CALABRIA´S MAFIA: Violence, religion and song

05/10/2015 23:26

A moisture-laden dawn; wetness cloaks the landscape while I early in the morning take a walk with my mother's dog. A host of wood anemones glow in the gloom. It seems as if the Milky Way had moved down under the tree canopies. Tender, bright green leaves adorn the birch twigs and soon the beech will burst open in a blaze of greenery. I listen to the black bird´s incessant melodies and when I inhale the fresh air a feeling of weightlessness is spreading inside me. My brain clears up, forgotten are uncorrected exams, unpaid bills, neglected phone calls and e-mail replies.

Bad conscience use to be a constant companion of mine, but this morning I am relieved of my worries and end up thinking about what bliss it is  to have been born into a privileged life and not having finished up among crime, violence, misery, starvation and despair. It is commonly said that a human is the only animal that has a free will, though we cannot choose our parents. In our midst there exist closed worlds where no one is free. Where life is governed by an insatiable hunger for profit, an unquenchable thirst for power, where violence and threats of violence is the glue that holds everything together. Were a mother sings a lullaby to her child:

Vadati stu figghiu meu quant’est beddu

Como somigghia a lu so papa

Teni l’occhiuzzi i malandrineddu

Cori i stu cori beddhu da mamma


Dammi pirdunu i sti parole

Ma no mi pozzu rassegnari

Cacciami st’odiu chi tegnu nt’o cori

Figghu a t’o patri l’ha vendicari

E fai la ninna e fai la nanna

E fai la ninna e fai la nanna


Look at my son, behold how beautiful he is

He resembles his father

He has the eyes of a bandit

And a heart pure as his mothers.


Forgive me these words

But I cannot avoid them

Take away the hatred I keep in my heart

Son, you must avenge your father's death

So sleep now, fall asleep

So sleep now, fall asleep.



I have recently followed the TV series Gomorrah, a scary piece of art that adroitly told the story about a Neapolitan Camorra clan – the Savastanos. In a convincing manner it depicted the philistine ostentation of their interior design, a cleverly orchestrated environment shaped by a flamboyantly varied tastelessness, which perfectly illustrated the owners' distorted spiritual life. What was not created within a film-studio were the appalling slums of Scampia, located in  northern Naples, where the film crew on location and with the residents consent portrayed a grim reality. The Savastanos´ residence and Scampia´s slum became silent actors in a callous drama, freed from every trace of heroism and compassion.

The seven huge residential structures which go under the name of Vele di Scampia, Scampias Sails, were built in the late sixties and early seventies. They were designed by Franz Di Salvo, a radical architect acclaimed for his ability to combine "Le Corbusier´s plasticity and grandeur with Mies van der Rohe's sense of detail and Gropius´ expressionism." The buildings were meant to be worthy representatives of an "innovative vision of social home thinking ", mainly based on Le Corbusier's revolutionary ideas.

The result was a catastrophe, especially after a violent earthquake that in 1980  struck much of the nearby province of Avellino. Three thousand people died in the disaster, and 300,000 were left homeless, many of whom found their way into Naples. At least the equivalent of 30 billion euros was ear-marked to be spent on assistance to those afflicted by the disaster and the rebuilding of damaged towns and villages. A subsequent criminal investigation, triggered by the fact that West Germany had contributed with 32 million USD and the United States with 70 million, found that only a quarter of the relief money had been transferred to the original purposes, the rest had ended up in the deep pockets of corrupt politicians, Camorra gangsters and other unscrupulous individuals.

The result was, among other things, that the housing complexes in Scampia in a short time were flooded by homeless families, most of which illegally occupied the apartments, which they later refused to leave. Many were, and remained, unemployed and soon Scampia had been transformed into an elusive, decaying ghetto, populated by wind-driven existences from different areas and cultures intertwined within a web of lawlessness, injustice, deprivation and various forms of abuse, a combination of afflictions worsened by an almost total lack of government presence. The once verdant communal gardens became meeting places for drug dealers and addicts. Areas destined for social gatherings and apartments were turned into brothels, thief caches and crack quarters. A depressing environment where children are born into a living hell, growing up within a lawless parallel world, shaped by violence and ruthless exploitation.

