The Calabrian 'Ndrangheta (from the Greek word andragathía for "heroism" and "virtue"—"The Honored Society"), , is one of the most powerful and violent organized crime organizations in Italy. Despite not being as famous abroad as the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, and having been considered more rural compared to the Neapolitan Camorra and the Apulian Sacra Corona Unita, the 'Ndrangheta managed to become the most powerful crime syndicate of Italy in the late nineties and early 2000s. While commonly lumped together with the Sicilian Mafia, the 'Ndrangheta operates independently from the Sicilians, though there is contact between the two due to the geographical closeness of Calabria and Sicily.
There are approximately 100 of these families, totaling between 4,000 and 5,000 members in Reggio Calabria . Most of the groups (86) operate in the province of Reggio Calabria, although a portion of the recorded 70 criminal groups based in the Calabrian provinces Catanzaro and Cosenza also appears to be formally affiliated with the 'Ndrangheta. The families are concentrated in poor villages in Calabria such as Platì, Locri, San Luca, Africo and Altomonte as well as the main city and provincial capital Reggio Calabria. San Luca is considered to be the stronghold of the 'Ndrangheta. According to a former 'ndranghetista, "almost all the male inhabitants belong to the 'Ndrangheta, and the Sanctuary of Polsi has long been the meeting place of the affiliates." Bosses from outside Calabria, from as far as Canada and Australia, regularly attend the meetings at the Sanctuary of Polsi.
The 'Ndrangheta has had a remarkable ability to establish branches abroad, mainly through migration. The worldwide membership is estimated to be 20,000. The overlap of blood and mafia family seems to have helped the 'Ndrangheta expand beyond its traditional territory: "The familial bond has not only worked as a shield to protect secrets and enhance security, but also helped to maintain identity in the territory of origin and reproduce it in territories where the family has migrated". 'Ndrine are reported to be operating in northern Italy, Germany, Belgium, Holland, France, Eastern Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia. One group of 'ndranghetistas discovered outside Italy was in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, several decades ago. They were dubbed the Siderno Group by Canadian judges as most of its members hailed from Siderno.
Prosecution in Calabria is hindered by the fact that Italian judges and prosecutors who score highly in exams get to choose their posting; those who are forced to work in Calabria will usually request to be transferred right away. With weak government presence and corrupt officials, few civilians are willing to speak out against the organization.
Both the Sicilian Cosa Nostra and the 'Ndrangheta are loose confederations of about one hundred mafia groups, also called cosche or families, each of which claims sovereignty over a territory, usually a town or village, though without ever fully conquering and legitimizing its monopoly of violence.
The principal difference with the Mafia is in recruitment methods. The 'Ndrangheta recruits members on the criterion of blood relationships resulting in an extraordinary cohesion within the family clan that presents a major obstacle to investigation. Sons of ‘ndranghetisti are expected to follow in their father's footsteps, and go through a grooming process in their youth to become giovani d’onore (boys of honor) before they eventually enter the ranks as uomini d’onore (men of honor). There are relatively few Calabrians who have opted out to become a pentito; at the end of 2002, there were 157 Calabrian witnesses in the state witness protection program. Unlike the Sicilian Mafia in the early 1990s, they have scrupulously avoided a head-on confrontation with the Italian state.
A 'Ndrangheta crime family is called a locale (place). A locale may have branches, called 'ndrina (plural: 'ndrine), in the districts of the same city, in neighbouring towns and villages, or even outside Calabria, in cities and towns in the industrial North of Italy in and around Turin and Milan. Sometimes sotto 'ndrine are established. These subunits enjoy a high degree of autonomy – they have a leader and independent staff. In some contexts the 'ndrine have become more powerful than the locale on which they formally depend. Other observers maintain that the 'ndrina is the basic organizational unit. Each 'ndrina is "autonomous on its territory and no formal authority stands above the " 'ndrina boss", according to the Antimafia Commission. The 'ndrina is usually in control of a small town or a neighborhood. If more than one 'ndrina operates in the same town, they form a locale.
Blood family and membership of the crime family overlap to a great extent within the 'Ndrangheta. By and large, the 'ndrine consist of men belonging to the same family lineage. Salvatore Boemi, Anti-mafia prosecutor in Reggio Calabria, told the Italian Antimafia Commission that "one becomes a member for the simple fact of being born in a mafia family," although other reasons might attract a young man to seek membership, and non-kin have also been admitted. Marriages help cement relations within each 'ndrina and to expand membership. As a result, a few blood families constitute each group, hence "a high number of people with the same last name often end up being prosecuted for membership of a given 'ndrina." Indeed, since there is no limit to the membership of a single unit, bosses try to maximize descendants.
