Breaking the Silence in Calabria

A flag with the anti-mafia slogan ‘I see, I hear, I speak’ and a picture of Lea Garofalo at her funeral, Milan, 2009
Marco Aprile/NurPhoto/Corbis/Getty Images
A flag with the anti-mafia slogan ‘I see, I hear, I speak’ and a picture of Lea Garofalo at her funeral, Milan, 2009. Garofalo was killed by the ’Ndrangheta after testifying against her husband and brother, who were members.

When I traveled to Calabria in the early 1990s, its mafia, known as the ’Ndrangheta, had a far more pervasive and suffocating hold on the region than the Cosa Nostra had on Sicily or the Camorra had on Campania. In the plains around the port city of Gioia Tauro, the livestock of local mafia bosses, known as “sacred cows,” wandered freely and ate wherever they pleased. In Taurianova, ’Ndranghetisti killed a man, cut off his head, and used it for target practice in one of the main piazzas. Throughout the region, I routinely saw trash rotting in the streets: local ’Ndrangheta families had won contracts for trash removal, and there was not much pressure on them to actually remove it.

The towns looked poor, but expensive luxury cars were frequently parked in their centers, often illegally. A hapless, dedicated traffic cop had been shot and killed for placing a parking ticket on one belonging to an ’Ndrangheta boss. In the evenings, when the towns were dark and quiet, I had the impression that people had entirely surrendered and stayed safely inside their houses.

When I returned to Calabria a couple of years ago, however, it seemed radically different: there were anti-mafia groups and lively public debates about the influence of the ’Ndrangheta. There was even a “No Bull” movement to try to address the “sacred cow” problem. Mafia-type organized crime depends in part on a social consensus made up of tacit acquiescence, a culture of silence, and a mixture of fear and respect, mingled with suspicion of legal authorities. That consensus had begun to break down in Sicily twenty-five or thirty years ago when the ruthless brutality of the Cosa Nostra became evident, while serious efforts by police, prosecutors, and ordinary citizens to challenge its power gained in credibility. The same thing appeared to be happening in Calabria.

The ’Ndrangheta, along with the Cosa Nostra and the Camorra, is one of Italy’s major crime organizations, and although it is the least well known of the three, it is likely the most powerful. The name “’Ndrangheta” is believed to have been derived from the Greek word andragathia, meaning goodness and manly virtue—Calabria in antiquity was part of Magna Grecia, and many words in its local dialects come from ancient Greek. An important part of the ’Ndrangheta’s strength is its seeming impenetrability: by limiting its membership strictly to close blood relatives, it reduces the likelihood of betrayal, since turning on your partners in crime means…

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