captured 38 traffickers linked to Urabeños and 'Ndrangheta, confiscating more than 4 tons of cocaine. A few months later, in October of the same year, on the other side of the ocean, an operation at the port of Gioia Tauro destroyed a network that imported up to 30 tons of cocaine a year from Colombia.

4. The evolution of trafficking

After Mancuso's arrest, the European cocaine market has been growing, both geographically, with the opening of a larger number of routes, and strategically, with the increase of the players involved. Indeed, the heirs of the Cali and Medellin’s cartels were no longer able to deliver cocaine to the markets of end consumers, hence the Mexican cartels came into play and started shipping to the United States and the Italian mafias for Europe. Europol discovered an alliance between the 'Ndrangheta and the Primeiro Comando da Capital, the most powerful criminal group in Brazil; the presence of Italian criminals has been repeatedly recorded in the trafficking of cocaine from Costa Rica to the United States and among the main financiers of shipments of cocaine from Peru. Joint investigations revealed the presence of brokers linked to the 'Ndrangheta also in Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile. According to Europol, the 'Ndrangheta operates in more than 30 countries around the world. Although cocaine trafficking still constitutes the main source of income for the 'Ndrangheta nowadays, with a value of more than 27 million euros a year, i.e. 60% of its total profits, according to the prosecutor Nicola Gratteri, both in Europe and in Latin America other criminal organizations are gaining importance, in particular Albanian ones with an increasing bargaining power with suppliers in South America.

5. ‘Ndrangheta’s competitive advantages in cocaine trafficking

Figure 4: Port of Gioia Tauro (AcquaTecno)

Finally, another element that contributed to the rise of the 'Ndrangheta in drug trafficking was the port of Gioia Tauro. Gioia Tauro, which became operational in 1995, has always represented a perfect route for cocaine in Europe, indeed the 'Ndrangheta has taken control of it since its construction. The process of internationalization of the activities of the Calabrian mafia coincided precisely with the construction and activation of the port. Over the past two decades, however, Italian law enforcement agencies have stepped up their investigations into clan activities in the port, with one last major blow to criminal networks last year. On October 6, 2022, an operation led by the GICO (Organized Crime Investigation Groups), the Reggio Calabria Economic and Financial Police Unit and the Guardia di Finanza resulted in the seizure of four tons of cocaine, worth approximately 800 million euros and the arrest of 36 people, including stevedores, customs officials, truck drivers and supervisors who facilitated the transport of the drug bricks inside boxes of bananas, customs controls and movements within and from the port.

6. Conclusions

As analyzed so far, the 'Ndrangheta entered the flow of cocaine from Latin America thanks to direct intermediaries, when the Colombian cartels of Medellin and Cali were dismantled, and the paramilitary groups demobilized. In 2006, according to a report by the Italian Anti-Mafia Commission, the 'Ndrangheta controlled more than 80% of the cocaine imported into Europe. Although nowadays the anti-mafia activities of the police and the increasing competition in the importation of goods have greatly diminished the importance of Gioia Tauro in the Atlantic flow of cocaine, favoring other European ports such as Antwerp and Rotterdam and the further divisions within the groups Colombians controlling the production of coca gave space to other European criminal networks, in particular the Albanian groups, the 'Ndrangheta resists through alliances with the new emerging clans that control the new flows. The 'Ndrangheta network in Latin America is dense and relies on multiple stakeholders. Nowadays, it is still hard to dismantle it since it has ramifications in various countries and these actors are somehow independent from the clans in Italy. Some of 'Ndrangheta’s features, such as the centrality of family relationships between affiliates and the acceptance of the non-exclusivity and indirect control of intermediaries, make this criminal reality highly elusive and this hinders the search for criminals involved in cocaine trafficking.

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