A distorted world that is currently flourishing in big cities all over the world - in Johannesburg, Toronto, Lagos, Moscow, Hong Kong and even Stockholm, as seen in the popular Swedish movie Easy Money. Places where evil turns out to be respectable, an Orwellian realm where moral values are distorted into their opposites ​​ - war is peace, freedom, slavery, ignorance, strength. In the songs of the 'Ndrangheta,  Calabrian Mafia murderers are heroes and criminal gangs respectable associations:

Non c´è ´ndrangheta senza rispettu

Non c´è valori senza onuri

Sta grande famiggha è na famiggha onorata

Cu ci sentu degnu me stai

Cu non è degnu me sin di vai


There is no 'Ndrangheta without respect

There are no values ​​without honor

This large family is a respectable family

Anyone who is worthy remains

Those who do not deserve respect will disappear.


Children born into an 'Ndrangheta family are brought up to honor crime, to respect gangsters and become criminals. Another Calabrian Canto di cercerato, prison song, describes the initiation into a ´ndrina, i.e. the basic unit made up of blood relatives, more or less  the equivalent of a Sicilian Mafia family, or cosca:

Pi fari un giuvanotti i malavita

A sidicianni u chiama l´onorata

Lu faci addistrari nta la rota

Regula soi esti lingua muta

Picciottu i malavita satti attentu

Non sai custa lu sgarrari […]

S´avicicnau un giuvani a chi cercati

Mi disse giuvanottu a chi cercati

Ci rispundia cercu sangu e onuri […]

Nu baciu ricivia du sergiu capu

La luna scumpariva chianu chianu

Si stava mbicinandu lu matinu

Cantava un jaddhu e mi sentiva sanu

Ora chi divintai n´umo finu

Ora chi divintai n´umo finu


If you want to become a criminal

The Respectable Company will call upon you when you turn sixteen

You must learn the laws

Of which the foremost is silence

You, a soldier of the gangland - be attentive

You do not know how much a snitch must suffer [...]

A young, honorable man found his way here

I asked the young man what he wanted

He replied that he was looking for blood and honor [...]

The chosen one sings:

I got a kiss by the doyen of the men

The moon faded, slowly, slowly

Dawn approached

A rooster crowed and I felt fresh

Now when I had become a man

Now when I had become a man



Herein rest the danger and allure of the 'Ndrangheta. For centuries, Calabrian families have lived in its shadow, and were slowly but surely drawn into its world.  The 'Ndrangheta, which unfailingly perverts collective morality, has now become an integral part of several Calabrians´ daily existence. The curse runs from father to son, from mother to daughter. A false refuge, a poison spreading through the blood. The cure would be an influx of new blood, new values, something that will never happen as long as Calabria is neglected by the welfare state. The ‘Ndrangheta has to be combated through the creation of new jobs and social security. Now the 'Ndrangheta serves as a refuge, a plague born out of and thriving among Aspromontes oppressed inhabitants, poor shepherds and farmers, and continues uninterrupted to parasitize on discouraged youngsters who see no future outside of crime.

The 'Ndrangheta is linked to Calabria´s barren mountains and rocky fields; it shares its inhabitants´ culture and religiosity. 'Ndranghetisti dance to the music created in harmony with a landscape they have been poisoning for centuries. The 'Ndrangheta is currently growing ever stronger, especially since the Sicilian Mafia is losing its grip on the underworld.

For centuries large parts of Italy´s southern population have suffered under a repressive feudal system, which entailed an arbitrary abuse of power and heavy taxation. 'Ndranghetisti – “honorable men", armed themselves and went into hiding high up in the mountain ranges from where they administered a rough justice of their own. They attacked the robber barons and corrupt government officials. In those days peasants and shepherds willingly paid the pizzo, grateful for the patronage and the security that the 'Ndrangheta could offer them. Pizzo means "beak" and the term refers to the behavior of a magpie that "pokes his beak" into the wealth of others.

