Italy's Mafia Gets A Homegrown Rival

Most people have heard of the Italian Mafia, but there's another crime organization based in the south of the country that's been steadily growing in the Mafia's shadow — and its tentacles are spreading nearly as far.

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In Italy last week, police arrested more than 300 people allegedly linked to what has become the country's most powerful organized crime group. It's based not in Sicily, but in the southern Calabria region.

In this letter from Italy, NPR's Sylvia Poggioli tries to shed some light on this impenetrable crime syndicate.

(Soundbite of a song)

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: This song is part of a CD called "Songs of the Criminal Life: Songs of the Ndrangheta," also known as the Honorable Society. Its members vow to observe Omerta, The Law of Silence. Their lyrics are violent.

(Soundbite of a song)

Unidentified Man: (singing) Omerta. Omerta...

POGGIOLI: (Reading) While the sawed-off shotgun sings, the traitors screams and dies. This is the law of our society. Blind, deaf and dumb am I, I am one of the society.

The Ndrangheta is so secret that even the name's origin is unclear. It may be Greek and it may mean Society of Men. It's code language is called Serpentina, meaning twisted and difficult for outsiders to understand.

The Ndrangheta was born, perhaps in the 18th century, to protect the poor from a distant oppressive government. Investigators say today's Ndrangheta is one of the world's most powerful organized crime groups. Its tentacles stretch to Canada and Australia, and it's a major distributor of Colombian cocaine across Europe.

More than half of last week's arrests were in the wealthy northern region of Lombardy and they included local politicians, a sign police say the Ndrangheta has infiltrated Italy's industrial and financial center. But Ndrangheta headquarters is still in the rugged and remote mountains of Calabria - Italy's poorest region.

Thanks to wiretaps and hidden cameras, police were able observe closely numerous secret summits, held during family events like weddings and baptisms. It's there that leadership elections were held and key decisions made.

Despite the crime group's international reach, its rituals are steeped in archaic traditions, traditions evoked in songs obsessed with honor, betrayal and vengeance. These crime song lyrics are officially banned in Italy. But some years ago, on a trip to Calabria, I saw that these CDs are easily available in local marketplaces.

Calabria is lush, filled with palms, bergamots and hibiscus trees, and its coastline has some of the longest sandy beaches in the Mediterranean. Its sea is crystalline. But Calabrians are taciturn and reserved and cool with outsiders.

Officials say that contrary to the Sicilian and Neapolitan Mafias, Ndrangheta informers are all but non-existent. And while in recent years there have been anti-Ndrangheta demonstrations by Calabrian high school students, the climate of both fear and complicity, police say, ensure the Ndrangheta's near total territorial control.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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