From ancient processions to family funerals, the powerful Calabrian organized crime syndicate 'Ndrangheta is infiltrating into religious rites is present across the country.
TURIN — On Easter Sunday, three statues each held in the air by six bearers meet in the streets, surrounded by a crowd of people in celebration: they are the statues of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, and St. John the Apostle, who visits Mary to tell her about the Resurrection of her son.
The statue of St. John shuttles between Christ and Mary. Once, twice, and three times to communicate that the Lord has indeed overcome death. Then they bow. The Mother’s black veil is torn, the mourning has ended, and the miracle is served.
This is the Affruntata procession — the definition stems from the disbelief that Jesus had been resurrected and the need for a direct “confrontation” with reality.
It is a long and highly respected tradition that thousands of faithful follow with transport and devotion in many big and small cities, especially in the south of Italy. But not everyone likes it.
In 2014, in Sant'Onofrio, a town of 2,792 people, in the southern region of Calabria, the ceremony was investigated for mafia infiltration. It is one of many rituals that the ‘Ndrangheta clans have tried to bend for themselves — to flaunt their power. Now that the clans have become active in northern Italy and the rest of Europe, this expression of popular faith has now also been exported outside Calabria.
Clan takeover of the procession
Footage acquired by the Financial Police in Turin shows an Affruntata procession in Carmagnola, a town near Turin, where many figures of Calabria's Mafia are present in the front row: the ‘Ndrangheta boss Francesco Arone, wearing a suit and tie for the occasion, is among those who bear the statue of St. John.
In recent months he was sentenced by the Court of Asti to 18 years and 6 months. His next of kin, Salvatore, known as Turi, got 17 years and 9 months: he is among the top leaders of the Bonavota clan in the northern region of Piedmont. The last boss, Pasquale, the top fugitive after Messina Denaro’s arrest, was arrested in Genoa in recent days. He was praying in the Cathedral of San Lorenzo when the Carabinieri caught him. For days, always at the same time, the location of his phone had been tapped at that spot: among the church pews.
It was because of this pronounced faith that the Bonavotas were interested in bringing the Affruntata procession even to Piedmont.
A few months ago, justice collaborator Andrea Mantella spoke this way in the courtroom at the maxi trial Rinascita-Scott: “I know that in a small town here, near Turin, they used to do the Affruntata. There was a committee chaired by Salvatore Arone that organized this festival. Nicola, Pasquale, and Domenico Bonavota came up from Calabria to bring the statue.”
Three bosses. “The Bonavotas,” he explained, “divided the tasks in order to be everywhere and show to the Calabrians living in the north that they were in charge because they were the ones carrying the statue.”
A woman seen holding an anti-mafia association Libera flag during the demonstration against recent intimidations, reportedly done by local mafia (‘Ndrangheta) in Siderno, Calabria, Italy, November 20, 2021.
Holy cards and other religious symbols
The last procession, in 2019, raised a fuss. There was talk of a statue that bowed just in front of Carmelo Palamara, brother (without a criminal record) of late boss Antonio. Many were quick to deny it. For sure, however, the procession stopped for a brief moment in front of the bench where Carmelo and his wife were sitting.
In the North, police have started to block public funerals of bosses in churches.
“For us, that was a clear sign,” said Christian Abbondanza of the House of Legality association. “The procession that started from the Church of St. Michael the Archangel made only one unscheduled stop, and it was the one in front of that bench.”
There is more: “The event's organizer is the same person who went to kiss Antonio Palamara's coffin in front of the Church at his funeral.” The Anti-Mafia Investigation Division put it on record in its annual report, but its documents are full of customs and symbols that see the Calabrian mafia trespassing into religious rites even outside its home territory.
Recently there was the discovery of a mosaic of St. Michael the Archangel, embedded in Florentine terra cotta, in the house of a Canavese boss who was sentenced to 13 years.
That house hosted meetings among Piedmont’s Mafia bosses. Holy cards portraying saints were burned on the table when a new member joined the clan.
In the North, police have started to block public funerals of bosses in churches, and occasions for affiliates to meet against the backdrop of a religious ceremony.
Even in Germany, when police raided the house of a leading member of the Giorgi family in Duisburg, the life-size statue of Our Lady of Polsi was found in his home.