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Can The Sicilian Mafia Keep Up With Cocaine Warlords Of Neighboring Calabria?

After the fall of the Sicilian Mafia boss of bosses Matteo Messina Denaro, it's time for Cosa Nostra to rebuild, and they'll be taking inspiration from their own past, but also must face the rising power of the 'ndrangheta in the neighboring region of Calabria

A smartphone screen with live news from an Italian television channel about the arrest of fugitive Matteo Messina Denaro.

Live news from an Italian television channel about the arrest of fugitive Matteo Messina Denaro.

Vincenzo Nuzzolese/SOPA Images via ZUMA
Giuseppe Legato

PALERMO — How is Cosa Nostra doing without its king?

Palermo prosecutor Maurizio Delucia takes a moment before offering his view on where the Sicilian Mafia may be heading. It's been a complicated period since even before — and especially after — the January arrest of the last top boss Matteo Messina Denaro, as the legendary Cosa Nostra clan has fallen behind the neighboring 'ndrangheta from the region of Calabria, in both wealth and power.

The Sicilian mob must now devise a kind of reset strategy two generations after its 1980s and 1990s war against the Italian state, which saw assassinations of magistrates and terror attacks with civilian casualties. All the members of the so-called "military wing" of Cosa Nostra are either dead or in prison.

"An organization that was impoverished before becoming strong militarily must subsequently become economically rich again," Delucia, head of the Palermo prosecutor's office, recently told the parliamentary anti-mafia commission.

That's the point to focus on. Since 1992, the bosses have been winding up in prison, a continuous action "unlike anything seen in the past." This offers real meaning (and weight) in the tortuous path of the century-long fight against organized crime because it "ended up undermining the sense of impunity on the one hand and created a vulnerability in the Mafia's thinking, based on the perception of the appeal for young generations to join," explained the prosecutor.

Still, despite the state's progress, this is a Mafia that Delucia believes is determined to reemerge in a new form — and stronger than before.

Ghost of cocaine past

Rewind to early June, when the cargo ship Plutus, flying the flag of Palau, set sail from the Caribbean port of Santo Domingo. On July 7th, it briefly docked in Las Palmas (Gran Canaria, Spain) before passing through the Strait of Gibraltar and heading towards Sicily.

Approaching the Italian coastline, more than one investigator tracking the seas noted that the cargo ship was making several course changes that had been flagged as routes reported by the maritime authorities. Strange. And then someone deactivated the detection system.

The Calabrian mob has practically monopolize cocaine trafficking.

It was then that the fishing boat "Ferdinando di Aragona," which departed from the coast of Calabria, approached the ship. An order quickly came from the DDA (District Anti-Mafia Directorate) in Palermo, and Italy's finance police intervened. About 15 people were caught trying to transfer 5.3 tons of pure cocaine from one vessel to another.

The arrests and drug seizure, the second-largest ever made on Italian territory after the interception of 5.5 tons of the white gold in 1995 in Turin. Just as then, today too, the 'Ndrangheta is driving such trafficking.

Yet Delucia says recent investigations indicate that Cosa Nostra is "re-establishing and reopening relations with the Calabrian clans and pushing that (drug) imports are coordinated with them... Although the Calabrian mob has practically monopolize cocaine trafficking, it is equally evident that an organization like Cosa Nostra does not give up."

It's a business for everyone. The nostalgia for the glory days (and methods) of the past also emerges in a renewed control of drug distribution territories, which until recently were delegated to North African criminal organizations. Territory control never goes out of style.

Photo of a car accident.

Place where Judge Giovanni Falcone, his wife Francesca Morvillo and their escort were killed.


Old faces make their return

The old saying "a volte ritornano" (sometimes they come back) applies not only to business channels but also to some families who emigrated to America during the bloody management of Cosa Nostra by Salvatore Riina in the 1980s and 1990s. They fled to escape a pending hit job or a death sentence issued as an edict by the most violent of the Corleonesi to annihilate internal resistance to Riina's climb to the pinnacle of mob power.

And now, far from the echoes of the guns of that era, old faces reappear, trying to regain their old power. The way to achieve it now is always the same: money. And there is nothing better than drug trafficking to level the playing field against those who have always been doing business in Sicily.

The Fascella family of Santa Maria del Gesù is one of the clans that appears to be back in Sicily, and back on the rise. In recent months, several members of the syndicate have been arrested, including the boss of Partanna Mondello, Michele Micalizzi (son-in-law of the boss Rosario Riccobono), and Salvatore Marsalone, who was one of the most trusted drug traffickers in the 1970s for the "prince" Stefano Bontade.

Mob encryption

The fight against the Mafia must also be waged with the best modern communication technology, since the bad guys are doing it too. Sicilian bosses buy encrypted mobile phones from the 'ndrangheta narcos. These phones have sophisticated software that is difficult to hack.

The Group for the Investigation of Organized Crime of the Italian Guardia di Finanza (Finance Police) managed to locate some encrypted phone numbers near the A20 Palermo-Messina highway just before the massive seizure of 5 tons of drugs.

We are lagging behind.

These were Dutch numbers connected to the fast.m2m server, which allows information exchange through a network called "Machine to Machine (M2M)."

The Palermo prosecutor was clear on this point: "The mechanism of interceptions puts us at a certain disadvantage compared to the technological methods that the mafias use. We now have a series of important communications between mafiosi that take place on encrypted platforms, and we are lagging behind. Some European police forces have managed to get into them, but we haven't yet."

Among the other difficulties that Delucia sees is "a decrease in informants both in terms of quality and quantity." Though the arrest in January of Messina Denaro was a great victory for the state, don't count on the jailed boss of bosses from ever collaborating with investigators.

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Mob Influence? Italy's Mafia Is Turning To TikTok For New Recruits

Italy's highest-profile nemesis of organized crime networks, prosecutor Nicola Gratteri, discusses the mob's use of social networks, and how TikTok allows criminal organizations to advertise their lifestyle to impressionable viewers. Sound familiar?

Closeup photo of a smartphone displaying the TikTok app icon

"The mafia has always behaved like a business"...

Sofia Li Crasti

NAPLES — "TikTok is the mob's most used social media platform. It is where the criminal world can showcase its wealth through golden watches and luxury cars, attracting ignorant young people who only want money, and are willing to put aside any ethics or morality."

These are the words of Nicola Gratteri, top anti-mafia prosecutor, now based in the southern city of Naples.

In an interview with La 7 television network, Gratteri analyzed the evolution of the mob's communication networks, which now leverage the influence of social media on the new generations to warp their perceptions of wealth and success.

Keeping up with new trends is not new for criminals. Gratteri explains: "the mafia has always behaved like a business, even a hundred years ago. For example, when mafia figures made substantial offerings to the church saint, in front of everyone, they were essentially engaging in advertising. It was a demonstration of power, similar to the acquisition, in the 1960s, of football coaches and teams, which then began climbing the competitive rankings."

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