Welcome To The European Mafia Union: How The Italian Mob Is Swallowing Europe

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Mafia Germany
A sticker reading 'People who bend to the Mafia are people without dignity' at the entrance to an Italian restaurant in Berlin August 21, 2007.

ROME -- When mobster Giuseppe Condello and his driver Vincenzo Priolo were killed in 2012 in their native Sicily, their slayings barely made headlines. They were shot in the face at close range and their bodies ditched under an overpass, in a typical Mafia-style execution. But Condello was a minor mob figure, and his death did not warrant special scrutiny from anti-Mafia prosecutors -- until two years later.

The killing would turn into one of the most significant Mafia killings in recent memory. It helped uncover how Italian mob syndicates are expanding beyond Southern Italy and gaining an unprecedented grip on economies once thought to be immune to organized crime, including Europe’s biggest, Germany.   

According to a former mob-hit man-turned-police-informer, Condello was the emissary of the Sicilian Mafia, or Cosa Nostra, in Mannheim, a major industrial city near Frankfurt. He ran the mob’s affairs in the wealthy town until an out-of-control cocaine addiction made him too dangerous for the organization. So Matteo Messina Denaro, the longtime fugitive considered the Cosa Nostra’s top boss, ordered him killed. But with a caveat: it should be done in Italy, to avoid alarming German authorities and the public, and continue the quiet, under-the-radar, hugely profitable existence that has become the Mafia’s hallmark under Messina Denaro.   

“Fix the problem, or I will,” the boss said, according to testimony from the mob turncoat, whose identity is being kept secret for fear of retaliation. Shortly afterward, the condemned mobster and his driver were found dead in a ditch.

"We’re following closely developments in the (Condello) investigation. We know it is linked to Germany," Sigurd Jäger, a criminal police official in Stuttgart who's involved in the German side of the inquiry, said in a phone interview.

The Sicilian Mafia isn’t alone in going for expansion in Europe. The other two big Italian crime syndicates, the Camorra from Naples and the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta (n’dran-GHEH-tah), are also making lots of money in the European Union. The ‘Ndrangheta , based in the toe of Italy and perhaps the biggest foreign ally of the South American drug cartels, grossed 53 billion euros ($72 billion) last year by some estimates, largely by controlling cocaine traffic in most of Europe.  

That's more than twice the annual revenue of McDonald’s or Deutsche Bank, and as much as 4 percent of the Italian economy.

Europol says Italian Mafia groups suffer the opposite problem of many entrepreneurs: They have “too much cash money and not enough possibilities of reinvestment.” And going north is the easiest way to find places to put all that money.

"By now, the ‘Ndrangheta has spilled over almost anywhere in Europe, especially in Germany,” Nicola Gratteri, considered the world’s top expert on the ‘Ndrangheta, said. He has hunted it for decades in Calabria as prosecutor.

Insufficient Laws, “Devastating Situation”

The Condello murder would also help expose how the lack of a common European legislation is allowing the Italian Mafia to flourish across borders. Experts blame the lack of a pan-European strategy in the face of a Mafia that’s long gone global, with 28 different national legislations in the Union creating easy loopholes for the mob. EU authorities are missing the huge cash flows from money laundering, experts say.

“The European situation is devastating,” Sonia Alfano, an Italian member of the European Parliament who chairs the Committee against organized crime and money laundering, said. Germany, she said, is “spearheading a political stance by member states [of the European Union] that refuses to crack down on Mafia money laundering. They know that would damage their economies.”

Alfano, the daughter of a journalist killed by Cosa Nostra, said a reason authorities were caught off guard by the Mafia’s expansion was the shift to fighting terrorism, led by the U.S. after the September 2001 attacks. “It diverted staff and resources in Europe to hunting down militants rather than fighting organized crime”, she said.

