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The origins of the ‘ndrangheta of Calabria: Italy’s most powerful mafia

By Carly Schnabl, on 14 March 2011

Although not as famous worldwide as the Sicilian Cosa Nostra or the Neapolitan Camorra, the Calabrian mafia is believed to be Italy’s richest and most powerful organised crime syndicate.

Patrick Mcgauley, MPhil student in UCL Italian, reports on Professor John Dickie’s exploration of the historical origins of the ‘ndrangheta in his lunchtime lecture on 1st March at UCL.

The ‘ndrangheta consolidated its power in the 1980s and 1990s through its control of the European cocaine market. It hit international headlines on 17 August 2007 when six men of Calabrian origin were murdered in the German town of Duisburg.

However, compared to southern Italy’s other organised crime associations, little is known about the Calabrian mafia’s emergence in the late 19th century.

The first reports of organised crime in Calabria emerged in the 1860s and 1870s but it was from the 1880s onwards that overwhelming evidence for the ‘ndrangheta’s existence appeared.

But how and why did the ‘ndrangheta come into being? Traditional explanations tended to blame the violence, familism and patronage politics of Calabrian society for generating the region’s mafia.

This assertion was challenged during the lecture with the use of hitherto neglected archival sources uncovered in Calabria.

In the spring of 1888 newspapers began reporting incidents of knife duels, razor attacks and extortion rackets in the Calabrian town of Palmi.

The Italian authorities reacted by charging a number of criminal gangs in 1889 and 1890. Documents from these trials illustrate that the ‘ndrangheta originated in the Calabrian prison system in the late 19th century.

Magistrates realised that they were dealing with an organisation which had a hierarchical structure, a distinct dress code and an initiation ceremony similar to the one the ‘ndrangheta employs today.

But why did the Calabrian mafia emerge in the 1880s? Professor Dickie argued that a combination of politics and violence was behind the ‘ndrangheta’s establishment in the late 19th century.

The 1880s saw the arrival of mass politics in Italy with 25% of Italian males entitled to vote. This resulted in an increased demand for violence in the political domain.

Local politicians and the Ministry for the Interior used violence to ensure that their preferred candidate was successful at the ballot box. Organised crime played a salient role in this process.

As a result the ‘ndrangheta was able to establish the territorial control in southern Calabria which it continues to impose today.

Further reading: John Dickie, Blood Brotherhoods: The Rise of the Italian Mafias, released later this year.

Watch the Lunch Hour Lecture:

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