Power and greed soon poisoned the "honorable men". They ended up in collusion with the robber barons and corrupt politicians they once had been combating. The pizzo was transformed into bribes and "protection money", a means to keep the knife from your throat, to avoid racketeering, mutilation, murder and economic ruin. The income of the ‘Ndrangheta was steadily on the rise and the revenue was extended through the introduction of prostitution, drug sales and kidnapping. The current economic crisis is now contributing to the 'Ndrangheta´s expansion all over the world. The “Honourable Society”  is growing stronger with every day and is now well established in cities such as Toronto, Sydney, Frankfurt and a lot of other places. The 'Ndrangheta tentacles are finding openings everywhere an opportunity to gain profits though crime arise.

More and more Calabrian youngsters face a choice between unemployment and the lure of the ‘Ndrangheta. Easy money and thrilling jobs are offered by the ‘Ndrangheta, shady activities are sugared by a shameless propaganda, turning black into white. It is not only greed that attracts young people into its corrupting system. The glaring neglect and corruption of governmental and communal authorities is a contributing factor, but also distorted concepts of honour and traditions, pressure from friends and family, threats and fear, protest and conformism, a search for an escape from a desperate situation, a hunt for dignity and pride.

An entire mythology based on strange legends and rituals have grown strong around the "honorable men", a cultural pattern where music plays an important role. Worldwide, music has proved to have the ability to forge together members of oppressed and discriminated ethnic groups. Music shapes itself into a powerful expression of their specific way of being, a conduit used to protest against groups perceived as oppressors, but also as a means to bond with like-minded peers, a way of expressing strength and beliefs, promoting a sense of self appreciation and communal solidarity. The original forms of the blues, flamenco, reggae, tango, fado and klezmer are examples of such forms of musical expression, which among its practitioners often have had a tendency to promote uncanny creativity and spectacular virtuosity.

A contemporary example is gangsta rap, which developed among criminal gangs in US mega-cities and shaped itself into to furious verbal attacks on Society, and in particular the police force. Gangsta rappers portray drugs, sex (often linked to misogyny and homophobia) and an existence marked by crimes and the uninhibited, desperate party scene of urban slums. Globalized unemployment, glamourized drug culture and poverty create offshoots of gangsta rap in the inner city slums of Nairobi, Lagos, Mexico City, Belgrade, Jakarta and many other huge metropolises where a jungle of subgenres now are rampant among criminal gangs - Genge, Chicano rap, hip metal, dirty rap and g-funk.

Within 'Ndrangheta culture, the tarantella has become a kind of ritual dance through which clan hierarchies and team spirit are vividly manifested. It was sung, played and danced in the village squares and in prison exercise yards. Gangsters who returned after serving prison sentences were celebrated with tarantella and the dance also became part of the secret rituals of the ´ndrinas. Tarantella is often combined with song and turns into a cyclone of meandering melodies and while supported by tambourines and bagpipes it increases in strength and speed, becoming wild, frantic and hypnotic. This beautiful and expressive dance finds its roots deep down among the Pyrrhic war dances of ancient Sparta.

Old ‘ndranghetisti may sometimes complain that young people no longer are paying due respect to the tarantella. The popular religiosity and oral traditions that once forged Calabrian communities together are now becoming abandoned due to an ever increasing influence of social media. A new generation is listening to gangsta rap and prefers to engage in rave parties rather than dancing the tarantella. High on cocaine and other drugs young picciottu, gang soldiers, are violating venerable 'Ndrangheta traditions when they lose self-control during murder orgies where the lupara, the sawn-off shotgun, has been replaced by Kalashnikovs.

New role models substitute old ideals materialized in the form of the supreme capo di tutti capi who in his person concentrated the respect and fears of an entire local community. A patriarch who was well acquainted with everything and everybody that moved around in the neighbourhood. A traditional 'Ndrangheta boss rarely left his village or residential quarter, if he not happened  to be jailed, if this occurred it was common that the wife and children he left behind took care of the management of daily operations. A local chief does generally have nothing against visiting the grocery shop, the café, the bar and the pizzeria, where he is an appreciated guest and customer, enjoying his neighbours' respect and good wishes. The boss may control a worldwide business empire with fat bank accounts in Zurich and on the Cayman Islands, as well as luxuriously furnished offices in London, Toronto or Melbourne's most expensive neighborhoods, yet he prefers to serenely sit and play cards with his cronies in the village square and finish off his day in his customary haunt; a restaurant serving his favorite dish and where he might sit and talk football and local politics, or listening to traditional music. He does not appreciate the disrespect of today´s youngsters, their atheism, as well as their vile taste when it comes to music and fashion.