But for the same reason, in the U.S., the Mafia is less of a problem than it was. The 2001 U.S. Patriot Act, and its extension signed by President Barack Obama in 2011, boosted surveillance and wiretaps, including on businesses, as a means to fight terrorism. An unitended effect was that Italian Mafia syndicates in the U.S. “moved their interests to Europe” to avoid increased scrutiny, Alfano said.

Fast Mobsters Vs. Slow Cops

As they gauge the reach of the Italian gangs in Germany, prosecutors and experts say they are faced with an unprecedented challenge. They are late, the Mafia having long established ties there. They are slow, since the mob is able to quickly mobilize its resources across Europe, exploiting freedom of movement for capital and people across the Continent. And they are ill-equipped, having to fight increasingly globalized crime syndicates with tools that remain predominantly national.

“‘The Ndrangheta has become global, while action to fight it has not,” Gratteri said. The prosecutor, who recently sent shockwaves saying the Mafia is “nervous” about the Vatican financial cleanup under Pope Francis, has been under increased armed protection since a plot to kill him was unveiled in 2005.

“There’s still a lot to do, not just in Germany but also in the rest of Europe. We need to adopt rules and strategies that are shared by all members of the European Union”, he added.

Most European countries have no such thing as Italy’s specific ‘anti-Mafia’ legislation, including hard prison conditions aimed at making life harder for jailed mobsters, pushing them to turn state’s witness.  

Magistrates who track down the mafiosi operate within a specialized anti-Mafia division in Italy, where the mob is so powerful that it spectacularly blew up leading anti-Mafia magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in the early 1990s. A trial is ongoing to establish whether members of the Italian political elite struck a deal with Cosa Nostra then to avert more bombings in exchange for leniency.  

According to Laura Garavini, an Italian-German member of the Italian parliament and anti-Mafia activist who denounced the mob’s presence in Germany, the Mafia is still generally considered by Germans an ethnic  phenomenon that could never really take root there. But "legal loopholes in Germany make it especially attractive to Mafia groups," she said.

To Italian prosecutors, who rely on widespread use of wiretaps and aggressive investigation techniques to fight the mob, the German authorities’ approach to Mafia investigations seem too relaxed.  

Merely being accused of belonging to a Mafia group is not enough to be jailed or wiretapped.

"Prosecutors want a clearly defined criminal deed to try someone, [the crime of belonging to] organized crime exists in theory but is almost never applied," Jäger, of the Stuttgart police, said.

In Germany, the burden of proving that money comes from illegal sources rests on authorities, rather than on firms or individuals needing to document they are clean, as is the case in Italy.

Another key feature making Germany a magnet for Mafia investment is that only individuals, not companies, can be tried for criminal activities there.

"Mafia groups set up bogus firms as subcontractors in the construction business, or to receive public subsidies," Garavini said. Some of those German bogus companies also operate in Italy, thanks to the European Union’s open market.

The Biggest Gang In Europe

Mafia syndicates were quick to adapt to such a permeable environment. In Germany, they infiltrated the official economy by corrupting officials and attracting members of society such as businesspeople, lawyers and accountants, prosecutors said. "That makes it very difficult to distinguish what’s legal from what’s not,” said Wolfgang Rahm, an official with the Stuttgart criminal police who is an expert in Italian organized crime.

“We estimate that 500 to 600 people connected to Italian mobs operate in Germany,” Rahm said. Other sources cited in German media put the number at 800 to 900, adding the numbers likely underestimate the actual figure.

Half of that figure is thought to be affiliates to the 'Ndrangheta, the mob that is "among the richest and most powerful organized crime groups in the world” and Europe's biggest, according to Europol.

“They’re everywhere in Germany," said Sandro Mattioli, a Berlin resident with Italian origins who chairs Mafia? Nein, Danke or “Mafia no thanks,” an organization that helps Italian restaurants fight extortion demands and promotes public awareness of the Mafia.

The 'Ndrangheta seized control of the drug trade in Europe as it gained the complete trust of cartels in Mexico and Colombia. "The relationship is so cozy that, unlike with other buyers, [Mexican] druglords like Los Zetas don't demand to hold a 'Ndrangheta man to ransom in large drug transactions," Alfano said.

