Why ‘ndrangheta is a problem for Germany as well

In 1977 Der Spiegel magazine mocked Italy by putting a plate of spaghetti “seasoned” with a gun on the cover of their 31st issue. Almost 45 years later, the problem of organised crime has become global, but many Germans still pretend not to see. This is how the ‘ndrangheta conquered Germany.

“And remember one thing. The world is divided into two: what is Calabria and what will become Calabria”.

These words, taken from a wiretapping between two ‘ndrangheta members, show the willingness to conquer by the most active and dangerous organised crime group in Europe right now. A slow but unstoppable conquest, which began in the distant post-war period, taking advantage of the legal instruments of exchange of labour between the Federal Republic of Germany and Italy. The ‘ndrangheta has, in fact, started a “peppered” conquest, imposed, at first, by migratory flows and, only later, attracted by economic interests. The mafia expansion in Germany has, therefore, a long history which has its roots in the second half of the Fifties of the last century. Despite this, however, public attention and studies on the phenomenon are much more recent. Italian mafia organisations abroad tend to move with caution, making as little noise as possible and staying away from the prying eyes of the public. This “camouflage” makes the work of those who study the phenomenon rather complex and even more difficult is to make civil society aware of the presence of an organisation which is considered non-existent by many and which is in fact invisible to most people, because it works in darkness and silence, exploiting the lack of preparation of the “hosting” countries.

The fall of the wall: new opportunities for the mafiosi

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 opened another fundamental chapter in the history of the expansion of Italian mafia organisations in Germany, and especially for ‘ndrangheta. This event, with the consequent reunification of East and West Germany, opened a new frontier and new spaces for the conquest of the Italian mafias in Europe. Mafias had a fundamental role in the start-up of business activities in the East of the country, essentially for one reason: they controlled a lot of liquidity obtained with drug trafficking and enterprises started in West Germany. In this framework of expansion, it is possible to notice a first great difference with the first flow that brought the ‘ndranghetisti to the western regions of Germany: the Calabrian association already had a logistic base in the country, had activated its supremacy on the drug traffic thanks to a solid network of outposts and it was ready to invest its money in a untouched area. The casual expansion which had characterised the first part of the ‘ndrangheta conquest was replaced by a more prudent strategy.

Structures and hierarchies: the dictates of the homeland.

“The ‘ndrangheta exists, and has certain characteristics, not because its members respect certain rules, but because those subjects recognize themselves in a mafia system, in which the term ‘ndrangheta becomes a criminal brand known in the world, in which you are not free to do what you want: if you do not behave like a ‘ndrangheta member there is someone who calls you to order”.

Said the Deputy Prosecutor of the Direzione Distrettuale Antimafia (DDA) of Reggio Calabria Giuseppe Lombardo during an anti-mafia conference organized by mafianeindanke in 2017 in collaboration with the Italian Embassy in Berlin. If Cosa Nostra – perhaps the most famous Italian mafia group from Sicily – abroad tends to shape itself according to the area in which it is located and to separate from the region of origin, the ‘ndrangheta does exactly the opposite: families abroad are and always remain a basic part of the family in Calabria. All the movements, investments and actions which are carried out in the foreign country are agreed upon with the motherland and depend on it, as is demonstrated by the feud of San Luca which, generated in Calabria, sees the trail of blood continue also in Germany with the “Massacre of Duisburg”. There are, therefore, two main goals of the ‘ndrangheta in Germany: the first concerns the international traffic of narcotics along the “Atlantic route”, which starts from the countries of South America and then arrives in Europe through the ports of Rotterdam, Antwerp, Amsterdam and Hamburg; the second is the laundering of dirty money through investments principally in restaurants, food distribution and construction sectors. Public Prosecutor Lombardo explains:

“There are some families that have a much greater criminal weight than all the others. Those of the highest rank are the families who decide the strategies: but it would be an error to consider them as the bosses of the ‘ndrangheta. The criminal structure does not depend solely on them, even if it is strongly influenced by them”, continues Lombardo: “the vertical structure that ‘ndrangheta has could make one think that today, the ‘ndrangheta, has a command group, a leader, which determines its existence. It is not that simple. The ‘ndrangheta is provided with a very sophisticated chain of command. There are three main orders, the historical ones, on which also the foreign articulations depend on: the Ionico Order, that of the city of San Luca, the “mamma” (“mum” Tn); the “Tirrenico Order”, the one of the cities of Palmi, Gioia Tauro and Rosarno; the “Centro Order”, the one of the city of Reggio Calabria. Imagine these three areas of Calabria: it is from here that the commands for the joints of ‘ndrangheta in the world start”.