The modern boss may be represented by a man like "Dario", an  ‘ndranghetista  operating in Gioa Tauro, the Mediterranean's biggest commercial port. Dario likes to listen to gangsta rap and watch movies on his widescreen TV, preferably if they deal with the mafia. An idol of his is Tony Montana, the fictional character who was masterfully interpreted by Al Pacino in Brian De Palma's movie Scarface. Dario identifies himself with the unscrupulous, almost illiterate Cuban who from the bottom of society clawed himself up to the summit of Miami´s shamelessly wealthy drug mafia, only to fall victim to his own megalomania, urge to control everything and drug abuse. Dario appreciates Tony's cool style and his own flashy villa reflects Tony Montana's Miami mansion. Dario's spacious salon is dominated by a large oil painting, which within a heavy gold frame depicts Al Pacino in his role as Tony Montana. 

Dario explains:

Approximately four million containers come through here a year; companies pay us a fee of a few euros per container for processing at the port, which in the end is a lot of money. But collecting money is not my job. I am a trafficker, and my clan controls an extremely large amount of the drugs that comes through Gioa Tauro. There are also two other main cities where Europe’s favorite and most expensive powder enters into—Siderno and Vibo Valentia. My other main job in the family is securing weapons. I’m the arms guy […] You see, there is an extremely important distinction that I would like to make between the ’Ndrangheta and practicing ’Ndrangheta. The former has to do with being named an honorable man and being able to protect yourself and your family. The latter isn’t just about being in the ’Ndrangheta. It’s about proving yourself constantly. I didn’t get to be where I’m at because of my name, but rather because of what I am committed to doing. Part of that is being extremely generous without asking for anything in return. If someone needs money, you give it to them without thinking twice about it. It is a classic aspect of being a man of honor: helping those in need, helping the poor. These are the seeds you sow to have them one day grow into trees of honor. I don’t speak so much about what I do and that’s exactly what keeps me safe. I like to think I have a pretty good sense of who could and would rat on me. And I’d like to think I’m protected by God, because I pray all the time.

Dario's faith in God makes him despite his age, he is not yet forty years old, akin to a traditional 'Ndrangheta boss, this and his great appreciation of canti di cercerato.

Music is incessantly created among 'ndranghetista prisoners - tarantella, waltz melodies and ballads. Many of the songs are recorded on cassette tapes; an activity generally accepted by prison authorities, with the requirement that the plastic casings have to be transparent. Such cassettes are eventually spread across Calabria, and many are now transferred to CDs and memory sticks.

During several years, Demetrio "Mimmo" Siclari used to sell cassettes and CDs with prison songs from his van, which he used to travel throughout Calabria in search of folksongs and in particular the canti di cercerato. He has often been accused of being an 'ndraghetista who tries to create folklore out of brutal gangster violence. Something Mimmo denies, it is the music that fascinates him:

The voices in tarantella have a very special quality: they are natural, untrained. These musicians sing beautifully, but it’s not formally studied in any way. It’s an authenticity that’s impossible to teach, I would imagine. The funny thing is that back in the day, everybody loved the tarantella, but only the farmers and the mafia were the ones who openly bought the records. The bourgeoisie would actually send someone to pick up the record for them because it was somehow a crossing of an invisible divide. They were ashamed to buy it, but loved listening to it in private. […]For some musicians, playing for an especially important group of ’Ndrangheta might add extra pressure to perform. After all, it’s an extremely intimate musical relationship that they enter. But this isn’t true for the true musicians. For them it doesn’t matter who’s dancing, who’s listening, who’s armed and who’s not. Of course, there is some overlap between the ’Ndranghetisti and the musicians themselves. Fred Scotti, one of the most famous tarantella singers and musicians, was also in the ’Ndrangheta and was killed in a feud with another member. But there are rules to this stuff and for the most part it doesn’t matter if they’re playing in front of the Madonna, a boss or a group of housewives. The music doesn’t change, only the atmosphere and the intensity when ’Ndrangheta dance. The air is thicker, especially in the Aspromonte, where musically, the tradition is the most pure. And the most intense.

