The ‘ndrangheta – the Calabrian region of Italy’s mafia – is one of wealthiest and most powerful criminal organisations today. It is considered Italy’s most powerful mafia; it’s not only the main object of concern for anti-mafia units in Italy, but also joint investigative teams in Europe and beyond.
Combining autobiography, travel ethnography, memoir, academic rigour and investigative journalism, this book provides a global outlook to the ‘ndrangheta, taking the reader to small villages and locations in Italy and abroad to Australia, Canada, United States and even Argentina.
It did hit me one day – but I instantly forgot about it – that I did know what mafia meant. What it was. Do you know that feeling you get when you have been around ugliness for so long that it appears almost beautiful at some point? Or the feeling you get when you realize you have been underwater long enough that drowning feels like breathing hard and you could barely tell the difference? That awareness. I wish I could remember the first time that I heard the word ‘mafia’. I would probably be able to shake off the feeling I had been born around it, in it, in close proximity to it. In some way breathing ugliness, I guess, and turning it into some twisted form of normalized beauty. Because a child needs to believe in beauty. I certainly did. I do remember, and I do see today, the beauty of where I grew up. Calabria is stunning, I always say to anyone who asks or who has never been. But is that true? Is that always true? Has it always been true? I had to open my eyes eventually and see what was what. And – spoiler alert – no, it wasn’t, it isn’t always true. Not always beautiful. And yet, one can create some sort of relationship with what is ugly. I wish I could remember the first time I realized that ‘ndrangheta meant mafia and that the two words were interchangeable. I don’t remember anyone explaining any of this to me, but surely my father played a role in my child-self learning about those difficult things.
‘Calabrian painted plaster statue of the Lady of Loreto mounted on a carved wooden stand with concealed wheels, topped with an arch of electric light bulbs, decorated with plastic flowers. Holy card depicting the original statue in Platì Catholic community.’ ‘Where is this statue again?’, I asked my friend Marie, with whom I was sharing the trip from Sydney to Griffith. ‘The Italian Museum, we’ll get there tomorrow, right after you finish your meeting.’ One of my first times driving in Australia, and I am not a confident driver. ‘This is going to be interesting’, I had told myself that morning; it was 6 August 2017. I was nervous, I recall. I don’t know how to easily do some things many people do, like rent a car and drive. I always feel slightly anxious. I had to take lessons back in London because I hadn’t driven for a long time and the idea of going cross-country down under for a good six- or seven-hour drive was not a comfortable thought. We had taken Marie’s car; we were going to split the driving time. And we had booked a room for two nights, which had not been an easy thing, either. ‘Your surname, you know, your surname here in Australia … you know, right?’ I had been asked that question by an agent of the Australian Federal Police (AFP), in Melbourne, in 2015, my first trip down under. ‘It might be better if you don’t book under your own name, and even better if you book somewhere at the edge of the city, a chain hotel, maybe, the Quest?’ – had been the comment of another AFP agent prior to my trip in 2017.
There is a time in every child’s life that remains suspended. In what seems like an eternal present tense, memories and dreams and nightmares all mix up, for a future self to store and reorganize. I have a strange memory that comes back to me when thinking of that suspended childhood time. It’s strange in the sense that I was unable to place it in time and space for a very long time, yet it’s extremely vivid, like a feeling crawling under the skin. It’s late afternoon. We are in Dad’s car. I am sitting on the back seat, wearing light clothes, must be warm outside. I am five or six or seven years old, I cannot be sure, around that age. I have my hair in a sort of bob cut, which I used to have at that age. I remember a light blue t-shirt but that I think it’s not really part of that memory, I’m not sure why. I cannot recall whether my sister and my mum are also with us; odd, isn’t it? I am very tired, I do remember that, almost snoozing. Drive, Dad, drive. Where to? By the time we arrive, it’s dark, it must be very late. Lots of lights from cars around us, while we stop in a little square; there is a fountain, so typical of the villages of Calabria. Fresh water always streaming down to God knows where. People outside, I see from the car windows, are agitated; I still feel quite confused, maybe I had fallen asleep just before. I hear my father’s voice.
There are songs that brand entire experiences or entire periods of your life. For me, in Sydney, that song was ‘From St Kilda to Kings Cross’, by Australian songwriter Paul Kelly. One of those songs everyone seems to know in Australia. And the lyrics I can still recollect: ‘From St Kilda to Kings Cross is thirteen hours on a bus | I pressed my face against the glass And watched the white lines rushing past | And all around me felt like all inside me | And my body left me and my soul went running.’ This is the song I listened to the first time I went there. And at the moment when I realized that Sydney never quite conquered my heart. Unlike Paul Kelly, the first time I went to Sydney, it was by train and not by bus, from Canberra. It was October 2015 and I had been in Canberra for a week or so. A ‘week or so’ in Canberra equals three months. I don’t get that city. Large avenues, few cars, many shopping malls, the smallest city centre ever, hidden in between malls, no one around, everyone inside massive buildings, shops, houses. Is this how Australia is run? For three days I couldn’t even find a proper restaurant because I was living in the southern part of the city, far away from what they call the Civic Centre. You cannot properly walk in Canberra; the roads are meant for cars. It is all large white buildings immersed in their own green lawns.