Germany as fertile ground

The ‘ndrangheta is known, more than other mafia organisations, for its hunger for conquest, which took it first to the regions of Northern Italy and then to Germany. It uses the same mechanisms of penetration and the same mentality, not distorting its own character of family organisation which is based on blood ties also outside Calabria.

“The real problem revolves around the knowledge of the phenomenon, the concept of organised crime: we should talk a common language, especially at the European level, but this is not the case. The mafia-type criminal phenomenon in the Italian legal system is extremely evolved and complicated to explain, it is a system which, unfortunately, has refined its strategies through difficult and significant passages linked to massacres, murders, military type attacks which the Italian State has suffered for a long time,” explains PM Lombardo.

In Germany, as it is well known, there is no such thing as the crime for being a mafioso. The ‘ndrangheta has exploited the weaknesses of German legislation, moving undisturbed in the German social and economic fabric. If something does not change quickly, the Calabrian organisation will be able to benefit greatly and expand further. The German legislation also lacks laws regarding the seizure and confiscation of criminal assets: if a mafioso manages to live with the prospect of detention or being on the run, targeting his wealth and power means making him unarmed and this certainly frightens him.

From “Operazione Stige” to JIT Pollino: future scenarios

“It must be clearly stated that mafias are such not only when they commit evident crimes, when they acquire the control of economic activities; mafias are not only those who make unjust profits or advantages. Today, any behaviour that profoundly interferes with the life of each one of us is mafia. The mafia of the Third Millennium is this and is not always recognised by the naked eye. Not everything is mafia, but what is mafia today, all together, in Italy and abroad, we must be able to understand it immediately, without making useless turns of phrase”.

Lombardo’s opinion opens to new considerations: the anti-mafia investigative activity in Europe and Germany is making important steps forward. We must remember above all “Operation Stige” from 2016, which led to the arrest of a large number of people between Italy and Germany, and “Operation Pollino”, which saw for the first time the creation of a “Joint Investigation Team”, between the investigative forces of Italy, Germany and The Netherlands (here’s our article about the matter). There is also the positive example of Berlin that is starting to use the instrument of seizure of assets against the Clan-Kriminalität (here’s our analysis).

Recognizing the mafias, especially for a German, is very difficult. It is a phenomenon that is still surrounded by an aura of mystery dictated by the myth of the “Godfather” and folklore. This phenomenon must be studied in depth and known in Germany as well as throughout Europe: only in this way will we be able to effectively battle organised crime.

Filippo Spiezia: ”The European Commission wants to cut Eurojust’s operational budget. It is unacceptable and against the EU values”

The vice-president of Eurojust speaks at the conference ”Mafias: a European Problem”, organised at the European Parliament. Brussels, 5 February 2020.

On the 5th of February 2020 the conference ”Mafias: a European Problem” was held in Brussels at the European Parliament, promoted by the MEP Sabrina Pignedoli which saw, among the speakers, the vice-president of Eurojust Filippo Spiezia. His speech gave to the participants some food for thought that is worth reviewing.

At the beginning, Filippo Spiezia recalled the investigative operation Pollino, also known as “European ‘ndrangheta Connection”, which led to the arrest of 90 people in 2018 and produced one of the most effective judicial responses on a European level against mafia organisations. In particular, he praised the work of his German colleague Uwe Mühlhoff, Duisburg’s Public Prosecutor (here his remarks). Mr. Spiezia spoke about the important professional experience he and Mr Mühlhoff have undertaken together, praising his commitment and courage, which resulted in an operational axis between Italy and Germany of fundamental importance.

The vice-president of Eurojust has presented a preview of data that are the result of the work of the agency for the year 2019, stressing the importance of doing it in the European Parliament, where he can directly address the political power. Spiezia, in fact, argues that it is necessary to find new solutions to fight the mafias in Europe in the context of a renewed strategy. In its analysis a valid starting point remains ”the new EU strategy for the new millennium against organized crime” of May 2000 (C:2000:124:TOC), which presents an extraordinary topicality and effectiveness, as well as some important programmatic points that have not yet been implemented. It is therefore necessary to start again from this document, which contained important milestones in the fight against organised crime, and to evaluate the necessary additions.

But what do we mean when we talk about organised crime and mafia? At the moment, Spiezia specifies, we do not have a legally shared definition of organized crime, nor do we have an internationally valid legal definition of the concept of mafias. It is true, the Palermo Convention of 2000, Art. 2(a) defines the organized criminal group: ‘’structured group of three or more persons, existing for a period of time and acting in concert with the aim of committing one or more serious crimes or offences […] in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit’’. But this is a concept more a matter of doctrine than of legal definition. The mafia-type association, instead, is a crime provided for by the Italian legislator through the Rognoni-La Torre law (art.416-bis of the Penal Code) of 1982 and responds to a precise connotation.