Mimmo Siclari, who also writes and performs canti di cercerato, is regarded as one of their foremost interpreters and is appreciated by both 'ndranghetisti and connoisseurs of folk music. He claims that even if he appreciates and creates canti di cercerato he does not at all embrace cocaine pushing, the senseless violence and all other crimes committed by the 'Ndrangheta. However, he cannot avoid considering these particular songs as manifestations of the anger, beauty and tragedy of Calabria:

This is my land. It’s who I am and it’s what I do. Historically, this part of Italy always got seriously fucked, but ultimately it’s a kind of paradise.

A paradise with a monstrous snake which continually spawns a mortal offspring. The 'Ndrangheta has long ceased to be restricted to Calabria; its destructive activities are spreading across the world. During the fifties the 'Ndrangheta expanded its business from tormenting the locals with extortion and demand for protection money and became increasingly engaged in prostitution, arms smuggling and drug trafficking. During the early seventies the 'Ndrangheta became active in northern Italy where it was involved in a series of kidnappings of wealthy people, who were released only after large ransoms had been paid. These operations in particular affected children and young people, several of whom were brutally murdered if the ransom was not paid in time. Profits were invested in "respectable" activities, especially in the construction industry, where the 'Ndrangheta paid ample bribes to ascertain lucrative contracts. A report from a reputable research institute (European Institute of Political, Economic and Social Studies) estimated that in 2007 the 'Ndrangheta´s annual business volume was 44 billion euros, equivalent to three percent of Italy's GDP.

Particularly alarming is that the Mafia, the Camorra and the 'Ndrangheta jointly control every phase of the Italian chain of waste handling; from waste disposal to recycling and disposal. The Eco-Mafia currently handles at least one third of the toxic waste from industries in the North and dump it in the South, an activity which earns the Mafiosi at least 4 billion euros a year. Toxic industrial waste is compacted into something called eco-balls, which generally cannot be incinerated since the waste has not been sorted into solid and liquid. No other country or region wants to deal with such waste. If buried and decomposed the eco-balls are likely to produce toxic liquids which eventually seep into the ground and enter the water table. If you succeed in incinerating the balls they release toxic gases into the atmosphere that might be tracked down by controlling authorities.

It is assumed that only around Naples more than 500 000 tons of eco-balls have been buried illegally, many of them within the protected areas around Vesuvius, a volcano which is considered to be among the most dangerous in the world. It is still active and is located in the middle of a densely populated area inhabited by more than three million people. The crater is not "open", but covered by a vast amount of ash and stone. An explosion, which several experts are expecting to occur within 50 to 100 years, will have disastrous consequences, not least because of the fact that a huge cloud of ash will spread far and wide, obliterating the sun rays, a bleak forecast that becomes even more worrying considering the accumulation of tons of lethal poison that have been buried within the volcanic soils.

 Another worrying 'Ndragheta initiative is the sinking of vessels with hazardous cargo. Since 1994, more than forty large ships with undefined goods have been registered as missing along Italian coasts and it is now considered as proven that more than thirty of such disappearances concerned old, decrepit ships loaded with radioactive waste. To such senseless crimes that threaten the nature and entire populations around the Mediterranean Sea can be added the incredible savagery the 'Ndrangheta uses to intimidate and kill its victims. A renowned example is several cases when 'ndrinas have tied up people and thrown them to pigs to be eaten alive. To frighten and discourage any opposition, corpses of murdered victims might be exposed in frequented places, or on the contrary, to avoid detection murder victims might be dissolved in acid baths. It may seem incomprehensible that members of such an unscrupulous criminal organization generally regard themselves as devout Christians.

When a sociologist in 2013 in the Reggio Calabria prison handed out a questionnaire about their Christian faith he received answers from all 112 prisoners who had been convicted for 'Ndrangheta related crimes, of them 89 percent considered themselves to be firm Christian believers. The other ten percent responded that they were Catholics "out of habit", they did not know for sure if it was due respect of traditions our a personal conviction. Among most 'ndranghetisti their religious faith seems be of a very special nature, it is mainly connected to "fidelity, honor and a sense of belonging". As one of the few 'Ndranghetisti who has become a pentito, i.e. someone who has "repented" and chosen to collaborate with justice, declared:

When I was a murderer, I went to Holy Mass with an innocent and pure soul, now when I am collaborating with justice, I can no longer pray to God.

