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The structure of drug trafficking mafias: the ‘Ndrangheta and cocaine


The paper analyses the social organization of two drug trafficking mafia groups. The groups belonged to the 'Ndrangheta, a mafia from Calabria, a Southern Italian region. Based on judicial sources, multiple linked analyses examine the tasks, statuses and social network structures of the two groups. The analyses showed that the formal hierarchy of the mafias does not play a relevant role in the organization of drug trafficking. At the same time, the two groups exhibited a particular organizational structure, with a clear division of tasks and signals of status differentiation among the members. Remarkably, the analyses highlighted the strategic positioning of the criminal leaders. The most prominent participants (high-status individuals) were not those most involved in criminal activities (i.e. the most central in the network). This positioning strategy allowed minimizing the risks and ensuring effective management of smuggling operations. Criminal leaders were able to control the activities thanks to the specific cultural, family, kinship and ritual ties characterizing the mafias. This specific organizational structure may explain the strong resilience of mafias to law enforcementaction. Implications for both research and law enforcement are discussed.

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  1. As far as is possible and reasonable, the analysis of the ‘Ndrangheta and of the Italian drug markets references English-language literature.

  2. Seizures have been made of written “regulations” which describe the rules of the organization and its secret oaths [28, 35,57]. The ‘Ndrangheta has specific ranks for its members, with an elaborate formal hierarchy consisting of two main layers: the higher society (società maggiore) and lower society (società minore). There are multiple ranks within each layer [57].

  3. The first event was the so-called ‘Duisburg massacre’ of 15 August 2007, when six people of Calabrian origin were murdered in Duisburg, Germany, in connection with a decade-long blood feud between two ‘ndrine [17, 34, 69, 77]. Investigators found evidence of an affiliation ritual in the pocket of one of the victims (the remnants of a burned holy image), which further confirmed the tight relation between the massacre and the ‘Ndrangheta [40]. Second, on 30 May 2008 the President of the United States identified the ‘Ndrangheta as a significant foreign narcotics trafficker and included it in a special list entailing application of a number of sanctions by U.S. authorities. The ‘Ndrangheta is the only Italian mafia organization included in the list [52, 70]. Thirdly, two exceptional law enforcement operations of 15 July 2010 led to the arrest of more than 300 people and brought the ‘Ndrangheta to international media attention [18, 24, 2, 53]. Operation Il Crimine focused on Reggio Calabria (Calabria’s main city) while Operation Infinito highlighted the stable presence of the ‘Ndrangheta in Milan (the capital of Lombardy, Italy’s second largest city and its main economic and financial center).

  4. Both operations were coordinated by the Antimafia Prosecutor’s Office of Reggio Calabria. The two cases were selected upon consultation with the Antimafia Investigative Directorate (Direzione Investigativa Antimafia in Italian, hereinafter DIA), a law enforcement agency specialized in the investigation of mafia cases. The DIA provided access to a number of judicial documents relating to approximately a dozen major investigations. The criteria used to select the cases included the direct involvement of the mafias (in this case, the ‘Ndrangheta) in complex drug trafficking operations. The selection aimed at identifying two broadly comparable cases (in terms of the size and type of criminal activities).

  5. For each operation, the analysis coded each individual as N1, N2, … in order to prevent direct identification.

  6. Considering the different time spans of the two operations, and the number of individuals involved, the ratio of communications per individual per month are broadly comparable (Table 1, last row).

  7. In particular, in a group analyzed by Natarajan, the most important player in the network participated in 83 % of total communications and was in contact with 24 out of 27 individuals in the network, while the second most important subject participated in only 16 % of the conversations and had only 5 contacts ([48], 278). The most active node in Morselli’s 110-individual Caviar network was in contact with 49 % of the other subjects and participated in 56 % of the conversations. The second and third most active nodes were both in contact with 18 % of the other members and participated in 9 % and 6 % of the total conversations ([42], 85). Contacts and conversations were calculated from the matrixes provided by Morselli in his book’s appendix ([42], 173–176).

  8. In Morselli’s Ciel network, the final network was composed of 25 out of 75 individuals included in the surveillance net ([42], 29). In their analysis of the Caviar network, Morselli and colleagues selected 110 individuals out of the 318 identified in the data ([44], 190; [46], 113–114; [45], 146; [42], 30). In the two car-rigging networks Siren and Togo, the study selected 44 and 33 individuals, out of an initial set of 68 and 45, respectively ([47], 78–79; [42], 31). In the study on the Hells Angels in Quebec, the initial data included 1500 individuals, which were restricted to a final network of 174 subjects ([41], 152; [42], 33). Finally, in Morselli’s study on street gangs in Montreal the data identified 101 individuals, but only 70 were included in the analysis ([42], 35).

  9. In the undirected and valued affiliation matrixes with all the individuals participating in the communications (counting how many times each individual communicated with any other individual), the sum of the connections was 1132 for Chalonero and 4008 for Stupor Mundi. In the submatrixes including only the individuals in the main groups, the connections were 916 and 3718, i.e. 80 % and 92 % of the initial networks.

  10. The study conducted the network analysis also on the whole groups and on the groups including individuals with at least two contacts. The distribution of degree and betweenness centrality scores was very similar to the one obtained from the main groups selected.

