Geopolitics

Slain Slovak Journalist: How Italian Mob Expands Into Eastern Europe

Slovakian authorities are investigating ties between politicians and the Calabria-based Ndràngheta crime syndicate following the killing, last week, of an investigative reporter. Mobsters have been siphoning EU development funds.

A memorial for Kuciak and Kusnirova
A memorial for Kuciak and Kusnirova
Monica Perosino, Federico Varese, and Giuseppe Legato

BRATISLAVA — In early morning raids across the small towns of Michalovce and Trebišov, in eastern Slovakia, police this week arrested seven Italian men linked to the recent killings of investigative reporter Jan Kuciak and his partner, Martina Kusnirova.

Kuciak was gunned down last Thursday in his home in the town of Velká Maca, east of the Slovakian capital of Bratislava. The journalist had been working on an article that describes the vast Slovakian operations of the Italian "Ndràngheta crime syndicate, including its dealings in agriculture and ties to high-ranking politicians.

Kuciak discovered an elaborate scheme that allowed Italian "Ndrangheta members living in Bulgaria to receive millions of euros in European Union structural funds, thanks in large part to their close ties to figures in the Slovakian government. His article identifies four families — the Vadalà, Rodà, Catroppa, and Cinnante families — that had opened dozens of fraudulent businesses dealing in agriculture, solar panels, biogas, and real estate to illicitly receive EU funds destined for Slovakian firms.

Three men were arrested the night before the raids after police intercepted a phone call and heard them discussing "taking weapons to Velká Maca."

In the meantime, Culture Minister Marek Madaric resigned on Wednesday despite no apparent signs of being involved in the scandal. Two politicians named in Kuciak's article also stepped down from their posts: National Security Council Secretary Viliam Jasan and Maria Troskova, an assistant to Prime Minister Robert Fico.

While Troskova and Jasan deny the allegations, Kuciak's work linked both politicians to the "Ndrangheta clans. Before being appointed Fico's assistant in 2015, Troskova was a partner (between 2011-2012) at a firm called GIA Management, co-owned by Antonio Vadalà and Pietro Catroppa. Jasan also worked as a partner at another firm owned by Catroppa called Prodest.

The arrival in Slovakia fits a pattern of expansion for a crime syndicate born two centuries ago in Calabria

The Rodà family had already been targeted by a police investigation in 2007, when Pietro Rodà was arrested for smuggling livestock between Italy and Slovakia. His brother Diego is famous for his collection of Ferraris, one of which he likes to keep parked in his living room.

The Vadalà brothers were both arrested during the raid on their home in Trebišov. Their fortress-like residence, with its high walls and a steel gate, doesn't look out of place in the middle-class neighborhood surrounding it — save for the white Lamborghini parked in the driveway. Workers at another Trebišov-based agricultural company that competes with the Vadalàs have reported ominous death threats, including bullets hanging from their gates.

The "Ndrangheta's arrival in Slovakia fits a pattern of aggressive expansion for a crime syndicate that was born, two centuries ago, in Calabria, southern Italy's poorest region. With an estimated annual revenue of $53 billion and hundreds of cells and affiliates spread around the world, there are few places on Earth out of the reach of the "Ndrangheta.

The "Ndrangheta is divided into smaller units — called "ndrine — organized around families that dominate a specific town. The family-oriented structure makes the syndicate particularly difficult to infiltrate. And unlike the Naples-based Camorra, which operates by a set of common rules and rituals, disputes in the "Ndrangheta are often settled violently with the use of firearms.

The Sicilian Cosa Nostra dominated the drug trade in Italy in the 1980s but was badly weakened by internecine warfare and its assassination and bombing campaign against the Italian state in the early 1990s. Filling the void was the "Ndrangheta, which built close ties to drug cartels in Colombia and Mexico, a task made easier by the organization's control of the port in Gioia Tauro, Italy's largest container terminal.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union the "Ndrangheta also began to expand eastward, but Slovakia flew under the group's radar until the turn of the millennium. Two recent reports published by an anti-organized crime district court in Calabria detailed a plot to capture EU funds destined for projects in Slovakia.

"Calabria will soon fall from its current position as the top recipient of EU structural funds, and it will be replaced by poorer regions in Eastern European countries, including eastern Slovakia," says Antonio Nicaso, a mob historian and university professor in Canada. "Some families even built close ties to Slovak politicians, promising them illicit cash in exchange for logistical help to set up their businesses."

In Kuciak's final article for Aktuality.sk, the investigative news portal where he worked before his death, he reports that the four Calabrian clans originated in the small town of Bova Marina before departing for Bratislava around 2003. Between 2015 and 2016, the clans may have siphoned more than 8 million euros in EU funds marked for agricultural development in rural Slovakia.

"Kuciak reached out to the police about his findings on the Italian mafia and their activities in Slovakia," says Tom Nicholson, a Canadian journalist who worked with Kuciak. "He was ready to testify in court, but no one replied to him."

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Society

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel

-Essay-

BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.


Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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