When a true 'ndranghetista declares that he is a Christian, he probably assumes that he belongs to an honourable group, that he is part of the Popolo Cristiano, not being a despicable socialist or atheist, people who still might be called Saraceni, a word that originally indicated a Muslim, but nowadays has come to mean any kind of “infidel”, i.e. a person without faith and honour. Being a true 'ndranghetista means that you find yourself at war with "the others", those who do not belong to your group and do not share your convictions:

Within 'Ndrangheta a Christian person is someone who applies moral values to his behaviour, someone who cares about his family, his women and children, such persons belongs to him and he belongs to them. An honorable man is a man with respect, someone who lets himself be respected and respects those who are worthy of his respect.

The opposite of a Christian is "the traitor" -  a Judas:

Nun c’è pirdunu nun c’è pieta

Pi su sgarra ca societa

Du coi o mundo sunnu I cchhiù potenti

Amuri I donna e cori di briganti

Prima di faru un passu stati attenti

Amici vu cunsigghiu tutti quanti

Nun c’è pirdunu nun c’è pieta

Pi su sgarra ca societa


There is no forgiveness, there is no mercy

For someone who neglects his duties to the Association

There are two things in the world that are more powerful than anything else

A woman's love and a bandit´s heart

Before you take a step, pay attention to what you do

Friends, ths is a piece of advice to all of youi

There is no forgiveness, there is no mercy

For someone who neglects his duties to the Association


Such a faith fits well with an official Christianity that has condemned political activities like socialism and communism, while exhibiting respect for values related to hierarchical traditions. A Church that resolutely has condemned sexual transgressions, while it has ungrudgingly forgiven criminal behavior. A Calabrian priest declared:

I'm like a pot made out of terracotta forced to travel while being squeezed in between pots of iron. I have to be very careful and cannot even whisper about politics opposed to the convictions of my fellow travelers. My only desire is that my gentle behavior may affect my parishioners. My church is open to all. I cannot deny someone a word of comfort, or hope. I do not like intrigues and do approve of priests who declare themselves to be anti-mafia. I am a priest, nothing else. A pastor for my flock.

Another priest explained, "to take a stand for the poor, the vulnerable, is a political statement, and many believe that the Church should position itself outside of politics. To incriminate the 'Ndrangheta where it has its strongholds could mean that you would be expelled from the community, persecuted, and even killed." Something that actually has befallen several bold priests who have dared to take a stand and confronted the 'Ndrangheta on its own turf.  

The 'Ndrangheta have occasionally found a common ground with some conservative circles within the Catholic Church, those who state that the end justifies the means. Money does not smell. If they you support charity and your actions are intended for God's Greater Glory, why do you have to question the origin of funds intended for Christian benevolence? A certain sense of shame has seized several devout Catholics when they have been confronted with the somewhat murky transactions carried out by IOR. The Institute for the Works of Religion (Istituto per le Opere di Religione) was established in 1942 to administer funds set up for non-profit charity. The Institute was soon turned into a bank and unfortunately also the scene for several shady dealings. Under the leadership of Cardinal Paul Marcinkus IOR became during the seventies and eighties involved in a variety of scandals concerning mafia contacts and money laundering. Rumors about the Vatican's dealings with the Mafia are, for example, the basis for a large part of the plot of Coppola's Godfather Part III where the manipulative Archbishop Gilday is a mix of both Marcinkus and Cardinal Giuseppe Caprio, who at the time was president of The Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See.

For several 'ndranghetisti religion equals solidarity, a refuge protected by the Madonna and the saints. Is it not in the Gospels said that God forgives everything and orders his faithful to take care of those who are convicted and imprisoned? Beyond the Madonna´s protection and the realms of the "Honourable Society" nothing else really exists for a sworn picciottu; he has made his choice, his sacrifice, there is no turning back. Being an 'ndranghetista is a way of life, everything has to be related to that choice:

The 'ndrangheta is like the drug for a drug addict. Without it you cannot live, the poison creeps under the skin, into the bloodstream and creates a mentality marked by hardness. To deny the 'drangheta is to deny your own life.

