The infamous organised crime group has smothered the Italian region of Calabria. Anna Sergi and Claudio Petrozziello investigate whether they have come to London.
Forget the Cosa Nostra, the Chinese Triads and the Mexican Cartels. The ’Ndrangheta is regarded by many as the most powerful organised crime syndicate on the planet. It has more money and a more extensive reach over the legal economy. It maintains a particularly effective grip on certain illicit markets, primarily the cocaine trade. Research and policing efforts on the ‘Ndrangheta have looked at its expansion to Germany, Australia, Canada, various European markets, and even some American industries.
What is the ‘Ndrangheta you say? It’s the name of the ‘Honoured Society’, a mafia-type organisation, whose shadowy origins lie in the Southern Italian region of Calabria. You should visit Calabria for some its seaside towns, its beautiful inlets and caves behind and above the deep blue Mediterranean Sea. They are just gorgeous. But the ‘Ndrangheta – try and pronounce it – ‘N-d-r-à-n-g-h-e-t-a – is said to be everywhere. Some say that it is a global threat, others that it is more like a powerful, free-flowing river that cannot be stopped (yes, someone did say that). Some experts believe that it is the most powerful criminal organisation of all time.
Now in order to make a mafia, you need certain ingredients. You need rituals and formulas for recruitment and affiliation, you need reputation-supporting violence that binds a group together. You need the capacity to intimidate and subjugate people around you. Most of all, you need the ability to invest in foreign and local commerce, licit or illicit, and to seek influence within local or national politics that benefits your power-hungry and profit-seeking structure. The ‘Ndrangheta, aside from having all of this, has a particular link with the culture and the territory of Calabria, where it originates and still operates.
Has anyone heard of these rituals and affiliations on these shores? Of Calabrian-born offenders corrupting economic and political structures in this country? Not really. None of the UK agencies have ever mentioned the ‘Ndrangheta – or the mafia – as a national problem. There is no data suggesting this criminal organisation is anywhere near us, and the relevant authorities can barely pronounce their name. And yet, Italian authorities swear that not only the ‘Ndrangheta is spread across Europe, but that the UK is yet another outpost in its burgeoning empire.
Logically, it’s either one or the other: either the ‘Ndrangheta has expanded its reach to the UK; or the UK is secure from the ‘Ndrangheta influence. If the former, then where are the recorded instances of their activity? And if the latter, where is this cognitive discrepancy coming from?
The Jewel of the Sea
On the 31st March of this year, at the High Court, Mr Justice Fordham made a defunct law firm, Giambrone & Law, pay €3.5 million to 41 separate investors. The case didn’t make the headlines, but this was only the latest ruling of almost thirteen years of litigation in the British court system about alleged ‘Ndrangheta activity.
The defendants, Giambrone & Law, were practicing in London and Italy at the time of the events. Two Italian companies also feature in the story: RDV Srl (‘RDV’) and Veco Construzioni Srl (‘Veco’). The administrator (i.e. director) of RDV was one Mr Cuppari, and the administrator of Veco was Mr Velardo.
In 2006, Veco and RDV were planning to construct luxury apartments on two adjoining sites at Brancaleone in Calabria. The two developments together were known as ‘Jewel of the Sea’.
With this enticing name they had hoped to boost sales. Prospective clients for the holiday homes were supposed to be buyers from the UK and Ireland. They had made arrangements for two individuals in the UK and Ireland to sell apartments ‘off-plan’. Those individuals were Mr Velardo and Mr Fitzsimons. This pair had met Mr Giambrone at a property exhibition in London: they needed lawyers to proceed with the sales. Mr Giambrone accepted that role, and then started arranging the sales on their behalf.
But then in March 2009, an Italian newspaper, Corriere della Calabria, published details of malpractice being performed on the part of those carrying out the development. An investigation began under the name Operation Metropolis, and four years later the Guardia di Finanza took possession of the entire Jewel of the Sea development because of suspected money laundering and ‘Ndrangheta involvement.
In Operation Metropolis, the Antimafia District Prosecutors of Reggio Calabria found that seventeen other tourist developments along the Calabrian coastline similar to Jewel of the Sea were in fact money laundering ventures facilitated by a ‘Ndrangheta clan. Mr Antonio Velardo, the property salesman in London, was indicated as a mafia member, whose sudden wealth was considered evidence of a close association with a source of huge funds derived from criminal activities.
Police reports named Mr Antonio Cuppari, owner of RDV in Brancaleone, as being from the Morabito clan in the ‘Ndrangheta (a very wealthy and established clan). And don’t forget Mr Fitzsimons, a convicted IRA terrorist who, according to Italian police, had developed links with the ‘Ndrangheta to ‘funnel dirty money from the IRA’s criminal activities into holiday developments in the far south of Italy’.
at the high court
In 2013, Giambrone’s name was withdrawn from the Solicitor Registration Authority’s Register of European Lawyers over ‘accounting irregularities’ in connection with this case. In 2017, the Court of Appeal found the firm liable for the full consequences of their failure to advise prospective clients of the risks, including the risk of mafia involvement. Indeed, the judge at the time, Lord Justice Jackson, stated ‘Giambrone knew perfectly well about Mafia activities affecting all sectors in Calabria, including the construction sector’.
