updated 8/21/2007 11:13:43 PM ET 2007-08-22T03:13:43

A decade ago, while the Sicilian Mafia was imploding under a ruthless crackdown, another crime syndicate rooted in the rugged mountains at the tip of Italy's boot was quietly eclipsing Cosa Nostra in power and reach.

The bullet-riddled bodies of six young Italians who had just dined at a pizzeria in Germany's industrial heartland told the world last week what Italian authorities already knew: The clannish 'ndrangheta crime syndicate had come of age as an international force.

The mob, based in Calabria, was once largely limited to shaking down small-town merchants and carrying out kidnappings for ransom. Composed of clusters of families so loyal they practically pledge their newborns to a life of crime, it has expanded to become the biggest player in Europe's flourishing cocaine market.

Prosecutors estimate its operations at home and abroad, which include such traditional rackets as loan sharking, extortion and arms trafficking, are worth some $50 billion. Much of that gets laundered through legitimate businesses like hotels, supermarkets and pizzerias across Europe that the 'ndrangheta snapped up in a 1990s buying spree.

The horizontal structure of crime families reinforced by marriage has proven largely impenetrable, said Calabrian prosecutor Nicola Gratteri, who has been investigating the syndicate for the last 20 years.

Gratteri is heading the Italian investigation into the slayings outside Da Bruno's restaurant in Duisburg, Germany — an unheard of explosion abroad of a decades-old feud in San Luca, a tiny Calabrian town where crime clans are now vying for control of the cocaine trade.

The Italian premier's office presented a report this month before the violence in Germany asserting that the Calabrian underworld had become the dominant criminal force in southern Italy.

Not just in Italy
The syndicate "has a sizable presence" in Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, the Balkans, eastern Europe and South America, "thanks to consolidated relations with producers and traffickers of cocaine," the report said.

Raids in Milan in May turned up 550 pounds of cocaine that investigators said had been smuggled from South America via Senegal by the 'ndrangheta.

Gratteri said the 'ndrangheta (pronounced AN-dran-getta) invests very little in southern Italy, instead focusing its money-laundering activities on more affluent central and northern Italy as well as eastern Europe.

"After the fall of the Berlin Wall, they went there (to East Germany) and bought cheap properties that were historically or architecturally prestigious," Gratteri said.

Prosecutors say the 'ndrangheta then proceeded to set up a network of pizzerias, restaurants and hotels for laundering money.

"The Germans must realize that where there is pizza, there's the mafia," Giorgio Basile, one of the 'ndrangheta's rare turncoats, was quoted as saying by Italian media after he was arrested at a train station in Bavaria in 1998.

The 'ndrangheta used ransom money in the 1980s to buy heroin from Turkey and Lebanon but switched to cocaine in the 1990s when prices soared. Now it has a virtual monopoly on the trade in Europe, Gratteri said.

The crime syndicate has its own polyglot brokers in northern Europe and in Bogota, Colombia, where its mobsters "buy coke like you buy stock, getting the best price," Gratteri said.

'Pizza Connection' probe
The heartland of 'ndrangheta power lies in a 6-square-mile rocky patch of the Aspromonte mountains. But relatives of clan members who have emigrated as far as Canada, the United States, South America and Australia can provide a support network.

The 'ndrangheta's ascent came as Cosa Nostra was reeling from a police crackdown. The "Pizza Connection" probe broke a $1.65 billion heroin and cocaine smuggling operation that used pizzerias as fronts in 1975-84. A series of trials in Sicily put hundreds of Mafia men behind bars.

In the 1990s, when more than 1,000 turncoats had left Cosa Nostra and were cooperating with authorities, only some 40 mobsters from the 'ndrangheta provided evidence, Gratteri said.

The 'ndrangheta's world is highly disciplined, to the point that its bosses determine who gets to dance with whom at local feast days. Punishment is swift, decided by a "defense minister" who hands out sentences with no appeal.

Death sentences, humiliation
Punishments for minor infractions include getting your head stuck in a toilet bowl while it's being flushed or a clansman urinating on your leg, Gratteri said. Death sentences are normally handled by a gunshot.

One of the Duisburg victims, who was celebrating a fellow victim's 18th birthday, is suspected by investigators of being among the hit men who carried out the Christmas 2006 slaying in San Luca of Maria Strangio, a mob boss's wife.

Investigators believe her husband was the probable target of the attack. The mother of the slain suspected hit man has denied her son had a role in last year's killing.

The San Luca feud turned bloody in 1991, after two masked youths from one clan entered a rival boss's coffee bar in the town and started throwing eggs during Carnival merrymaking. The youths were gunned down later that day.

The egg-throwing "was just an outward display of tensions which had gone on for years" in the town of 4,000 people, Gratteri said.

Counting last week's victims, the feud has claimed 15 lives.

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