What a city, Adelaide. ‘The city’s asleep and the church is bare’, someone said to me once about Adelaide. I never quite knew where this quote came from; I did Google it and couldn’t find it! A fitting description, the warmth, the sleep in between churches, Adelaide.
‘What kind of Italian are you?’
What do you read in this sentence? Probably nothing, really. The meaning, as is often the case, is given by the context, and by the sender. This was a message I received in my inbox in July 2019 – I was in Montreal. I ignored it.
‘You must be the cop-lover traitor kind of type.’
A follow-up message, same person, in December 2019, months later. Why? Why would someone you don’t know send you unsolicited messages like this one? Someone you know only by their family’s surname; someone that you know that they know who you are and what you do for a living. I guess to some people these messages could sound provocative or just like a nuisance. For me, they were about recognition. He knows that I know who he is and he counts on that when sending a few words that are not just provocative, they carry a pinch of intimidation. This was the second time I got unwanted attention and ‘friendly’ warnings from someone allegedly close to ‘ndrangheta clans. Of all places, in Adelaide, a city where nothing much seems to happen. The first time I had this unpleasant experience, it was my first time in Adelaide. I couldn’t really believe then that someone would tell me to ‘start doing something else’ and that my surname ‘attracted attention, you know?’ and ‘What? You think they don’t know you are poking your nose into their affairs?’ I couldn’t really believe that was happening to me, I didn’t really know anything about anyone, I had just started my research! Ah, how the optics of what you seem to do and know count more than what you actually do and know!
‘I have to start somewhere, that’s one of the addresses in the arrest warrant at the very least!’
A friend of mine in Toronto was genuinely questioning the rationale of that trip. But … I have to see the places, I need to see the spaces.
It was April 2017 and I was staying in Toronto. It took me pretty much two hours to travel to the site of the church on public transport; I hadn’t rented a car. I wish I had. I wouldn’t have had parking issues anyway, as in front of the St Clare of Assisi Catholic Church, on 150 St Francis Avenue, in Woodbridge, a large suburban community in the city of Vaughan, just north of Toronto, there is no scarcity of parking space. It was windy, just a few days earlier it had snowed in Montreal, and Toronto was ice cold, or at least it was for me, in April … one should feel spring, right? Right. Anyway, I had bought a new pair of snow boots, insulated and furry inside, so I was ready to face what to me was definitely still winter.
The port of Gioia Tauro was always there, yet was never there, in my youth. Something so big and yet so out of place. No one seemed to be working at the site of the port of Gioia Tauro on a Monday morning in November 2017. I had driven by the port fences many times before but that time I stopped. Where was everyone? At 12.00 on a Monday morning, shouldn’t it be buzzing with activity? It struck me as an anomaly that one of Italy’s busiest ports, as far as I knew, was so deserted. I didn’t know much about ports then; I did not know how containers were moved from one place to the other; I didn’t really know how drugs were moved through containers either. In summer 2018, on the beach of San Ferdinando, in front of a €4 Aperol Spritz as orange as the falling sky over the sea, on the left there it was, the port again, with the cranes over the water, the arms of global trade over the sea, as I would learn visiting other ports from 2019 for research on drug importation and organized crime on the waterfronts and harbours around the world. It’s strange how certain things, even if they are always there, impossible to miss, eventually get missed. It’s difficult to unpack in my head why the port of Gioia Tauro was always there and yet was never there when I was a child. A self-contained world, that of a port, in the middle of three towns – Rosarno, Gioia Tauro and San Ferdinando – that looked completely out of place in comparison with the surrounding territory.
What do you do when you see spiders? Do you kill them straight away or do you capture them and take them outside? In the frame of the sumptuous Marconi Club in Sydney, Lillo Foti and Vince Foti had dinner in April 2015 to celebrate the partnership between the Marconi Stallions and the Reggina Calcio, two football teams recognizing their connection to Reggio Calabria, Italy, and soccer pride. The two Foti are not related. Vince is the president of the Marconi Club and a successful businessman in Sydney, owner of a firecracker industry. Lillo (Pasquale) has at times been the president of the Reggina Calcio in Reggio Calabria and is an entrepreneur in the fashion industry. Among Lillo Foti’s merits is the promotion of the Reggina team to the Italian Premier League (Serie A) for the first time in the history of the club. Lillo Foti, reported the newspapers, spent over a week in Australia on that occasion, in April 2015. He spent time in negotiations and formal or informal meetings with entrepreneurs of Italian origin in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra; some of them were interested in investing in the football club in Calabria and in formalizing some sort of stable contact with the region that, from Australia, is at times difficult to maintain. Six Australian businessmen were interested in the deal promoted by Nick Scali – that Nick Scali of Scali furniture we have met in previous chapters, from San Martino of Taurianova, province of Reggio Calabria. The partnership between Reggina Calcio and Marconi Stallions is the first step.
Nonna, do you like my bubbles? Always with these bubbles! Be careful, don’t throw the soap on the floor! I can almost see her, bella mia. I can still see how her face would contort when singing that song about the Madonna, full of pietas, full of pain and hope. She was a modest woman, my grandmother, never showing too much emotion. But her last time in Polsi, she remembered, she was singing, she was feeling it all deep down. She did cry. And every time since, this song gave her some tears.