At the bottom of the chain of command are the picciotti d’onore or soldiers, who are expected to perform tasks with blind obedience until they are promoted to the next level of cammorista, where they will be granted command over their own group of soldiers. The next level is known as santista and higher still is the vangelista, upon which the up-and-coming gangster has to swear their dedication to a life of crime on the Bible. The quintino is the second highest level of command in a 'Ndrangheta clan, being made up of five privileged members of the crime family who report directly to the boss, the capobastone (head of command).
Unlike the Sicilian Mafia, the 'Ndrangheta managed to maintain a horizontal organizational structure up to the early 1990s, avoiding the establishment of a formal superordinate body. Information of several witnesses has undermined the myth of absolute autonomy of Calabrian crime families, however. At least since the end of the 19th century, stable mechanisms for coordination and dispute settlement were created. Contacts and meetings among the bosses of the locali were frequent.
At least since the 1950s, the chiefs of the 'Ndrangheta locali have met regularly near the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Polsi in the municipality of San Luca during the September Feast. These annual meetings, known as the crimine, have traditionally served as a forum to discuss future strategies and settle disputes among the locali. The assembly exercises weak supervisory powers over the activities of all 'Ndrangheta groups. Strong emphasis was placed on the temporary character of the position of the crimine boss. A new representative was elected at each meeting. Far from being the "boss of the bosses," the capo crimine actually has comparatively little authority to interfere in family feuds or to control the level of interfamily violence.
At these meetings, every boss "must give account of all the activities carried out during the year and of all the most important facts taking place in his territory such as kidnappings, homicides, etc." The historical preeminence of the San Luca family is such that every new group or locale must obtain its authorization to operate and every group belonging to the 'Ndrangheta "still has to deposit a small percentage of illicit proceeds to the principale of San Luca in recognition of the latter’s primordial supremacy."
Security concerns have led to the creation in the 'Ndrangheta of a secret society within the secret society: La Santa. Membership in the Santa is only known to other members. Contrary to the code, it allowed bosses to establish close connections with state representatives, even to the extent that some were affiliated with the Santa. These connections were often established through the Freemasonry, which the santisti - breaking another rule of the traditional code - were allowed to join.
During the 17th century there was a secret society in Calabria that resembled but was not called 'Ndrangheta. Whether this was the seeds of 'Ndrangheta is speculation.
The first certain evidence of 'Ndrangheta derives from shortly after Italian unification (1861). Thus it is common to give its date of origin as being around this point. Italian unity was not immediately a positive development for southern Italy: the local populace was impoverished while squires from the north took over large southern estates and heavy taxation was imposed. In this situation, 'Ndrangheta was either formed or heavily reinforced (if it already existed) by Calabrians who wanted to get even by blackmailing and robbing the rich (see also Social bandits).
Until 1975, the 'Ndrangheta operated only in Calabria, mainly involved in extortion and blackmailing. Then a gang war started, killing 300 people. The prevailing faction began to kidnap rich people from northern Italy for ransom. It is believed that John Paul Getty III was one of their victims, though the kidnappers have never been caught. The "second 'Ndrangheta war" raged from 1985 to 1991. The bloody six-year war between the Condello-Imerti clan and De Stefano allied with the Tegano clan left 600 deaths. In the 1990s the organization started to invest in the illegal international drug trade, mainly importing cocaine from Colombia.
Francesco Fortugno, popular center-left politician and deputy president of the regional parliament, was openly killed by the 'Ndrangheta on October 16, 2005, in Locri. Demonstrations against the organization ensued, with youthful protesters carrying banderoles of "Ammazzateci tutti!"—"Kill us all! The government started a large-scale enforcement operation in Calabria and arrested numerous 'ndranghetistas including the murderers of Fortugno.
In March 2006, the national anti-Mafia prosecutor announced the discovery of a submarine in Colombia; it was being constructed on behalf of the 'Ndrangheta for smuggling cocaine.
The 'Ndrangheta has recently expanded its activities to Northern Italy, mainly to sell drugs and to invest in legitimate businesses which can be used for money laundering. The mayor of Buccinasco was threatened when he tried to halt these investments; in May 2007 twenty members of 'Ndrangheta were arrested in Milan.
On August 30, 2007, hundreds of police raided the small town of San Luca, the focal point of the bitter San Luca feud between rival clans among the 'Ndrangheta. Over 30 men and women, linked to the killing of six Italian men in Germany, were arrested.