The port of Gioia Tauro was buzzing with activity in December 2020. In addition to deliveries of legitimate cargo, a container from Santos, Brazil, had arrived carrying 300 kilograms of cocaine.
One of the world's most powerful criminal organizations, the 'Ndrangheta, allegedly paid a customs officer 261,000 euros to doctor the container's X-ray scans so it could pass inspection.
But that officer wasn't acting alone, according to Italian authorities. Complicit dockworkers shifted the cocaine into a second container, which was then loaded onto a truck belonging to a complicit freight company. Local coordinators ensured the smooth execution of the complex plan.
Those involved likely didn't know that Italy’s Financial Police (Guardia di Finanza) would descend on Gioia Tauro less than two years later, having planting undercover officers in the port and accessed encrypted phone calls with the goal of breaking up the 'Ndrangheta's corruption ring.
In a raid on October 6, authorities arrested 36 people, including dock workers, customs officers, truck drivers, and field coordinators. The suspects allegedly formed part of a smuggling network that annually brought up to 30 tons of cocaine into Italy, and was headed by members of some of the main 'Ndrangheta families.
Gioia Tauro is Italy's biggest port, and one of the largest in Europe, making it a key gateway for cocaine entering the continent. It also happens to lie in Italy's Calabria region, the heartland of the 'Ndrangheta -- a network of family clans that share cultural and criminal ties, but operate largely independently.
Over several decades, 'Ndrangheta clans have become the main European allies for some of Latin America's most experienced cocaine traffickers. From Mexico to Ecuador, and from Colombia to Brazil, 'Ndrangheta operatives have been arrested on drug trafficking charges in virtually every country in the Americas. Even Uruguay detained one of the 'Ndrangheta's foremost leaders, Rocco Morabito, in 2017, leading to a rollercoaster saga in which he escaped over the roof of his prison and spent two years on the run before his May 2021 recapture in Brazil.
But the 'Ndrangheta did not always seem fated to become one of the main suppliers of cocaine to Europe. The mafia group's rise is partly due to luck and happenstance. And its future, too, may depend on circumstances that are outside its ability to control.
The North America-Colombia Cocaine Connection
The 'Ndrangheta was born in Calabria, likely in the 19th century. As the clans became more tightly interwoven with Calabrian society, massive emigration from the area, driven by political and economic turmoil, sowed the seeds of the 'Ndrangheta's future international operations.
By the 1960s, ‘Ndrangheta clans began accumulating large quantities of money through legal and illegal activities that included labor racketeering, extortion, and kidnapping. From the 1970s onwards, the clans invested profits in lucrative illegal activities, especially cigarette smuggling, in partnership with Sicilian mafia families in the United States, known as Cosa Nostra.
Soon after, in the 1980s, wealthy ‘Ndrangheta clans started investing in cocaine shipments from Colombia to the United States, arranged by the Italian mafia families in the United States, in particular the Cosa Nostra.
Although 'Ndrangheta clans were able to establish a more permanent presence in some countries, including the United States, Canada, and Australia, they weren't able to do the same in Latin America. To this day, even in countries like Argentina with large Calabrian diaspora communities, 'Ndrangheta presence is usually limited to individuals who broker drug trafficking deals on behalf of others.
Roberto Pannunzi was a pioneer in this regard, according to University of Essex criminology professor Anna Sergi, who specializes in Italian organized crime.
Pannunzi had struck it rich. Born in Rome, he had established himself as an independent broker in Colombia in the late 1980s, bridging the gap between Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel and Italy's Cosa Nostra and ‘Ndrangheta clans. He became an influential cocaine broker, setting up multi-ton shipments of cocaine across Europe before being arrested twice, escaping twice, and finally being caught in Colombia and extradited to Italy.
While the ‘Ndrangheta initially piggybacked on these connections, they were soon able to deal directly with the upstream cocaine brokers. Around the turn of the century, the clans had their own network of local representatives in Colombia.