‘’The fact that concerns us is that there is no perfect equivalence between organized crime and mafia crime. The mafia is a form of organized crime, but not all organized crime is mafia”, says Spiezia.

On the practical level, the major difference is given by the stability of the criminal project: the mafias are characterized by their vocation to exercise a form of anti-state within the territories and social communities, due to the force of intimidation (which is a normative parameter of 416-bis). Here lies the root of the problem: the vocation of the mafia organizations to carry out a stable criminal project over time. This has made it possible for the mafia organizations to evolve, starting from their territories of origin, to reach other regions of Italy and abroad.

Spiezia then analyses the Eurojust data and points out that the Agency’s action has increased in recent years. Between 2018 and 2019 Eurojust increased its operations by 17%, providing support in as many as 8000 investigations into transnational crime (2019).

Observing the judicial data of the body, however, it is noted that mafia-type organized crime is not considered in the priority areas of action of the European Union. It is undoubtedly present in the judicial data of Eurojust but is not formally classified among the priority areas because it does not fall within the classification parameters considered in the official documents of the Union. Paradoxically, therefore, the mafia phenomenon is not considered a priority. For what reason?

First of all, there is a problem of classification with regard to the presence of mafia-type organisations outside their territories of origin. The Italian Court of Cassation provides two different frameworks, apparently in contrast. The first orientation requires the ”proof that that organization had the capacity to exercise mafia control over the new territory of development. The other orientation maintains that it is not necessary to prove the projection of mafia intimidation on the new territory if there is the evident connection with the motherland”. To resolve the interpretative conflict, on July 17, 2019, the President of the Supreme Court of Cassation expressed his opinion on the matter, arguing that the problem concerned only the ”proof of the mafia method”. For the newly created mafias, which constitute themselves outside of their original centres, it is necessary that the new cell can manifest itself and express itself as a mafia cell, therefore, the projection of the mafia must be found on the territory. On the contrary, for the aggregates which are the manifestation of cells already existing in the motherland, there is no need to go and prove that on the territory of arrival there is a new mafia cell.

See, for example, Operation Pollino: for the mafiosi who go to Duisburg – or, more generally, for business in Germany and Holland – there is no need to prove that a new mafia cell has formed. It is sufficient to know that the mafia subject active in Duisburg belongs to a mafia-type criminal organization – the ‘ndrangheta – which is already proven to exist in Calabria.

There is, then, a problem of emergence of the phenomenon at a European level. This, according to Spiezia, depends, first, on the approach of the mafia operating abroad. These are always more silent, oriented towards business and the acquisition of markets. They often do not reproduce abroad those forms of intimidation and violence that they use in their original context. They bring, instead, “a more expendable face”. Therefore, it is difficult to perceive them, unless there is a contrast with other criminal groups active on the territory which lead to situations where – see the case of Duisburg – the mafias show their violent face again, because control and hegemony on the territory is once again at stake.

The emergence of the phenomenon, then, is blocked also by the lacks and inhomogeneity of the legal framework at European level. Today, a regulatory framework – the 2008 Council Framework Decision on the fight against organised crime (QD 2008/841/JHA) – is used, which is totally inadequate. It is necessary to have legislation that reflects the business model of these criminal organisations, which reflects how organised criminal groups operate in Europe today. It is essential to consider their transnational character. Today, the magistrate strongly emphasises, there is a need for relevant legislation at European level which takes this transnationality into account and which, on this basis, makes it possible to aggravate the punitive treatment. This is a legal vacuum that needs to be filled, as does the gap concerning collaborators of justice. The Deputy Director of Eurojust points out that often there is recourse to creative solutions because there are not the appropriate instruments to carry out the work effectively. Then there is certainly a need for a European and centralised management body for assets seized and confiscated from mafias. According to EU data, only 1% of the proceeds are taken away from organised crime. If we want to win the fight against the mafias, this is a trend which must be reversed.

The most heated and heartfelt reflection, however, concerns Eurojust’s working conditions. The valuable work of the European Judicial Coordination Agency is under threat due to major budget cuts. In this respect, Mr. Spiezia launches a serious warning to the European institutions: ‘’Beware of undermining the operational capacity of the coordinating body against mafia organisations (Eurojust n.d.r.). We are fighting the problem of the multi-financial framework. Do you know what it is? It is the budget limits that are set to determine the budget allocations for the following years. We have an operational budget for Eurojust which for this year is EUR 41 million. The European Commission proposal for the coming years is EUR 33 million. This means that, according to the European Commission’s forecasts, we now close the gates. This is called the ‘shutdown’ effect, which I cannot accept as a magistrate and as a representative of the institutions. The fact that the representatives of the Commission – who are sitting in the College of Eurojust for the first time – support this proposal is not respectful of the values on which the European institution is founded”.

