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article imageFive things to know about the Calabrian mafia

By Fanny CARRIER (AFP)     Mar 2, 2018 in World

The 'Ndrangheta, the Calabrian crime syndicate suspected of being implicated in the killing of Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee, is considered the most powerful of Italy's four homegrown mafias.

Here are five things to know about them:

- From Calabria, but global -

The 'Ndrangheta, which derives its name from the ancient Greek word for "courage", first appeared as an alliance of family clans in southern Italy's impoverished Calabria region in the 18th century.

The group was long associated with racketeering and kidnapping for ransom but it quickly grew through the 1970s and 1980s thanks to its involvement in cocaine trafficking to Europe from Latin America.

However it managed to keep a lower public profile than both the Sicilian Cosa Nostra and the Camorra, which is based in and around Naples.

The 'Ndrangheta's quiet expansion eventually saw it overtake the two more famous organised crime groups in terms of international reach.

Prosecutors say it has developed offshoots in 30 countries around the world, including the Americas, Australia, Asia and northern and eastern Europe.

- More corruption, less killing -

The 'Ndrangheta employs threats of violence but, like other Italian mafias, now puts more emphasis on corruption than killing, according to experts.

"The mafias have transformed their victims into accomplices," Rosy Bindy, head of the Italian parliament's anti-mafia committee, said recently.

Journalist Roberto Saviano, a mafia expert who lives under armed guard because of the death threats he has received since publishing the best-selling book "Gomorra" in 2006, wrote in La Repubblica daily on Friday about the group's classic operating "algorithm".

"The 'Ndrangheta brings capital, the entrepreneur invests it and politicians guarantee the investment in exchange for money and everyone gains an exponential advantage," Saviano wrote.

- Phenomenal wealth -

A study by the Demoskopika research institute in 2014 estimated the 'Ndrangheta's turnover at 53 billion euros ($65 billion) a year -- more than Deutsche Bank and McDonald's put together at the time.

Revenues represented around 3.5 percent of Italy's total gross domestic product, according to the research based on interior ministry data.

Drug trafficking was estimated to account for around half of 'Ndrangheta revenues but multiple investigations in recent years have found the group in various sectors, from catering and tourism to the lucrative business of housing migrants.

- Tough to crack -

The 'Ndrangheta has proven a particularly difficult group to infiltrate because of its reliance on close families.

However investigators have intensified their gaze on the organisation's Italian and global networks in recent years, and in Italy there are regular announcements of dozens of arrests and asset seizures worth millions.

Tougher legislation has led to higher conviction rates and much harsher prison conditions, including isolation for 'Ndrangheta bosses.

But the clans apparently continue to prosper.

In the hope of breaking down the oath of silence of mafia members, known as "omerta", in recent years prosecutors have even started to take the children of mafia families into foster care.

- Collateral damage? -

While its murder rate has been lower in recent years, the 'Ndrangheta still resorts to killing when it deems death necessary, and that includes abroad.

The 2007 killing of six Italians at a restaurant in the German city of Duisberg in a 'Ndrangheta revenge attack was a particularly brutal example, and according to the Italian authorities was the first mafia feud to spill beyond the country's borders.

The feud reportedly began in 1991 over a thrown firework.

Saviano said Kuciak's killing does not bear all the hallmarks of the 'Ndrangheta although he does not rule out that it could have been behind the murder.

If it did choose to take the risk of media attention by killing Kuciak, Saviano said it was probably "to cover up higher up and more complex interests".

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