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The timing could not have been better. Just as the US government intensified its "war on drugs" throughout the 1980s and 1990s, demand for cocaine increased in Europe. The ‘Ndrangheta clans were in a perfect position to exploit this growing market. Their connections to Latin American brokers were a strong plus but they had an even more important advantage: their control over the port of Gioia Tauro.
The Perfect Cocaine Route to Europe
The port of Gioia Tauro became operational in 1995, and the 'Ndrangheta established a strong presence there from the start using labor racketeering and extortion. One of the clans, the Piromalli family, reportedly charged $1.50 for each of the 570,000 containers that were transshipped at the port each year.
The strong 'Ndrangheta control in the port made it also ideal for cocaine trafficking, as the clans could offer an almost guaranteed entry of illicit shipments.
“It became the obvious choice, even for other traffickers," Sergi told InSight Crime. "The ‘Ndrangheta became kind of a guarantor for cocaine trafficking in Europe because they had Gioia Tauro, which was, for years, basically an untouched door."
Four years later, a report solicited by the European Commission came to a similar conclusion, stating that the internationalization of ‘Ndrangheta activity in the 1990s corresponded with the construction of Gioia Tauro, and that it was "likely that organized crime enjoyed a bonanza as a result of the port operations."
A Sea Change at Gioia Tauro?
The October 6 raid illustrates that ‘Ndrangheta clans still use Gioia Tauro to import big cocaine loads into Europe. But the port's criminal heyday may be ending due to increased scrutiny from law enforcement combined with changing global dynamics of both licit and illicit trade.
Italian law enforcement and customs have been ratcheting up interdiction efforts and criminal investigations around the port over the past two decades, targeting the main ‘Ndrangheta clans operating there. In 2021, authorities seized 13 tons of cocaine at the port, representing 97% of all cocaine confiscated at Italy's borders, and roughly 20% of all cocaine passing through Italy's territory, as stated by Bruno Megale, the police commissioner for the region of Reggio Calabria, in a December 2021 parliamentary inquiry.
Moreover, Gioia Tauro has lost importance as a trade hub for both legal and illegal goods relative to other European ports. For traffickers, legal trade flows often dictate the routes of illicit trafficking. A smaller amount of legitimate shipments passing through Gioia Tauro offers fewer opportunities to sneak in illicit cargo.
Traffickers have instead turned to Europe’s biggest ports, Antwerp and Rotterdam. Belgian and Dutch authorities in those two ports seized 89 and 70 tons of cocaine respectively in 2021, much more than Gioia Tauro’s 13 tons.
The 'Ndrangheta is also facing increasing competition from other European trafficking networks. In Colombia, the main cocaine production country, criminal organizations have broken apart into smaller factions. This has opened the door for other European groups, like Albanian networks, to buy cocaine directly in South America.
The 'Ndrangheta, however, appear well positioned to survive Gioia Tauro's declining importance as a gateway for cocaine to Europe.
The clans' control of other Italian ports has helped keep their trafficking operations in motion. In August 2022, Brazilian authorities seized over half a ton of cocaine destined for the port terminal of Vado Ligure, which the 'Ndrangheta use as an alternative for Gioia Tauro, according to Italian media outlet Reggio Today.
The port of Genoa, part of the same port cluster, is among "the most infiltrated by the 'Ndrangheta," Federico Cafiero de Raho, Italian National Antimafia and Counterterrorism Prosecutor said in 2017, according to a 2022 Parliamentary Commission report.
Also, the ‘Ndrangheta are now often partnering with other groups, trafficking through different European ports and sharing the costs and risks for a shipment.
“The ‘Ndrangheta share trafficking infrastructure because the routes have changed. When they import via ports like Rotterdam and Antwerp, the clans need to make alliances," Sergi said. “Drug trafficking is no longer a monopoly; it is a table with more seats."