The case of Giambrone, Velardo and Fitzsimons is emblematic. Even though almost all the other people involved in the trial were given heavy sentences, none of these three men have been convicted. In the eyes of this country’s courts, it was not sufficiently proven that they knew they were investing in a mafia-type network. That they invested their money is proven; that they acted on British territory, or in any case outside of Italy, that is also clear.
But is this evidence of a growing ‘Ndrangheta presence in this country? This is harder to say. What can be proven in a court of law is not always the same as what is known by investigators. And this is where we arrive at the crucial issue: the functioning of the criminal justice system in the UK.
So, when we ask whether the mafia is present in the UK or not, in reality the question is a little different. What one wants to know – sometimes morbidly – are the eye-catching stories, the ‘hidden’ secrets: but when it comes to the mafia the only important reality is the judicial one. The rest is merely suggestive intuition: chatter, that seldom leads to strategic responses from institutions. There are no British judicial truths beyond those few facts that have reached this country as the run-off from investigations conducted in Italy, just like in the case of Operation Metropolis. But that is not to definitely state that the ‘Ndrangheta is not active in the UK.
When it comes to business, the mafia is liquid: as water adapts to the container in which it is poured, so mafias adapt to the context they seek to pervade. In the early 1990s, the police in Reggio Calabria revealed that they had intercepted a very interesting conversation: the chief of the most powerful ‘Ndrangheta clan in the province was speaking with his son.
The clan boss told him that the rituals and traditions of mafia affiliation were ‘bullshit’; that young people should go to Oxford and Cambridge, get a degree and then sit on the boards of the multinational corporations or influential investment banks. The boss, Paolo De Stefano, was thinking of a new and completely different future: a liquid ‘Ndrangheta – 30 years later, that future is today – or perhaps it is yesterday. Would we recognise them as ‘ndranghetisti if they sat next to us? Why would we?
Browsing through some of the most notable mafia investigations of recent years, you can find some rather remarkable passages that explain – perhaps better than a thousand abstract theories – what ‘the mafia’ is in the eyes of Italian authorities. In these cases, people have been convicted for enabling some or all of the following activities:
‘To directly or indirectly acquire control and management of economic activities, related in particular to the large-scale food distribution sector.’… ‘To gain unfair profits or benefits for associates, external competitors or others.’… 'To prevent or obstruct the free exercise of voting rights or obtain votes for members, external competitors or others during election consultations.’
These aren’t glamorous or headline- grabbing charges. But it begs the question: how many professionals and businesses do this daily in the UK? Are profits or benefits always clear and fair? Who has the ability to actually verify who ultimately benefits from certain profits?
Consider another case, this time of an individual who was convicted during an Antimafia trial against the Tegano and Crucitti clan in Reggio Calabria, as part of Operation Raccordo-Sistema. According to the court records, they were found guilty:
‘As de facto dominus of XXX (Company, Ltd), owner of six stores of BBB brand supermarkets located in YYY, who entered into contracts for the supply of goods and / or services with companies, firms and / or companies attributable to individual clans ...’
This looks like low-level criminality. But if this is what mafiosi do in Italy, then to understand if the mafia are operating in Britain, we should ask: with whom do the major British companies do business? Do they know who they are buying from? Do they even try and find out? And once all this has been ascertained: would they still be punishable? And with what charges?
Perhaps it would be worrying for the British authorities and public to know that a restaurant, even in times of crisis, declares incomes higher than those accrued, but eventually payed less taxes to the HMRC? Or to know that an individual, fluent in different languages and able negotiate with narcotraffickers and financial professionals, has been setting up company after company in the UK, as shells for both Italian mafia clans and other international criminal groups? Italian authorities target both small-time crooks and international conmen as part of a system that connects minor crimes to major ones. The British approach, by comparison, is fragmented.
It might come as a surprise to some people to realise that the filmography and literature depicting the mafia as drug traffickers, extortionists or murderers is incomplete. They have extended their insidious reach deep throughout the professional world. If the Italian legal arsenal was extended to the UK, then tens of thousands of workers in the City of London would sleep very uneasily.
In the UK, the focus is on the end activities and not the structures beneath. The British authority charged with fighting mafia-type organisations, the National Crime Agency, only prosecute when a lengthy prison sentence is being sought. But mafias are about networks and connections, money and opportunities, from street crime and drug dealing to corporate investment. Though things are slowly changing, in the UK, because of the nature of the legal system, we cannot yet prove that the ‘Ndrangheta exists. This is not necessarily because the police and judiciary are better in Italy. It’s simply because the Italians have been fighting the mafia for over a century.