When police went after Mafia boss Francesco “The Fat Head” Pesce in southern Italy, they ended up with more than they bargained for: his local soccer team, Rosarnese.
The semi-professional squad, controlled by the Pesce crime family for years, according to a clan member who turned state’s witness in 2010, found itself placed under judicial control in 2011 and in need of new sponsors.
Though soccer is virtually a religion in Italy, no new backer came forward — for fear of angering the ‘Ndrangheta, a powerful Mafia network in Calabria, the region in the “toe” of Italy. In July last year, after a dismal season of 24 losses, five draws and just five wins, the Rosarnese team was dismantled.
The demise of the soccer club, which was a small part of 220 million euros (US$296 million) in assets law officers seized from the Pesce clan, illustrates the growing influence of the ‘Ndrangheta. The group’s economic clout now surpasses that of its more storied Sicilian cousin, the Cosa Nostra, Italy’s top anti-Mafia magistrates say.
“Today, the Calabrian Mafia is a national and an international force. It pollutes the economy and is heavily compromising the political system,” said Pierpaolo Romani, national coordinator of an association uniting city governments against the Mafia and author of the book Criminal Soccer about the mob’s interest in the sport. “With a football team, the ‘Ndrangheta expands both its economic reach and its political standing in a community.”
The ‘Ndrangheta has grown rich thanks to a business strategy focused on cocaine. Just 5km from Rosarno is the huge container port of Gioia Tauro, where almost half of all the cocaine seized by police in Italy last year was found. The harbor, positioned half-way between the Strait of Gibraltar and the Suez Canal, is a key commercial hub and has become the ‘Ndrangheta’s main artery for South American cocaine and other contraband, which it hides in the flow of legal cargo.
The police have had some victories over the ‘Ndrangheta and other Mafia groups. Pesce, for instance, was convicted for racketeering and mafia conspiracy and is serving a 20-year sentence in a high-security prison. He denies any wrongdoing and is appealing the ruling.
Despite such gains, the sums involved in organized crime in Italy, which will vote in a new parliament next month, remain enormous. Taken together, Italy’s main crime groups — the ‘Ndrangheta, the Cosa Nostra and the Camorra from Naples — would have an annual turnover of 116 billion euros, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. That is more than the annual sales of Italy’s biggest company, oil-giant Eni.
In a basement on the outskirts of Rome is a nerve-center in the fight against smuggling: the anti-fraud unit of the national customs agency. There, a team of 15 analysts — including computer experts, a mathematician, a statistician and an electrical engineer — occupies a room with 10 large flat screens showing live maps of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Investigators using sophisticated computer analysis and a vast database try to identify high-risk containers heading for Italy.
In particular, the unit monitors ships traveling to Gioia Tauro and passes its information to finance police in Calabria, who combine that data with intelligence gathered through more traditional investigative methods, such as bugged cars, wiretaps or stakeouts. However, the odds of finding smuggled drugs in the giant port are stacked against the police.