Rocco Morabito could see beachfront bars from his hotel room in João Pessoa, in the Brazilian state of Paraíba. He could feel the breeze dancing in off the Atlantic Ocean, watch swimmers paddling the blue waters, and survey sunbathers enjoying the golden sands.
But when authorities tracked him down in May 2021, Morabito was trapped inside his hotel. As a prominent member of the 'Ndrangheta's Morabito clan and Italy's second-most wanted man, he could not afford to take risks.
Morabito had helped the 'Ndrangheta bolster its connections with South American cocaine suppliers, aiding the Italian mafia group's rise as one of Europe's most powerful trafficking organizations.
However, despite Morabito's important role in the 'Ndrangheta, his time on the lam hadn't majorly disrupted its operations. The network of clans that make up the 'Ndrangheta act largely independently of one another, meaning the structure as a whole is highly resilient to the loss of even top-level players.
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Being on the run was nothing new for Morabito. He had fled his native Italy in 1994 after police staged a sting operation in which he offered undercover agents millions of dollars to buy a ton of cocaine.
He left Europe for South America and eventually became one of the most important cocaine brokers for several 'Ndrangheta clans in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay. He also played a fundamental role in connecting powerful Calabrian families to numerous international drug trafficking organizations.
"He was like an ambassador for the 'Ndrangheta in South America," Roberto Saviano, an Italian journalist and mafia expert, once said of him.
Authorities in Uruguay caught up with Morabito in 2017, but he and several others escaped from prison there in 2019.
He went on the run again, ending up in João Pessoa, sharing the hotel with another 'Ndrangheta operator. In July 2022, a little over a year after his arrest by Brazilian authorities, he was extradited to Italy, where he is expected to spend the rest of his life in prison.
A Leaderless Model
The 'Ndrangheta's decentralized operations give the clans the flexibility to adapt to leadership losses while limiting the fallout to the broader network.
"Outsiders can only contact the one person from the 'Ndrangheta clan that they need for the drug deal; others do not get exposed," University of Essex criminology professor Anna Sergi told InSight Crime.
At the same time, each clan benefits from being associated with the 'Ndrangheta brand -- a stamp of approval that stands for reliability in the criminal world.
"Drug trafficking demands a lot of trust between the two sides. So the more reliable you are, the more you can buy. And the 'Ndrangheta are like a Swiss watch. They're always on time with payments," journalist and mafia expert Sergio Nazzaro told InSight Crime.
The 'Ndrangheta's structure also makes it easier for new clans to enter the cocaine market, with established clans providing entrants access to brokers while acting as guarantors for drug shipments. This referral system, according to Sergi, has increased the number of 'Ndrangheta clans active in the transnational cocaine trade from around 10 in the 1990s to between 35 and 50 clans in the 2000s.
Bosses of 'Ndrangheta clans don't always get directly involved in the drug trade. Despite being one of the most prominent 'Ndrangheta drug traffickers in South America, Morabito was not the boss of his own clan. He made cocaine deals independently on behalf of the clan without having to ask for its approval.
"He was kind of the executive manager. But the president with the real power was someone else," Sergi said.
Morabito followed in the footsteps of other similar brokers who had gone before him, in particular Nicola Assisi.
Like Morabito, Assisi operated independently, using 'Ndrangheta contacts and the brand name but not limiting himself to working with only one 'Ndrangheta clan.
He first appeared on the radar of Italian authorities in the 1990s when he was linked to cocaine trafficking from Barcelona, Spain, to Turin, Italy, and Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
He was arrested in Turin in 1997 as part of a cocaine seizure that was the largest in the city's history at that time. Assisi served one year in pretrial detention and was released pending a court case that would drag on for the next decade.
In 2002, Assisi's mentor and a prominent broker, Pasquale Marando, mysteriously disappeared. Assisi allegedly took over the management of Marando's Colombian cocaine supplier network, becoming a middleman for several powerful 'Ndrangheta clans in Turin.
But in 2007, a court in Turin sentenced him to 14 years in prison, spurring him to flee Italy, first for Spain and then to Latin America.
Assisi quickly made connections in South America's underworld, eventually collaborating with the Brazilian First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), who would organize logistics through Brazilian ports, while other 'Ndrangheta clans facilitated the reception of the cocaine in European ports.
Buying cocaine closer to the source allowed Assisi and his partners to promise good profit margins to their 'Ndrangheta clients.
When Brazilian authorities arrested Assisi in São Paulo in July 2019, the 'Ndrangheta once again showed its resilience. Morabito, having recently escaped from the Uruguay prison, allegedly stepped in to make sure the cocaine flow to Europe continued uninterrupted.
The 'Ndrangheta's Future
Italy's anti-drugs authorities believe the 'Ndrangheta remains one of the most powerful and dangerous criminal organizations in the world, notwithstanding recent arrests of figures like Assisi and Morabito.
Nonetheless, the clans are facing increasing competition from other European cocaine trafficking networks.
Other actors, especially Albanian networks, learned from the 'Ndrangheta model and now also operate upstream, securing cocaine from closer to the source through independent brokers.
"Albanians were brought in to simply move stuff from A to B. But they became experts in European logistics, and these logistics networks now mainly belong to Albanian criminal groups," Nazzaro said.
The 'Ndrangheta clans have adapted in turn and often cooperate with Albanian networks.
"The Albanians aren't competitors. They are partners," Sergi said.
Yet with Latin America currently witnessing record levels of cocaine production, there's plenty of business to go around.