An Italian Studies Scholarly Blog
(University College London)
by Diego Scarabelli
It isn’t just the history of the ‘Ndrangheta in the nineteenth century that has been neglected: it is the ‘Ndrangheta tout court. It’s sometimes said that the ‘Ndrangheta has been covered by a ‘cono d’ombra’: a deep media shadow. The main reason for this is simply that Calabria is not remotely as politically important as are Naples and Palermo (where the camorra and mafia are most visible). Calabria can be safely ignored, by comparison. Once you start to research the history of the ‘Ndrangheta, you find that there are lots of sources because the police and magistrature knew all about it.
It’s a mixture of both. In terms of its structures, rituals, and rites, the story is one of profound continuity. In that sense, the ‘Ndrangheta is a living museum of the nineteenth-century prison camorras that gave rise to it. The basic methods are similar too: extortion and trafficking. It’s also becoming more and more clear that the kind of centralised coordinating structure to the ‘Ndrangheta, with the meeting at Polsi every September, etc., is much older than is supposed by the judge’s ruling in the history-making ‘Crimine’ case which is going through the Italian courts at the moment (the case tries to prove that the ‘Ndrangheta has a ruling committee, called the ‘Crimine’).
But there are also discontinuities. Most of the ‘ndranghetisti of the nineteenth century were pimps. Now the ‘Ndrangheta considers pimping dishonourable. That transformation, I think, shows the way that the Calabrian mafia changed into a more family-based organisation between the two wars. A fascinating change. The expansion abroad is also a dramatic development in the organisation. And we know very little about the history of how that happened: the ‘Ndrangheta was already well established in Australia in the 1920s and 1930s, for example. Then there are the changes of the post-war period, when the ‘Ndrangheta essentially became much, much richer.
The story is about as true as the story of the three bears. But it is of course a foundation myth, and as such is significant for the organization’s internal culture. I don’t know what models the story was based on (the first evidence I have found of it in a trial dates back to the 1890s). Camorra and Mafia have similar founding myths: the Garduna and the Beati Paoli respectively. And we know what the models for those fables were. But not in this case.
The groups have always had ‘diplomatic’ relations within the prison system. Those ties became much closer from the 1960s when we begin to see examples of ‘double affiliation’: members of the ‘Ndrangheta like Don ‘Ntoni Macrì, who were also initiated into Cosa Nostra. That’s a sign of much closer business links in tobacco smuggling, drugs and kidnapping. What the state of play is now is, obviously, very difficult to tell.
John Dickie is Professor of Italian Studies at University College London and an internationally recognised expert on many aspects of Italian history. In 2005 he was awarded the title Commendatore dell’Ordine della Stella della Solidarietà Italiana. He has published widely in academic journals on various topics in Italian history and he has also written extensively for the press in the UK, Italy and other countries. He is the author of several books among which are: Cosa Nostra. A History of the Sicilian Mafia (London: Hodder & Stoughton 2004), Blood Brotherhoods: the Rise of the Italian Mafias (London: Sceptre 2011) and Mafia Republic: Italy’s Criminal Curse. Cosa Nostra, ‘Ndrangheta and Camorra from 1946 to the Present (London: Hodder & Stoughton 2013).