Why you should care
Defeating the Mafia might be impossible, but chipping back its influence might be something that persistence and bravery can accomplish.
Giuseppe Falcomatà is young, handsome and very elegant — a textbook version of an attractive Italian. Dazzling of smile and bouncy of step, he welcomes his visitors politely. But his demeanor can change quickly, his eyes distant, dissecting, analyzing. Especially when the new mayor of his home city of Reggio Calabria starts talking about his big opponent.
It’s not an opposition party. And it’s lethal: ’Ndrangheta is one of the world’s most powerful Mafia organizations. It reigns in Calabria, a city of 200,000 in Italy’s deep south, and has undermined or replaced local authorities in many places. From here the organization runs a criminal imperium active on five continents, with an annual income of $66 billion, or 3.5 percent of Italy’s GDP, by means of drug and weapons trafficking, blackmail and money laundering, according to Italy’s Demoskopika research institute.
Falcomatà knows that he can’t just chop off ’Ndrangheta’s head. But he at least wants to free his city from criminal control.
Falcomatà took over in unusual circumstances. Two years earlier, the Italian government sacked the mayor and the entire city council of 30 members over suspected Mafia infiltration, putting the provincial capital government into conservatorship until the October election, the first time it had ever taken such a drastic step. It’s just the latest chapter in Italy’s long-running struggle against organized crime. Moves against the Mafia had accelerated in the 1990s, following the 1992 murder of two anti-Mafia prosecuting magistrates. Anti-Mafia politicians gained significant ground and were later pushed out of office in 2001, but are now to back in favor. In mid-November, Italian police arrested 40 suspected Mafia members from the ’Ndrangheta cartel, mainly in the north of Italy, but also in Sicily.
Falcomatà knows that he can’t just chop off ’Ndrangheta’s head. But he at least wants to free his city from criminal control. “My predecessors have considered politics and public means their private affairs,” he says, charging that ’Ndrangheta supported them in the elections, or entered the city government itself.
“This guy comes from a political family,” says Oxford University criminologist Federico Varese. “That helps a lot — the networks and contacts of his father, who was a good mayor and a good guy. So he could bank on that.” But Varese warns that the Mafia feeds off of Italy’s inefficient methods of settling disputes, and that long-term solutions require deep structural reform, not just a few young, honest politicians. Calabria is an important entry point for drugs to Europe, and ’Ndrangheta controls the distribution. “That’s hard for any politician to tackle,” he says.
While it’s too early to see results — he took office only six weeks ago — Falcomatà was elected on a platform of ejecting ’Ndrangheta from positions in local administration, and a zero-tolerance stance on corruption. If not oblivious to the dangers to his own life, he’s at least decided not to let the threat destroy it. “The city would become completely desolate if we were all just to run away,” he says. He follows a simple recipe that he calls “the revolution of normality.” He, too, wants to continue living an ordinary life, playing soccer in whatever free time he has.
On the beach promenade, a group of protesters has stopped traffic: long-term unemployed men and women who haven’t received benefits in months. About 50 percent of Reggio Calabria’s citizens lack jobs, industry has vanished and the government patronage system feeds fewer after budget cuts. When they see Falcomatà, the people call out, “Viva Beppe,” and cheer and hug him, even though they know he’s got nothing to give them. What do they want from him, then? “Our citizens need electricity, water, streets, public transport, day care,” the mayor says. Restoring treasures for tourism seem like a faraway goal. Reggio Calabria boasts one of the best beaches for kitesurfing in the world. “But first we have to give our people a normal existence.”
The city reflects decades of Mafia misrule and corruption. Where once lemon trees bloomed, rampant construction has left massive cement wounds in the green hills that roll up from the sea. Millions in subsidies from Rome and the EU have vanished into the pockets of criminals. A stinking, salty broth of purified seawater flows from the taps. Bathing’s banned on the city’s beach promenade due to pollution from sewage. Most streets are lined with trash and dirt and marked with deep potholes. “Turning on the lights” already constitutes a revolution to Falcomatà. At night, many streets are pitch black, and the city evokes war-torn Beirut, not the verdant south of Europe.
“The ’Ndrangheta is dependable, there are no defectors; that’s what gives them credibility with their worldwide partners in crime.”
Prosecutor Nicola Gratteri
In a nearby courthouse, prosecutor Nicola Gratteri carries on his own struggle against ’Ndrangheta, whose headquarters in the small hamlet of San Luca are just 18 miles away. Gratteri has decorated the walls of his office with portraits of his murdered colleagues. From his windows, he has a view of the Aspromonte Mountains, where the Mafia kept hostages in caves during the 1970s and ’80s. It is from here, Gratteri says, that the bosses pull the strings in hundreds of ’Ndrangheta branches all over the world. The ’Ndrangheta’s success is owed to its rigorous organization and cast-iron rules, Gratteri explains. Betrayal will cost you your life. “The ’Ndrangheta is dependable, there are no defectors; that’s what gives them credibility with their worldwide partners in crime,” he says. According to Gratteri, these people “have infiltrated everything.”
That is why Gratteri welcomes Falcomatà’s election. He’s said to be a skilled legal practitioner. Perhaps more important, he has known his enemy ever since he was a little boy. His father, Italo, served as Reggio Calabria’s mayor in the 1990s and tried to fight the Mafia. One night, the family home went up in flames. Ever since then, they’ve lived with a security escort.
The elder Falcomatà died of a tumor in 2001 — and the Mafia returned to the first ranks of politics. When young Falcomatà took office, his sister Valeria stood in the ceremonial hall and cried. It is “in the name of the father” that Giuseppe Falcomatà says he is stepping up, “but not because he was my father, rather because he was an important role model for everyone, the only one.”
Photography by Gerald Bruneau for OZY