As an 'ndranghetista is protected by his fidelity to his boss, he is also protected by the Madonna and her saints. Many ´ndranghetisti surround themselves with amulets and pictures of saints, one or two are even tattooing depictions of the Madonna on their bodies as indelible signs that they belong to her.

Just as he must demonstrate his loyalty to his boss and sacrifice anything for him, a true ‘ndranghetista must also be able to prove himself worthy of the compassion of the Madonna and be willing to sacrifice anything for her, primarily the Mountain Madonna - The Virgin of Polsi. It has been told that ´ndranghetisti who have ended up in prison have sworn their eternal allegiance to the Madonna and then offered her their sons or daughters: Fammi la grazia e cacciami fora e la prima figghia ti la fazzu sora. "Show me mercy and take me from here and I will make my first-born daughter a nun for you." It is not uncommon that many priests and nuns are sons and daughters of 'ndranghetisti.

A capo di capi is often inclined to make a show of the fact that he considers himself to be  "a friend to his friends",  proving that he is someone to be reckoned with, that he can "both earn and command". Well-known 'ndranghetisti have often donated large sums to charity and made efforts to support the local church in ostentatious ways.

For a long time, the saints and the Madonna have been celebrated with impressive spectacles in the form of dance, music, large banquets, processions and remarkable fireworks, often funded by 'ndranghetisti. Unscrupulous priests have felt indebted to return the favours bestowed upon them and their churches and have willingly participated in the pretentious baptisms, weddings and funerals of 'ndranghetisti, as well as they have turned up in the court rooms to testify about the fine character of gangster bosses, acclaiming their Christian devotion and compassion with the poor. Other priests have become enemies with entire villages and towns by insisting that dancing, drinking, fireworks and processions have nothing to do with piety and particularly not if the festivities are financed by 'ndranghetisti funds gained from drugs and extortion . In recent years, violent conflicts have arisen when radical clerics have banned the “inclination” of Madonnas and saints in front of the abodes of “mafia benefactors”, meaning that “honourable carriers” of heavy, holy effigies which are brought in processions through towns and villages make a halt in front gangster bosses´ houses and make the statues honor their inhabitants by kneeling, or rising the saints high above their heads

Nowhere in Calabria are "primitive" beliefs in the Madonna as strong as in Polsi, a shrine deep in a valley in the heart of the Aspromonte mountain chain. Already during the Greek times before the birth of Christ there was in Polsi a well-established fertility cult of Demeter and Persephone, while a Sibyl received visitors in the depths of a cave close to the temples, goats were sacrificed and wild war dances were performed to honor the gods.

A monastery was built in 1144 on the pagan cult site and since then Il Santuario della Madonna di Polsi, or as it is also called A Madonna dâ Muntagna, has been the destination of a pilgrimage that takes place the second of September each year.¨

The Madonna´s statue was in the middle of the 1600s sculpted out of tufa to replace a previous image and is in the folklore alleged to have eyes which gaze follows each visitor and look deep into the soul of each and every one of us. Since the statue is too heavy to be carried during processions a more recent replica is brought out to the worshippers, preceded by orchestras and celebrants who in her honor are dancing the tarantella. More than 50,000 visitors use to gather in the narrow valley to worship the Virgin of the Mountain, flowers are thrown in front of her and hymns are sung in her honour. Until it was forbidden to bring firearms to the ceremonies muskets were fired into the air, while wealthy patrons provided spectacular fireworks.

The Madonna of the Mountain counts upon an age-old  reputation for bringing fertility in animals and humans alike and until recently it was common to force cattle go down on their front legs in front of the Madonna´s image to show their respect an hopefully receive her blessing leading to increased fecundity, or potency. Large amounts of goats would be slaughtered on the spot and their grilled meat distributed among the pilgrims, who feasted on it together with wine in the shadow of the trees surrounding the shrine. Nowadays goats are not slaughtered in situ anymore, though grilled goat meat may still be distributed among the visitors. Accordion, guitar, violin and tambourines are also played while the tarantella is danced and everywhere cassettes and CDs are offered for sale.  

