The secret deadly crime syndicate that controls Britain’s cocaine trade

The money paid for almost every wrap of cocaine sold in the UK goes to a secretive paramilitary crime syndicate few Brits have ever heard of.

There are three main organised groups based in Italy. While we might describe them all as "The Mafia," that name properly belongs to the Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian Mafia.

That immensely powerful clan has formed a second shadow government of Italy since the 1900s. It even negotiated with the Americans before the Allied invasion of Sicily during World War 2.

A second grouping, the Naples-based Comorra, is well known to Netflix viewers through the gripping crime series Gomorrah, which drew a devoted audience before its shock cancellation in May this year.

But the third, and some say most internationally powerful of the Big Three Italian crime syndicates, is the Calabrian-based ’Ndrangheta.

The gang is the main tie between European organised crime and the notorious drug cartels of South America.

In 2010, a US diplomat estimated that the organisation's drugs, extortion and money laundering activities accounted for at least 3% of Italy's GDP. According to a 2013 estimate the gang was making €53 billion a year.

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Roberto Pannunzi, the ’Ndrangheta “ambassador” who helped build the lucrative bridge between criminals in the Old World and the New, is contemptuous of any attempt to limit the incredibly wealthy gang’s power.

Pannunzi, who has been dubbed “the Pablo Escobar of Italy,” was extradited to Italy from Spain after one of his numerous escapes from custody.

Mafia-buster Nicola Gratteri interrogated the gang lord in jail. He described to The Atlantic how he told Pannunzi: “You’re going to spend 30 years in prison, so there’s not much you can do about that. ”

To which Pannunzi replied, “No, dottore, I’ll get out. I have so much money that I could cover you and that marshal with money. I could bury you with money. ”

Gratteri , deputy chief prosecutor in the ’Ndrangheta stronghold of Reggio Calabria says Pannunzi is “the only one who can organise purchases and sales of cocaine shipments of 3,000 kilos and up".

The gang’s history dates back to the 1790s, but its methods and weapons are cutting edge.

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According to Italian police sources the ’Ndrangheta governs at least 80% of Europe’s cocaine trade and its political influence in the Italian state of Calabria is unchallenged.

Its influence extends far beyond its home state of Calabria, with offshoots across Europe and as far afield as the US and Australia.

The ’Ndrangheta is known to have had a foothold in Balham, south London.

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But while the Cosa Nostra has chosen to face its enemies head-on, with direct action against law enforcement such as the notorious assassinations of anti-Mafia prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, the ’Ndrangheta (pronounced un-drung-e-ta) has followed a subtler course.

It’s a quieter operation than its rivals, based more on family ties which make it harder for investigators to find informants.

Until about 2002 law enforcement agencies knew comparatively little about the ‘Ndrangheta. Italian anti-mafia prosecutor Sandro Dolce told The Sunday Times : “we had very poor knowledge of the workings of the ’Ndrangheta. It was known, of course — its existence was no big secret — [but] state witnesses are our main source of knowledge for any mafia and we just hadn’t got that many from the ’Ndrangheta.”

The gang steers away from the spotlight on the streets, too, selling its cocaine to Albanian or Nigerian gangs rather than retailing the drug itself.

That’s not to say the ’Ndrangheta is afraid of using violence when the need arises. Enemies – be they members of rival gangs or policemen who failed to look the other way – aren't just shot.

The many victims of the the ’Ndrangheta are known to have been strangled, forced to drink acid, buried alive in quicklime and in some cases tied up and fed to pigs.

In 2015, reports The Atlantic, a 22-year-old ’Ndrangheta member was arrested after ordering the murder of his own mother.

The secretive organisation is slowly being dragged out into the light by prosecutors like Gratteri, but the sheer scale of the international cocaine trade makes their senior personnel so wealthy as to be almost above the law.

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