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The territorial expansion of mafia-type organized crime. The case of the Italian mafia in Germany


The present paper deals with the territorial movements of the mafia groups. After postulating that the concept of mafia refers to a form of organized crime with certain specific characteristics of its own, the paper presents: i) a repertory of the mechanisms underlying the processes whereby mafias expand beyond their home territories, and ii) a taxonomy of the forms that the mafia assumes in nontraditional territories. In a case study approach, the conceptual framework thus outlined is applied to the mafia’s presence in Germany, as reconstructed from documentary and judicial sources. Though this is an exploratory investigation, certain findings are clear: i) the ‘Ndrangheta is more active in Germany than the other traditional Italian mafias (Cosa Nostra and Camorra), and ii), even in “successful” expansions, the mafia does not reproduce the embeddedness it typically shows in its home territories, but chiefly concentrates on infiltrating the economy and dealing on illegal markets.

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  1. The Mafia is traditionally present in several areas of Southern Italy, where it is concentrated in the west of Sicily, with an epicenter in the cities of Palermo and Trapani; in the southern part of Calabria, the province of Reggio Calabria in particular, and in the provinces of Caserta, Napoli and Salerno in the Campania region [19, 29, 52].

  2. See the work of the Antimafia Parliamentary Commission (Commissione Parlamentare Antimafia, CPA), the Antimafia Investigation Bureau (Dipartimento Investigativo Antimafia, DIA) and several recent judicial investigations, e.g., those regarding the mafia’s presence in the regions of Piemonte and Lombardia [84, 86]. In addition, starting with Saviano’s best-selling book [70], there has been a flurry of publications—mostly journalistic in nature—that have been enormously successful in attracting the public’s attention. As for scholarly publications, it should be recalled that the expansion of organized crime was addressed in a special issue of the journal Global Crime (3, 2011), with noteworthy discussions of the national and international spread of the Italian mafias [15, 91].

  3. The analysis is based on judiciary material and institutional documents from a variety of sources, including the Antimafia Investigation Bureau (Dipartimento Investigativo Antimafia), the Antimafia Parliamentary Commission (Commissione Parlamentare Antimafia), the Antimafia National Judiciary Department (Direzione Nazionale Antimafia) and the Criminal Office of the German Republic (Bundes Kriminal Amt). This is material of a particular kind, as it is produced for judiciary, rather than scientific, purposes. However, information from such sources—handed with due analytical and methodological precautions—is the main dataset for the empirical studies of mafia-type organized crime in the leading international literature [see especially 89].

  4. An Other criminal group is active in Italy which shares certain mafia feature: the Sacra Corona Unita (SCU), a criminal organization active in Puglia, an area which has historically been immune from the mafia presence. The SCU arose in this area between the late 1970s and early ‘80s, mainly as a result of the expansion of traditional mafia clans belonging to the Camorra and to the ‘Ndrangheta who were intent on controlling illegal trafficking, e.g., cigarette smuggling [74].

  5. According to the investigators, similar structures also exist in Australia and Canada. Their function is both to provide internal coordination and to act as an interface with the “mother house” [33: 94].

  6. It is a role of primus inter pares [33: 94]. Recent judicial investigations found that it had been assigned to the 80-year old Domenico Oppedisano, who despite his many years of belonging to the ‘Ndrangheta would not appear to have had a particularly distinguished criminal career [85]. The cosche seem not to give this position to a strongman, but to someone who is regarded as wise, capable of upholding tradition and mediating between criminal groups and thus of preventing conflicts [60: 6–7].

  7. For an application of network analysis to criminal organizations see [16, 17, 34, 57, 71, 95, 98].

  8. This ideal-type can also encompass other criminal groups originating in other parts of the word and tending towards the mafia model. Examples include the Japanese Yakuza and the Russian Mafia [47, 88].

  9. The mafia has resources of both bonding social capital, which connects the members of an organization to each other, and bridging social capital, as it is also able to establish outside ties [78]. Much of the mafiosi’s power stems from their ability to occupy structural holes [13] that separate different social networks.

  10. The mafia is an example of a loosely coupled organization [99]. For example, Cosa Nostra’s so-called “Cupola”, or ruling commission, was active only in the Seventies and Eighties. Both before and afterwards, there was less coordination between the clans of the Sicilian mafia and more independent action [52, 53].

  11. The mafia’s embeddedness in a given local society is not just relational. It also involves invoking traditional symbols, values and cultural codes [see 102].

  12. Significant background conditions include, for example, uncertainty and lack of systemic trust [39].

  13. In this section of the paper, we attempt to enumerate the large number of mechanisms that can foster mafia expansion processes. However, which of them are at work—and how—in concrete cases of expansion is mainly an empirical question.

  14. This took place in Italy’s Liguria region, where the judiciary long underestimated the presence of mafia organizations, regarding them as fairly unstructured criminal groups, and thus did not apply the measures contemplated by antimafia legislation [24].

  15. Several judicial investigations have revealed, for example, that corrupt practices in healthcare have made it easier for members of mafia groups to gain entry. These mafiosi take part in covert dealings, acting as “enforcers” for illegal deals thanks to their ability to hold the parties to the terms [23, 28, 84].

  16. This interpretation does not mean that the mafia has a central expansion strategy. The idea that the mafia is a sort of holding company that can formulate a strategic overall plan for penetrating the most disparate national and supranational territories is unfounded [53].

  17. Soggiorno obbligato or forced resettlement is a policy of court-ordered obligatory relocation in a specific place, usually far from the original residence, for a period of time, which may be quite long. The purpose of the policy is to oblige mafia bosses to move away from the territories in which they are entrenched. It is based on the assumption that the mafioso can be neutralized if his ties with the original setting are severed, thus underestimating mafia members’ ability to adapt to new environments.

