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The secret world of Italy's other Mafia. Jim Shelley goes underground to uncover the organisation that is scarier than La Cosa Nostra

It may have a strange name but there is nothing funny about the ‘Ndrangheta.

Based in Calabria – the rugged rural region at the ‘toe’ of the Italian coastline - the ‘Ndrangheta is Italy’s OTHER Mafia organisation, more secretive and scarier than even La Cosa Nostra. 

From obscure, almost humble beginnings, it is now the prime target for crack anti-crime, anti-corruption units across Italy.

Reporter John Dickie squeezes into part of the secret maze of tunnels and bunkers built by the 'Ndrangheta mafia to avoid detection in Calabria

Reporter John Dickie’s fascinating but chilling documentary The Mafia’s Secret Bunkers was part of the BBC’s This World series but in fact it was actually a look at another world; an underground world; a mysterious and brutal world that has already occupied large parts of Italian life and now begun to spread its ruthless tentacles across Europe.

Viewers would probably be surprised to learn that the biggest cocaine traffickers across Europe today are not the Sicilian Mafia, the Jamaican Yardies or Albanian gangs but the ‘Ndrangheta' of the little-known rural area, Calabria.

In the 1970s and 80s, the ‘Ndrangheta were most renowned in Italy for kidnapping, exploiting Calabria's remote mountain terrain, sometimes keeping their victims hostage for years.

Dickie explained how two crucial developments then allowed the ‘Ndrangheta to take a stronghold over Europe’s cocaine trade and consequently control of both the Italian underworld and its political, business and legal systems.


A wardrobe full of packets of cocaine - found during one single arrest in Gioia Tauro - the port controlled by the 'Ndrangheta

First, in the 1970s, to create employment and boost the region’s flagging economy, a huge seaport  Gioia Tauro was constructed. 

The 7th largest container port in Europe, Gioia Tauro is vast - like a huge metal city - and is now thought by Italian investigators to be the gateway to 80% of the cocaine flooding Europe from Colombia, arriving in docks controlled and staffed from the ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate.

With pure cocaine worth in the region of 120, 000 euros a kilo, one cupboard was stocked high with a stash of cocaine worth 135 million euros intercepted from one shipment alone.

So much cocaine was going through the port, the authorities had run out of safes - holding the drugs in a room littered with holdalls full of silver blocks.


Needle in a haystack: Reporter John Dickie in Gioia Tauro, the port controlled by the Calabrian mafia

The construction of the port also gave the 'Ndrangheta control over the illegal arms trade and a huge income in ‘security tax’. With 3 million containers passing through each year taxed, the $1.5 per container that the 'Ndrangheta charged meant the port was, said Dickie, ‘the hen that laid the golden eggs.’


Another victim of the 'Ndrangheta mafia - not in Calabria, or even in Italy, but Duisberg in Germany

In many ways, the ‘Ndrangheta were allowed to gain their stranglehold by the Italian state itself when, in the early 90s, it diverted most of its resources to targeting its more famous counterparts in Sicily.

Dickie described la Cosa Nostra as 'the most powerful criminal organisation in modern history' and in 1992 when it assassinated the popular anti-Mafia magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, it was a show of strength so blatant, the Italian state was forced to retaliate, leaving the 'Ndrangheta unchecked.

And so the ‘Ndrangheta became even more powerful and terrifying than its Sicilian neighbours.

While la Cosa Nostra 'declared war on the state', the 'Ndrangheta quietly, gradually bought it off – investing in banks and the leading Italian companies on the stock market, and bribing politicians and judges. In 2012 the city council of Reggio Calabria was suspended by Italy’s national government for its links to organised crime.

One investigation revealed the 'Ndrangheta had become 'a global mafia federation' with an astonishing annual turnover of 44 billion euros, 3% of Italy’s entire economic output.


Another escape route - part of the labyrinthine maze created by the Mafia bosses of Calabria

Already protected both by the local terrain and the villagers' code of silence ('omerta') that has protected the Mafia for decades, the 'Ndrangeta have established a bizarre but effective way of escaping capture.