The place is heavily guarded by carabinieri and police, who all are well aware of the fact that the celebrations in honour of the Virgin of the Mountain also is the moment chosen by Calabria´s ´ndraghetisti to meet and sort out their internal conflicts, as well as planning ahead for the next year's activities. Contrary to the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, the Calabrian ´ndrangheta was for decades known to maintain a more “horizontal” structure, where each ´ndrina was quite independent from the others. However, a devastating Second ´Ndrangheta War,  an internal struggle which raged between 1985-1991 resulting in more than 1 000 victims, made the ´ndrinas finally agree upon establishing a collegial body called La Provincia, which primary function is to settle inter-family disputes.

Like all other important 'ndrangheta gatherings La Provincia is known to meet in the vicinity of Il Santuario della Madonna di Polsi, ideally in connection with the important September celebration, though it has just happened a few times during the last century that the police has been able to locate the different meeting places in and around Polsi.

Is there an unholy alliance maintained between the 'ndrangheta and certain circles within the Catholic Church? As previously mentioned, there has always existed a bold and outspoken opposition among some priests against those of their colleagues who willingly have joined the Mafia machinations. Opponents of the ´ndrangheta have in recent years obtained a bold supporter in the current pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who to honor his assumed name of Francis the First have stated that he would prefer to be the pope of "a poor Church which serves the poor". In that spirit, he appointed a commission to get to the bottom IORs alleged shady finances and reform the bank. He has also ventured to attack organized crime and condemned the "men and women of the mafia".

The church forgives all, even Mafiosi, but if that will happen, their repentance must be sincere and be demonstrated through actual deeds.

On the 21st of June 2014, the pope visited the Calabrian town of Sibari in  'ndrangheta heartland and in front of tens of thousands of listeners, he defined the criminal organization as a "cult of evil, a contempt for the common good" and ended his speech by declaring: "Those who have chosen to follow the path of evil, which all Mafiosi have done, do not any longer find themselves within God's community, they are excommunicated!" He also firmly stated that the Church will "never accept any cruelty towards children and that the  'ndrangheta continues to reap any more victims."

On the 21st of March this year pope Francis traveled to Naples and in accordance with the boldness he so far has proved beyond any doubt he held a sermon in front of the huge residential nightmare of Veli di Scampia where he once again condemned organized crime with harsh words:

All corruption stinks, a corrupt society stinks as well! We all have a tendency to become corrupted and thus slip into crime. Nevertheless, I beg you not to let evil get the last word. Trust in hope. Those who voluntarily have embarked on an evil path destroy the hope for others. They eradicate hope from themselves and steal it from others, from society, from so many honest, assiduous and hard-working people. They defile this city's good name and destroy its economy. How much corruption does not exist in this world! I hope you will have the courage to clean up this city, to cleanse the entire society so that it no longer will stink from corruption.


After writing this blog post, I again took a walk with Mio and found that the beech trees suddenly are brandishing their exuberant greenery and I also discovered how leaves of the lilies of the valley are beginning to sprout among the dying wood anemones. Spring is finally here.

Antonelli, Claudio and Gianluigi Nuzzi (2012) The ´Ndrangheta: Italy´s New Mafia. London: Pan Macmillan. Di Costanzo, Antonio (2013) Scampia: Storia di un quartiere e di una faida. Napoli: Edizioni Centi Autori. Fusco, Gaetano (2003) Francesco di Salvo: Opere e progetti. Napoli: Clean Edizioni. Gratteri, Nicola and Antonio Nicaso (2012) Fratelli di sangue: Storie, boss e affari della ´ndrangheta, la mafia piú potente del mondo. Milano: Mondadori. Gratteri, Nicola and Antonio Nicaso (2013) Acqua santissima: La Chiesa e la ´ndrangheta, storie di potere, silenzi e assoluzione. Milano: Mondadori. Samuels, A.J. (2014) “Tarantella: Trance, drone and the rituals of the Mafia” in Electronic Beats Magazine, Winter 2013/2014. Strauss, Neil (2012) Everyone Loves You When You´re Dead: Journeys into Fame and Madness. New York: Harper Collins.

A terrifying, but at the same time masterful collection of the ´Ndrangheta´s Canto di Cercerato is issued by Amiata Media as a collection with 3 CDs:  La musica della mafia. Il canto di malavita, La musica della mafia Vol. II: Omertá, onuri e sangu and La musica della mafia Vol. III: Le canzoni dell´onrata societá.


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In Spite Of It All, Trots Allt