The Italian magistrate therefore reaffirms the need to strengthen judicial coordination at European level and the action of Eurojust. He criticises the anomalous choices made by the European institutions in the allocation of resources. He takes the example of other law-enforcement agencies that are perhaps disproportionately strengthened, such as Frontex, which will be strengthened by recruiting 10000 people over the next few years, with the aim of creating an operational coastguard and no longer just supporting the Member States. It also highlights the inevitable complexity of the European bureaucratic machine, where there is a problem regarding the transmission of information. As far as Eurojust is concerned, Spiezia recalls that when the EU Justice Commissioner found out about the agency’s difficult economic and financial situation, he did not know what they were talking about. Aware of the facts, instead, it was another section of the EU (DG HOME). The EU therefore needs to review its priorities, eliminating dysfunctions and strengthening its actions. It is not enough to just allocate expertise, it is also necessary to provide adequate support and resources. Therefore – through the introduction of new instruments, the strengthening of operational structures and the revision of the regulatory framework – the fight against mafia-type organised crime must be included among the EU’s priorities in the light of a new strategy.

At the end of the conference, Mr Spiezia expressed the hope that the political authorities present will take on board the needs and requests presented by the rapporteurs in order to promote an initiative that will gather consensus and lead to a proposal for a directive for new European legislation on organised crime. 

Uwe Mühlhoff, Duisburg Prosecutor: “The ‘ndrangheta in Germany and Europe does not work alone: it cooperates with all criminal groups”

During a conference at the European Parliament on February 5, 2020, organized by the MEP of the Five Star Movement Sabrina Pignedoli, the Prosecutor of Duisburg Uwe Mühlhoff presented the results of the Pollino investigative action, which led to the arrest of 90 people throughout Europe and South America on December 5, 2018. The operation, also known as “European ‘ndrangheta Connection” is the result of an investigative collaboration between Italy, Germany and the Netherlands, formally united in the so-called JIT (Joint Investigation Team)

The JIT Pollino began to take shape as early as 2014 when the Dutch authorities became aware of a strange movement of Italian citizens of Calabrian origin who were gathering at the border between Germany and the Netherlands opening cafes and bars. So, the Dutch authorities began to seek cooperation, first in Germany and then in Italy. The JIT was formally established on 18 October 2016, thanks to the fundamental support of Eurojust. The collaboration was immediately fruitful, because some of the families active on Dutch and German soil were the same: the renown families of San Luca, the beating heart of the ‘ndrangheta in Calabria.

Before the creation of the JIT, it was impossible to carry out trans-national investigations in a productive way, since there was no type of collaboration between the police forces of the different European countries. This is where the JIT changed things: it allowed all the players in the game to receive the right information and support, not without obstacles. Prosecutor Mühlhoff remembers a key fact: after the formation of the JIT, two rogatory letters by the Direzione Distrettuale Antimafia (DDA) of Reggio Calabria arrived at the prosecutor’s office in Duisburg. These letters were, at first, incomprehensible to German investigators who lacked previous knowledge and training: “there were so many names”, says the prosecutor, “and they all sounded the same to us: all these Giorgi, Pelle, and so many allusions to past cases that we did not know about, we did not have the background information and at first we wondered: what are they talking about?”. The prosecutor points out that the DNA of a defendant who was found at the scene of the “Duisburg massacre” matched with that of a suspect in the Pollino investigation: it is therefore clear that there are relevant links between the 2007 slaughter and the more recent operation. Prosecutor Mühlhoff wants to specify that “the families involved in the Duisburg Massacre are still active and present in those areas”. Curious is the fact that, only fifty meters from the Local Court of Duisburg, there is a bar run by one of those families, where all the judges regularly have coffee.

A problem which is underlined by the Prosecutor Mühlhoff is the lack of personnel with regard to the investigations into organized crime in Germany, in particular, mafia-type: the attention of the police is very high, for example, against terrorism, but the action teams which deal with mafia are very few. In the specific case of the Duisburg Public Prosecutor’s Office, there are between 10 and 15 agents working in the group fighting organized crime, but they also deal with Bikers, Gangs and Arab Clans at the same time. In this respect, the contribution of the BKA, the German Federal Police, has been crucial and it willing to work on the case.

