Calabria’s ‘Ndrangheta and Mexico’s CJNG: A dangerous cocaine alliance

Italy's 'Ndrangheta mafia and Mexico's Jalisco Cartel strengthen their bond, maximizing cocaine sales and expanding transport routes across continents

Italy’s Anti-Mafia Investigation Directorate (DIA) warned in its latest report about the more than “consolidated” link between the ‘Ndrangheta, the powerful mafia of Calabria (southern Italy), and Mexico’s Jalisco Cartel – New Generation (CJNG).

According to the DIA, the link between what is considered Europe’s richest mafia and Mexico’s second most transnationally important cartel centers on cocaine, which is mostly transported to the Old World “hidden in containers.

According to the Italian agency, the CJNG “concentrates much of its drug trafficking activities in Asia, Africa, and Europe.”

Italian mafias, such as the Camorra of Naples and the Cosa Nostra of Sicily, currently have a “strong interest” in “Colombia and Mexico” to gain “contacts” in the main drug trafficking organizations in Latin America and thus obtain good suppliers of cocaine, according to the DIA.

The ‘Ndrangheta, for its part, uses “the Calabrian port of Gioia Tauro as a point of entry for drugs to Europe,” the institution noted.

Moreover, thanks to its “alliances with Mexican drug traffickers,” the criminal group can, in addition to managing “the main intercontinental links between America and Europe,” maximize the sale of cocaine on the Old Continent.

The link with the Italian mafia also serves the Mexican cartels as a link to Balkan organized crime and new transport routes.

The main shipments depart from Pacific ports and pass through the Strait of Panama before reaching the countries of Northern Europe, the Mediterranean, and the coasts of West Africa,” the report said.

Previous connections

No es nuevo el vínculo entre narcos mexicanos y mafiosos italianos (Infobae)
The link between Mexican drug traffickers and Italian Mafiosi is not new (Infobae)

The first time the link between Mexican cartels and the ‘Ndrangheta was discovered was in 2008. It happened with the transnational operation Operation Solare (or Project Reckoning), which was carried out between Mexico, the United States, Guatemala, and Italy and led to the arrest of some 200 people.

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Later, in 2011, Operation Solare 2 (also known as Crimine 3), also coordinated by Italy, revealed how Los Zetas, then on the rise, had begun operating with the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta, in particular the Jerino, Aquino, Bruzzese, Siderno, and Fish clans.

A 2019 Italian law enforcement investigation, Operation Falcon, uncovered efforts by the Sinaloa Cartel to set up operations in the Sicilian city of Catania.

Catania was chosen as a test run for other possible cocaine flights from Latin America, which would refuel in West Africa, such as in Cape Verde. Two Sinaloa agents were sent to Italy to liaise with local ‘Ndrangheta contacts and oversee local preparations weeks in advance.

The Sinaloans sent Jose Angel “El Flaco” Rivera Zazueta, an Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada lieutenant who would arrive in Italy only for the final stages. Based in Asia and residing in places like Taiwan, “El Flaco” had focused primarily on managing the Sinaloa Cartel’s synthetic drug trafficking in Asia. “El Flaco” was recently sanctioned by the United States for his involvement in fentanyl trafficking.

What is the ‘ndrangheta

San Luca, también conocido como la Mamma, cuna de la ‘Ndrangheta (Infobae)
San Luca, also known as Mamma, the cradle of the ‘Ndrangheta (Infobae)

When discussing the mafia in Italy, popular opinion thinks first of Sicily. No matter how many years have passed, the cradle of the Cosa Nostra continues to capture most of the spotlight. Even though the current reality is different.

For years, the real danger no longer resides in Corleone or Palermo. Today it does so in San Luca, a village located on the slopes of Aspromonte, in the region of Calabria (the instep of the boot in the Italian peninsula). Its name is ‘Ndrangheta – from the Greek “andragathia”: loyalty and courage -and it is a mafia organization with more than 30,000 affiliates and a wealth far exceeding the GDP of countries such as Estonia and Slovenia. In 2013 it had a turnover of 53 billion euros, more than Mc’Donalds and Deutsche Bank combined. Italian authorities estimate it controls around 80% of the cocaine entering Europe. It is the most powerful Italian mafia at the moment, with a very important role in international drug trafficking,” said Michele Riccardi, a Transcrime investigator.

Its structure is based on two strata –major and minor societies governed by a strict hierarchy. The initiation liturgy is little known, but it is known to be similar to Masonic initiation rituals. In its early days, the organization was primarily involved in cattle rustling, extortion, and kidnapping. Still, over the years, it has grown into a multinational drug trafficking organization that also engages in ostensibly legal businesses such as infrastructure construction, restaurants, and supermarkets.

Due to its close blood ties, cases of “repentants” are rare, which, unlike the Cosa Nostra, were key to its progressive decomposition. What is known today about the ‘Ndrangheta probably represents only a tiny part of what it is.