  11. The sample of conversations included one conversation for every connected couple of individuals in the main groups. The second conversation for every dyad was randomly selected. When a dyad was involved in a single conversation only, the analysis focused on that conversation.

  12. In Italian, it is rare to use expressions like “sir”. Respect or deference, signals of higher status, are normally expressed with the use of the third person singular (more frequently) or the second person plural (rarer and used in some Southern areas). For example, the informal and standard expression “tu sei” (“you are”), in more formal language would become “lei è” (person singular) or “voi siete” (person plural).

  13. For example, in Chalonero, N1 was a fugitive, and he did not participate in telephone calls in order to avoid being tracked and arrested. At the same time, he was the boss of the organization, as evident both from the considerations of the court and the fact that his agreement was required for major decisions. For this reason, he received a status score of 4, equal to that of the highest-status individuals identified in the same operation.

  14. The medium status class included subjects with status scores within the mean +/- a half standard deviation; the low status class comprised status scores lower than the mean minus half standard deviation and the high status class included individuals with a status score higher than the mean plus half standard deviation. The classes ranges were very similar between the two networks. The thresholds were 2.4 and 3.0 for Chalonero and 2.3 and 3.0 for Stupor Mundi.

  15. Unless differently stated, the network analysis was performed on binary, undirected matrixes. This was consistent with the approaches adopted in the literature on drug trafficking using SNA. Moreover, the use of valued, directed data would have excluded an important set of information, namely the data concerning meetings, which could not be gathered in directed form.

  16. The density of the network is “the proportion of all possible ties that are actually present” ([29], 98; [39], 216–217; [42], 47). Density provides a measure of the overall level of a network’s connectedness.

    The centralization of a network is a measure of “the degree of variability in the degrees of actors in our observed network as a percentage of that in a star network of the same size” ([29], 50). A star network is a network where one central node is connected to more peripheral nodes, assuming the shape of a star. In these networks, the central node is the most important, i.e. central, according to all types of centrality measures. Centralization varies according to the measure of centrality adopted (e.g. degree centrality and centralization, betweenness centrality and centralization). Centralization measures indicate the extent to which the most central node of the network dominates the whole network.

    The overall clustering coefficient of a network is the mean density of the neighborhood of each node (i.e. all the nodes directly connected to a given node). In order to account for different neighborhood sizes, the clustering coefficient may be weighted by the degree of each node ([29], 124). The clustering coefficient measures the likelihood that two individuals connected to the same third individual are themselves connected.

  17. The differences in the tasks identified in Chalonero and Stupor Mundi were probably due to both law enforcement strategies and the selection of the main groups. Indeed, the scope and strategies of the two investigations may have focused on different phases of the drug trafficking chain. Moreover, the procedure used to select the two main groups may have dropped marginal individuals who performed other tasks in the drug trafficking chain. For example, Operation Stupor Mundi identified a few minor retailers and suppliers, but these had a minimal role in the activities of the criminal network and were excluded from the main group.

  18. In Italian, N23 was addressing N46 with the second person plural (“voi”), a sign of deference and respect. Contrarily, N46 was addressing N23 with the more familiar second person singular (“tu”).

  19. The two dimensions were based on previous research on drug trafficking: the organizational structure was elaborated by Curtis and Wendel [16], while the task division was adapted from Johnson and colleagues [80].

  20. Centralization scores and other overall network measures are sensitive to the number of nodes in a network ([42], 47 and 96; [68], 74 and 89–90). Comparison of these measurements should be made with caution and considering the influence of the number of individuals in a network. On this basis, comparison was made of degree centralization and weighted clustering coefficient and the number of nodes of the two ‘Ndrangheta groups with the results of other studies on criminal groups involved in drug trafficking or in the provision of other illicit goods and services [41, 42, 4649]). The measures were either drawn from the literature or calculated on the basis of the matrixes provided by Morselli in the appendix of his book ([42], 173–188).

  21. Values were calculated by the author on the basis of the matrixes provided by Morselli in the appendix of his book [42].

  22. The only exception is the Siren network analyzed by Morselli and Roy, which was involved in the exporting of stolen vehicles from Canada to other countries [47].

  23. Stupor Mundi had a higher mean and standard deviation in the degree centrality scores. As regards the betweenness centrality, Chalonero presented higher maximum, mean and standard deviation values.

  24. Pearson’s r was 0.938 for Chalonero and 0.899 for Stupor Mundi respectively. All correlations were statistically significant at 0.01 level.

  25. The use of status classes was necessary because the correlation between status scores and centrality measures yielded non-significant results for both networks, due to the low number of cases.

  26. This is particularly significant because density is inversely correlated with the number of nodes.


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I would like to thank Giulia Berlusconi, Paolo Campana, Ernesto U. Savona and Carlo Morselli for their help and suggestions.

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Calderoni, F. The structure of drug trafficking mafias: the ‘Ndrangheta and cocaine. Crime Law Soc Change 58, 321–349 (2012).

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  • Cocaine
  • Criminal Activity
  • Betweenness Centrality
  • Drug Trafficking
  • Criminal Organization