Far from being close to just Latin American gangs, the Calabrian mob may have become the first to succesfully globalize organized crime. While also active in the United States, Canada and Australia, the 'Ndrangheta is pursuing what experts call a “colonization” of Europe. Unlike other groups, it recruits members based on blood relationships, resulting in an extraordinary cohesion within family clans that presents a major obstacle to investigation.

"'Ndrangheta is especially rooted in Germany, but it also operates in France, Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain and Portugal,” prosecutor Gratteri said.

'Ndrangheta is estimated to import 80 percent of Europe's cocaine through large ports such as of Rotterdam, Netherlands, or Gioia Tauro, in its native Calabria. One of its bosses, Giovanni Strangio, was arrested in Amsterdam in 2009.

"He had strong connections there, including political ones, that sheltered him," Sonia Alfano said.

London, one of the world's top financial centers, is the obvious destination of much Mafia investment, Alfano said. 'Ndrangheta, as well as Camorra, its Neapolitan counterpart, also has flooded Spain with cash.

"Camorra handles huge sums in Southern Spain, investing directly in Barcelona. One of its bosses was phone-tapped while easily managing drug smuggling while in jail in Madrid," Alfano said.

Ther French newspaper Le Figaro reported the French secret service had to set up a special team to investigate on the presence of 'Ndrangheta in Southern France. Police linked ‘Ndrangheta’s real estate interests to the killing of Hélène Pastor, an heiress said to be close to Monaco's royal family, on the French Riviera in April. A report in the French daily said investigators suspected the two killers were members of either 'Ndrangheta or the Camorra. Both groups are said to have gained a strong foothold in the Riviera's real estate sector, in which the Pastor family is a major player.

Pizza And Massacre

With a membership pinned at 4,000 to 5,000 in Italy alone and roughly 10,000 worldwide, the ‘Ndrangheta had a 53 billion euro revenue last year, mostly from drug dealing, according to data from Demoskopika, an Italian social research group.

‘Ndrangheta, which controls vast territories through about 100 crime families, takes great care not to invest its resources in Calabria, one of Europe's most impoverished areas, wary of tighter controls from Italian authorities.

“Typically, they  impoverish their own territory and bring their money elsewhere,” Alfano said.

Prosecutors and officials told International Business Times they weren’t able to estimate how much Cosa Nostra, ‘Ndrangheta and Camorra gross in Germany. They all agree the sums are in the billions of euros, that they are growing and the way money is laundered gets more and more sophisticated.

At least 300 pizzerias in Germany are controlled by Italian Mafia groups, providing a traditional way to launder money. In recent years Mafia money flooded the flourishing German real estate market, sometimes in fraudulent schemes. A swoop last year unveiled a scam thought to be exemplary of how the Mafia often operates, with bogus firms, registered to Mafia figureheads, laundering money through false invoicing. At the same time, they fraudulently claimed social security benefits by creating fake jobs.

But money laundering doesn't prevent the mob from running the more traditional drug trade in Germany. Activities are integrated, with vast communities of Italians who emigrated in the 1960s and 1970s having long served as a bridge for crime-linked immigrants.

Mafia? Nein Danke is eager to say most Italians in Germany do not have such connections. But Germany has become such a secure place for the mob that even fugitives fleeing a conviction in Italy take shelter there, despite an extradition treaty.

"Germany is increasingly a retreat place" for mobsters, the Stuttgart police’s Rahm said.

That quiet arrangement was almost blown apart in 2007 when the mass killing of six Italians in front of a Calabrian restaurant in what became known as the “Duisburg pizzeria massacre” became a major story in Germany. The killings, resulting from a feud between rival 'Ndrangheta clans know as the “Vendetta di San Luca,” shocked Germans and taught the Italian mafiosi a lesson: You can do business throughout Europe -- but when it comes to settling scores the old way, you do it back home.

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