When the law comes, the ‘Ndrangheta don’t run, they stay close to home and go underground, escaping into a series of tunnels, fake walls and secret walls that is both primitive and highly sophisticated, using mechanised false floors that would rise up on hydraulics or complicated pulley systems worthy of the villain in a James Bond film.


Under mansions that were modelled on Tony Montana's in Scarface, crime bosses like Ciccio Pesce from Rosarno and Antonio 'La Mamma' Pelle would construct featureless concrete bunkers where they would hide out for months at a time.


One of the secret bunkers favoured by the 'Ndrangheta in The Mafia's Secret Bunkers

Sometimes the tunnels and bunkers consisted of old shipping containers sunk into orange groves or behind water tanks and radiators and then be kitted out with TVs, heaters and stereos.

The bunker in which Pelle was eventually captured had its own greenhouse to grow cannabis.

The entrance to one secret passageway was hidden inside an oven – a door leading to a 30 metre corridor that lead to a bunker equipped with a shower that featured yet another secret escape door.

“There’s a kind of madness here !” Dickie said, as he wedged himself into yet another claustrophobic maze, eventually emerging and exclaiming with amazement “this is a COMPLETELY different house !’’

Yes, you thought, that is the general idea.


A member of 'cacciatori' - the 'hunters' chasing Calabria's 'Ndrangheta bosses uncovers a getaway tunnel inside a pizza oven

Obviously everybody in the village knew these tunnels and bunkers had been constructed but in Calabria, it is the 'Ndrangheta not the police who are the law and who are the more feared.

One informant remembered when Pesce was 14 or 15 and went round Rosarno brandishing Kalashnikovs, firing into the air and the walls - to send out a message ('just to make a mess').


'Ndrangheta boss Ciccio Pesce from the feared Calabrian 'Pesce' family - one of the targets in The Mafia's Secret Bunkers

Only one man had stood up to the 'Ndrangheta. Dickie went to visit Gaetano Saffioti 10 miles south of Rosarno, in the fortified compound where he lived, protected round the clock by the police.


Ironically he had made a stand against the protection money the 'Ndrangheta were 'taxing' him on the multi-million pound company he had built up from nothing.

He filmed them and handing the tapes over to a public prosecutor.

45 members of the 'Ndrangheta were arrested as a result.



The next day, only five of his 45 employees turned up for work. Orders for his construction company suddenly vanished. The bank closed his accounts - even the ones with money in them.

His friends shunned him - for fear of association and because even the law-abiding don't approve of

informants in Calabria.

Then one day Saffioti received a note promising 45 bullets were coming his way.

The police came to 'protect' him and he has been a prisoner in his own home ever since.


Gaetano Saffioti, one of the only men to have reported the 'Ndrangheta to the authorities describing how his business was ruined and he became a pariah

Dickie was convinced “the tide of history has finally begun to turn.”

The Italian government has spent millions on spy planes that enable them to zoom in on number plates and tell from the chimneys of seemingly abandoned farmhouses whether the heating is on from 2,500 feet in the air.

One such plane filmed evidence of bulldozers and concrete mixers at a local scrapyard, but no evidence of any buildings - not above ground anyway. 

The subsequent raid eventually flushed out Pesce - 15 kilos lighter and white as a corpse from a bunker under a chicken coop where he had been hiding for two months, like someone buried in a tomb.

 'I would never hurt you !' the 'Ndrangheta leader joked to the police as they cuffed him. 'I know you have children too. I know you have little ones...'

The trial of 64 members from his clan in yet another (bombproof) bunker showed - Dickie claimed - that the state could take on the 'Ndrangheta and win. 

Saffioti though remains a prisoner and a pariah.

'Here we are in a kind of bunker,' he said. 'It's the price you have to pay. I pay this willingly for what I set out to achieve. But only when there are many of us will I be able to call myself completely free, to go for a ride on my bike or go to the beach, to watch the sea and swim. All those things that normal people do but I'm prevented from doing. Sooner or later it'll happen. We need more time but it will happen. I’m sure of it.'

For anyone seeing this programme, it was hard to be so sure.

To see John Dickie's documentary The Mafia's Secret Bunkers clickhere


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