Italy vs. the Mafia: Beheading the 'Ndrangheta

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Adriana Sapone / AP

An unidentified man doffs his hat as he rides in a Carabinieri (paramilitary police) car after being arrested in Reggio Calabria in southern Italy on Tuesday, July 13, 2010, following one of the biggest operations ever against the powerful 'Ndrangheta crime organization

The wiretap evidence included scenes straight out of The Godfather. After months of clandestine recording, Italian police launched a predawn raid Tuesday, July 13, snatching up more than 300 alleged members of the powerful 'Ndrangheta criminal organization, including top bosses, businessmen and corrupt civil servants. Among those netted was Domenico Oppedisano, an 80-year-old man with a field worker's tan. Investigators say evidence from wiretaps shows that he was confirmed as the syndicate's top boss during a 2008 wedding of the children of two of the organization's leaders.

In another cinematic moment caught on tape by Italian police, 22 men in suit jackets raise their glasses in a toast to the new leader of the region around Milan. The location: a center dedicated to the memory of two anti-Mafia judges assassinated in the 1990s. It was clearly meant as an insult to the dead. "This drove us even more," says Ilda Bocassini, a Milanese prosecutor and one of the heads of the investigation. "To keep going, keep moving towards the top."

The raids, which involved more than 3,000 law-enforcement agents, also seized millions of dollars in property. Described by Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni as a "blow to the heart" of the 'Ndrangheta, the arrests highlight the reach of one of the world's most powerful criminal organizations. Little-known outside of Italy, the criminal syndicate is considered the most dangerous in the country, teaming up with Colombian cocaine producers to control a large share of the European cocaine trade and its annual turnover of $55 billion, equivalent to roughly 3% of the Italian economy. According to the Interior Ministry, the charges against those arrested include arms and drug trafficking, murder, extortion, loan-sharking and criminal association.

Italian authorities say their investigation uncovered a change in the structure of the group, which has evolved from a collection of intermarried families to a top-down hierarchical organization in which power has been increasingly centralized even as its geographic reach and influence have spread. Oppedisano's capture, which was greeted with applause in the Italian Senate, took place in the group's traditional stronghold in Calabria, the region that makes up the toe of Italy's boot. But most of the arrests were carried out in the rich industrial area around Milan, where investigators say the group has concentrated most of its economic activity. Those apprehended included businessmen and employees in the government's health care system, including its head of operations for the city of Pavia. "The most worrying thing is their ability to infiltrate themselves in such a wide variety of settings," says Giuseppe Pignatone, a prosecutor from Reggio Calabria and one of the lead investigators.

The prosecutors point out that the case hinged on wiretaps, a hot political topic as Italy's Parliament considers putting strict limits on interceptions. Though the controversial law makes exceptions for cases involving terrorism and organized crime, prosecutors worry that its tougher standards of evidence and tight time limits could nonetheless make investigations of the kind that bore fruit on Tuesday harder to carry out. "The 'Ndrangheta almost only spreads through the growth of the natural family," says Francesco Forgione, the former head of Italy's antimafia commission, a fact that he says makes the group's tightly bound members difficult to flip. "You'd have to turn in your brother-in-law, your son, your nephew," he says. "It just wouldn't happen."