The Duisburg Public Prosecutor’s Office opened the investigation in August 2016 and deployed undercover agents and SWAT teams, with a special system of wiretap, car checks and financial investigations. “At first we thought that the ‘ndrangheta was working alone”, explains Mühlhoff, “but that’s not the case: it cooperates with all kinds of criminal groups – Turkish, Albanians, Moroccans – the 58 defendants in the German investigation come from a total of ten different countries. They work together: they cooperate wherever there is money to be made”. And the criminal activities were not only limited to drug trafficking, but also to supporting members of criminal families and money laundering through restaurants.

An important part of the investigation was the monitoring of 195 phone numbers that produced thousands of pages of wiretaps, as well as the decoding of some Blackberry phones and EncroChats (instant messaging application that uses special security protocols). The German police have also had surveillance gears inside defendant’s cars but – as reported by mafianeindanke almost a year ago – it was discovered by the defendants, also thanks to the advent of new technologies: the latest generation cars from Mercedes, BMW and Volkswagen send a notification to the owner’s phone when the car is opened, and the car companies have been reluctant to cooperate with justice. However, the surveillance stopped there, because in Germany it is virtually impossible to receive the authorisation to conduct audio surveillance in private homes and offices. The deployment of forces made it possible, however, to have undercover agents within Turkish groups doing business with the ‘ndrangheta and also managing to tail a defendant to South America where he was closing a deal of cocaine that would then be transported to Europe via the ports of Gioia Tauro in Italy and those of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Antwerp in northern Europe. But not only the ports are under the control of the clans: their influence also reaches the airports. This is the case with a deal of 25 kg of cocaine transported from Bogota to Miami and from Miami to Amsterdam airport through a rose delivery. “The important thing in this case”, continues Mühlhoff, “is that the ‘ndrangheta clans do not always have direct control over the ports and airports, but they enter thanks to other criminal groups”.

The Public Prosecutor points out, furthermore, how the action of the organs of justice is always too slow with regard to the clans: “as soon as we arrested an important member of the clan, within a few weeks, there was already someone to replace him, maintaining the criminal activities”. Another of the problems that the German police find is the fact that they cannot follow the movements of the cars through the license plate number: in Germany it is illegal to come into possession of these data. Another issue raised by the prosecutor of Duisburg is the lack of a national database: since Germany is a Federal Republic, each Land has its own rules and above all the data protection law is very restrictive and does not allow sensitive data to be kept for more than six months.

On the operational side the difficulties were many: it may seem trivial, but the translation of documents is one of them. From Italy there were pre-trial detention orders of more than a thousand pages long in which all the evidence was described in detail, which meant an allocation of more than 1.25 million euros by the Duisburg Public Prosecutor’s Office for the translations only. “It is more important to have one good translator than ten investigators”, notes Mühlhoff, who also points out that the exchange of documents between the different prosecution offices is still too complex and slow. A further reflection made by the prosecutor focuses on the question of the different laws that each country has adopted: everyone does what he can with what he has, so the work of mediation by Eurojust was fundamental. Mühlhoff also recalls how in Italy, the prosecutors who deal with these things, are very often threatened and forced to have a police escort and a life of hardship: “I feel lucky not to need it”, says the prosecutor. In Italy, regarding the confiscation of assets, there is the inversion of the burden of proof, in Germany, instead, it is still the investigators who must prove that the assets derive from criminal activities.

Another curious case testified by Mühlhoff was the confiscation of 3.5 tons of cocaine in Antwerp: following a defendant in Guyana, the Duisburg Public Prosecutor’s Office was able to trace a shipment of cocaine bound for Antwerp, and when the case was reported to the Belgian police, the drugs were confiscated inside a boat. The police authorities, in an attempt to frame the group who had bought that cargo of cocaine, sent the ship to the port of Antwerp with white powder similar to cocaine, but the Belgian police was not on the scene when the criminal group went to collect the drugs, why? Because it was Saturday, and there were no teams available on the weekend.

Another important element in the success of Operation Pollino was the possibility for the Duisburg Public Prosecutor’s Office to interview an Italian cooperating witness who had information about Germany. Mühlhoff then concludes by outlining guidelines for the future: “we need perseverance, motivation and the ability to learn and adapt to every situation: we have learned a lot from this investigation, and we will continue to do so. Transnational investigations can help if there are national deficits”, he continues, “mafias like the ‘ndrangheta do not work alone, they are a world wide web of criminal organizations. The puzzle can only be solved by working together, we may not have all the pieces but together we can have enough information to understand. In the future we will need much more European collaboration, not less”.