Godfather's arrest fuels fear of bloody conflict

Seizure of Calabrian mafia leader could spark deadly war of succession

'It's me,' the man said. 'I'm the real Pasquale Condello.' I Cacciatori, the Hunters - the Carabinieri's specialist man-trackers entrusted with the last stage of the operation to net 'The Supremo' - had left nothing to chance. They were convinced the 57-year-old mobster lived in one of 12 flats on the outskirts of Reggio Calabria.

But was he, as they first believed, the retired priest? Or the blind man who had recently come to live with his mother? After a two-week stake-out, they opted to mount 12 separate, simultaneous operations. The team that burst into Condello's comfortable apartment realised they had the right man - his two dinner companions reached for their pistols, only to be stayed by Il Supremo. In the refrigerator the Carabinieri later found a plate of oysters and two bottles of champagne.

But on Monday night it was the law enforcement community that was popping corks. Operation Meta (the Italian term for a rugby try) had opened a sizeable fissure in the hardest nut that it is their job to crack. Condello was not a godfather of Sicily's Cosa Nostra but the most feared and respected leader of the 'Ndrangheta, the mafia of Calabria, Italy's 'toe'. As a report last week from the parliamentary anti-mafia commission underscored, the less well-known 'Ndrangheta is now Italy's prime security concern.

It was 'Ndrangheta hitmen who, three years ago, carried out the country's most notorious recent political assassination of regional parliamentarian, Francesco Fortugno.

The report said the 'Ndrangheta was spreading 'in the same way as al-Qaeda, with an analogous, tentacular structure, without a strategic leadership, but characterised by a kind of organic intelligence [and] the vitality of cancer'.

While the attention of politicians and the media has remained fixed on Sicily's Mafia, the 'Ndrangheta has crept silently into much of the rest of Italy. And following emigration by the inhabitants of Italy's poorest region, it has spread to other parts of the world, as far as Australia.

The authors of last week's report highlighted the crime syndicate's remarkable ability to replicate itself globally, like a fast-food chain: 'It offers... in different places an identical, recognisable and reliable "brand" and criminal "product".'

Today the 'Ndrangheta's main source of wealth is its involvement in the transatlantic cocaine trade, in which it invested at a time when the Sicilian Mafia monopolised heroin trafficking. Much of its rise, and Cosa Nostra's recent decline, can be explained by the subsequent switch in the relative popularity of the two narcotics.

Though euphoric politicians compared Condello's arrest to that of Bernardo Provenzano, the Sicilian Mafia's 'capo di tutti capi', who was seized in 2006, there is a key difference. The 'Ndrangheta may be hierarchical, but it does not have a controlling body nor individual. It is one reason it has proved so resistant to attack from outside.

The 'Ndrangheta's cells, or locali, are independent yet akin, using similar quasi-religious rituals and ranks. Its uniformity does not preclude conflict. The syndicate has been rent by two wars that have split more blood even than those of Cosa Nostra. Condello was a major player in both.

'They both had their faces covered,' said an eyewitness who saw the killing of Antonio Macri. 'Before they left, one of them, who saw Macri was still breathing, got out of the car and put two more bursts of sub-machine gun fire into his chest and head.'

It was 20 January, 1975. The elderly Macri, from Siderno on the east coast of Calabria, was the leading figure of an older generation of 'Ndrangheta bosses who had tried to stop the crime syndicate drifting into kidnapping and drug-running. According to a mobster who turned state's evidence, Condello was one of his 'executioners'. The murder unleashed a battle for the 'Ndrangheta's soul that cost some 300 lives.

By the time of the second mob war, which cost 600 lives in the six years to 1991, Condello was a godfather in his own right. Police and prosecutors will now watch anxiously to see whether the removal of 'The Supremo' sparks another bloody power struggle in the 'Ndrangheta's heartland.


John Hooper in Rome

The GuardianTramp

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