Italy targets gang that has overtaken mafia

Scores of suspects in Italy and across Europe were detained in raids that the authorities said had netted nine suspected gangsters, weapons, explosives and drugs.

Their target was the 'ndrangheta, the Calabrian answer to the Sicilian mafia which in the past decade has grown fat on the cocaine traffic from Colombia and is now said to be richer and more powerful than its legendary counterpart across the Strait of Messina.

It is composed of 75 individual gangs with some 7,000 members and an annual revenue of an estimated €35bn (£24bn).

Just five days before, the organisation is suspected of murdering a politician in Calabria, prompting suspicion that the raids were timed to give a demonstration of the state hitting back at the gangsters.

Alfredo Mantovano, under-secretary at the interior ministry, said the operation "confirms the presence of the state [in Calabria]. It should be reinforced and improved but there should be no doubt as to its presence."

Francesco Fortugno, the vice-president of Calabria's regional council and a member of the centre-left Margherita party, was shot five times at close range by two men in masks on Sunday. He had just voted in primary elections held by the centre-left to choose the person to lead the opposition into the general election next spring. By targeting a senior elected official as he voted, the gangs were seen to be showing their contempt for democratic process, and sending a warning to other politicians who try to thwart them.

Italian newspapers painted a picture of a region where the state has all but ceased to function; where the payment of pizzo or protection money is ubiquitous, where public works contracts are invariably cornered by gang-controlled companies, where the mob has its people at every level of the administration.

Complicity and silence in the face of mob intimidation - the famous "omerta" or "code of honour" of the Sicilian mafia - was identified by La Repubblica's correspondent Atilio Bolzoni even in local reaction to Mr Fortugno's murder.

There are hundreds of condolence posters on the walls of the town of Locri, where Mr Fortugno lived and died, Mr Bolzoni observed, but not even one referred to the fact that he was gunned down on the orders of the 'ndrangheta. "The notices merely record 'a premature decease' ... institutions 'express profound sadness for the sudden departure'; the town's Lions club 'shares the sadness for the passing away ...'."

The mother-in-law of Mr Fortugno said: "It's the fear, the fear that everyone in Calabria feels ... We're frightened because nothing is ever discovered; the assassins will never be caught."

Vincenzo Macri, a magistrate with Italy's Direzione nazionale anti-mafia group who has been investigating the 'ndrangheta for 12 years, said: "There have been 22 murders in Locri in 14 months, of which only four have been solved. I wasn't surprised about the murder [of Mr Fortugno], it was just a matter of time.

"Calabria is out of the state's control. From the lookouts who control the farmers' fields up to the big public works contracts, the 'ndrangheta is everywhere. Just look at the reports of the many inquiries held here: nobody talks. In Calabria, collusion between politicians and the mafia is the rule, the axiom."

This week, in the wake of the murder of the popular doctor-turned-politician, President Ciampi consoled the widow at the funeral, and students marched down the main street carrying a banner that read "Kill us too, all of us". Police have made token arrests.

"They will talk [about the murder] for a couple of days," Mr Macri said wearily. "Then kisses and goodbyes till the next time. They have written Calabria off, all of them, the government and the opposition, too."

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