  18. This emerges from the testimony of a number of mafia members turned state witness, whose criminal career took off when they moved to nontraditional areas, especially when they showed particular skills in illicit trafficking [73]. In addition, reputations can be amplified in new mafia settings, so that saying that someone is a boss may be a self-fulfilling prophecy, turning him into a boss even if he was not one before [73: 166].

  19. Cases of settlement can be seen, for example, in Southern Italy. As was pointed out earlier, the mafias occupy certain areas of the South, without pervading the entire region. In this part of the country there are historically uncontaminated areas that have more recently been involved in processes of expansion from neighboring territories, and where the settlement model has come into play. Examples include the ‘Ndrangheta’s move into the province of Cosenza in northern Calabria, where mafia were formerly unknown. Signs of settlement processes can also be recognized in circumscribed areas of Northern Italy, such as Piemonte and Lombardia [42, 74, 91].

  20. This is the model followed by the American mafia. It would be misleading to think that the Sicilian model was transplanted into the United States, as if the American group were an outgrowth of the Italian. Indeed, the relationships between the mafias in the old and new continents are bidirectional. Action strategies and criminal organizational models are developed in the two settings through interaction and influence, by means of processes of hybridization [51].

  21. An interesting case is that of the SCU in Puglia (see note 4), where the initial infiltration and transplantation of Camorra and ‘Ndrangheta groups was followed by a process of imitation by local criminals. They adopted methods and types of organization taken from the traditional mafias, thus resulting in the formation of a new mafia.

  22. During the Fordist emigrations in the’60s and’70s, Germany hosted over a million Italian immigrants, most of whom were from the Southern regions [79].

  23. There are around 623,000 Italians currently living in Germany. Of these, slightly over 3 % reside in the eastern Länder. The majority of Italian residents are concentrated in the southwestern part of the country and in the Rhineland, the heart of industrial Germany. Approximately 97 % of the Italians who have immigrated to Germany live in and around Stuttgart in Baden-Württemberg, in the Munich region in Bavaria, in North Rhine-Westphalia and in Hesse [45].

  24. The arrival of large numbers of Gastarbeiter from Italy in the Sixties and Seventies did not increase the crime rate among Germany’s resident population: on average, immigrants—Italians included—committed fewer crimes than native-born Germans [6, 101].

  25. References to fugitive mafiosi who were tracked down and arrested in Germany can be found in [23].

  26. The reproduction of the Calabrian mafia’s organizational structure in Germany is particularly significant, as it has assumed a configuration—as regards hierarchies, ranks and roles—that goes well beyond family ties [84].

  27. It is interesting to note that both the rituals and the ranks and appointments in the Locali operating in Germany are similar to those found in the original Calabrian Locali.

  28. An example of these tensions is furnished by the Singen Locale, whose territorial dominance was challenged by another Locale from a town a short way across the border in Switzerland [84: 1908 ff.]. As a member of the German Locale was recorded as saying of the rival group’s head in a wire-tap, “He thinks he can call the shots here in Singen, but he can forget it, I told him, he can have control in Switzerland if he wants” [84: 1848].

  29. This concept, which has been applied to the mafia most notably by Santino [67], refers to the control over the territory that criminal groups exercise in the areas where they are entrenched. It chiefly takes the form of providing protection in various types of economic transaction, extending lucrative criminal activities to a number of settings, establishing a dense network of relationships in different institutional areas, and exerting power over the local community as a whole, thus influencing the operation of political and administrative institutions and the distribution of resources.

  30. The German investigators note that a large number of young men from the small Calabrian town of San Luca have moved to these German cities in recent years: “Checks on certain of these individuals in Italy indicated that although these are men with no criminal record, their fathers or brothers often have prior indictments for serious offenses—participation in a mafia-type criminal association, murder, kidnapping and violation of arms and drug laws” [9: 166].

  31. Over 60 restaurants and pizzerias have raised the investigators’ suspicions [9: 162–164].

  32. As we have indicated, the sectors of the economy with strong local ties and a low technological level are more susceptible to penetration by organized crime [50]. It is thus possible that the massive real estate investments made in the eastern Länder after reunification made these areas more vulnerable to mafia entrenchment.

  33. It should be emphasized that regarding the ‘Ndrangheta as archaic is to some extent the result of perspective bias. The German case is not the only, or even the first, instance of the ‘Ndrangheta’s international mobility. Suffice it to say that Calabrian organizations have long been entrenched in Canada and Australia, where the so-called “Siderno Group” specializes in the drug traffic. Originally from Siderno, a small town in the province of Reggio Calabria, the group’s members maintain contacts with the mother house and are related by blood or marriage. In Australia, the ‘Ndrangheta has reached dangerous heights, and has come into open conflict with the country’s institutions, as witnessed by the murders of a member of Parliament in 1977 and of the assistant commissioner of the Australian Federal Police in 1989 [20, 84: 1916].

  34. In addition to appearing in sensationalist tabloids such as Bild Zeitung, articles expressing alarmist positions linking the spread of the mafia to the presence of Italian immigrants were also published in more analytical weeklies such as Der Spiegel [12]. For a reconstruction of the German debate on organized crime, see also [94, 96].

  35. Italian organized crime groups in Germany are less numerous than those from other countries such as Turkey, Poland, Russia, Nigeria and Romania. Despite this limited quantitative spread, however, the Italian mafia scores high on the organized crime potential scale [8: 20–21].


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Correspondence to Luca Storti.

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Sciarrone, R., Storti, L. The territorial expansion of mafia-type organized crime. The case of the Italian mafia in Germany. Crime Law Soc Change 61, 37–60 (2014).

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  • Organize Crime
  • Money Laundering
  • Criminal Group
  • Organize Crime Group
  • Italian Immigrant