Crime Time presents an extract from The Ringmaster by Toby Vintcent (note spelling), published by Arcadia. It describes the activities of the ‘Ndrangheta, an Italian crime syndicate and its attempts to infiltrate F1 racing. The ‘Ndrangheta is not as well known as the Sicilian Mafia outside Italy but has become the most powerful organised crime syndicate in the country since the 1990s
The ‘Ndrangheta extract (p.159-164)
If I were to find myself up against Mister Al-Megrahi,’ he said, ‘what do you suggest I be aware of?’
‘Everything … watch your back. Al-Megrahi’s the most vicious, driven, self-centred arsehole I’ve ever come across … and I work in television.’
‘Could you help me with something, then, Mr McGuire? Where did Suleiman Al-Megrahi come from? No one seems to have any idea.’
‘Please, call me “Eighty”,’ he said, ‘and that’s most definitely not true. People do know about Al-Megrahi – they do know. They’re just too scared to say.’
McGuire nodded knowlingly. ‘He’s a Tunisian, but calls himself Carthaginian – romanticizes about being derived from the Phoenicians – even the Berbers, as in the Barbary Pirates. Who knows? The reality is that he’s from a well-to-do family that runs a successful import business.’
Straker looked at McGuire as if to say: so, what’s scary about that?
McGuire replied: ‘How well do you know Italy, Matt?’
Straker paused and said he didn’t.
‘I want you to think about the very south, right down in the toe of the boot.’
‘The region of Calabria.’
‘You’ve heard of the mafia, I take it?’
Another nod. ‘Of course.’
‘Well, you may or may not know that there are several different strands, of noticeably different potency,’ said McGuire. ‘Forget the Sicilian version, the Cosa Nostra. You can forget the Camorra, from around Naples, even though they’re seriously harder core – being the group that spawned Al Capone and John Gotti. Calabria hosts the most vicious criminal society of them all … the ’Ndrangheta.’
‘’Ndrangheta – En-drang-get-ta.’
‘Never heard of it.’
McGuire seemed to tilt his head, leaning over one eye – almost as a warning. ‘If you are going to have anything to do with Al-Megrahi, then you had better have heard of it. ’Ndrangheta, apparently, means loyalty or courage – from the Greek word andragathía. We don’t hear anything about it because the old mafia values of omerta rigidly still apply.’
‘The culture of silence?’
McGuire nodded. ‘Because of omerta, the ’Ndrangheta is never talked about in the media, because people dare not say anything about it. Its most high-profile act was probably the kidnapping and ransom of John Paul Getty III, as long ago as 1973. Disturbingly, it hasn’t been seen as such a threat since then, even though its power is colossal. Today, it’s estimated that the ’Ndrangheta accounts for 3½ per cent of Italy’s GDP.’
‘That’s extraordinary. I take it you’ve mentioned this because Al-Megrahi’s involved with it somehow?’
‘There is no proof that he is … while making that documentary, though, it became pretty clear his connections with it are far more than just circumstantial. The ’Ndrangheta’s power comes from its huge wealth, principally from smuggling. Calabria is close to the bottom of Italy, and so is in easy reach of the North African coast; their geography has engendered a specialization across the Mediterranean for over 800 years. Today, they are involved on a gargantuan scale. They effectively control the region’s main port, the Port of Gioia Tauro, which ranks first in Italy for container traffic and sixth largest around the Med. They move all manner of items through there, with complete impunity.
‘Their heyday was in the 1980s, when they exploited the boom product of the age … cocaine. Estimates put it that, when coke was at its height, as much as 80 per cent of Europe’s supply came in through the ’Ndrangheta. The money they made was eye-watering.
‘In the 1990s, as cocaine use became almost endemic, European governments were desperate to clamp down on the organized crime behind it. The authorities went after the money. Preventing drug money entering the banking system – at all – was their principal strategy; any bank found to be accepting funds without establishing their full provenance was going to receive fines that hurt. Overnight, the drug cartels were faced with a significant problem. They could no longer turn up at a bank and deposit large sums of unexplained cash from a suitcase. Under the new regulations, banks were not allowed to accept cash, and certainly not in the volumes the ’Ndrangheta were dealing in. From that point on, to play it safe, the banks would only accept funds through bank transfers. The cartel’s attempts to get their cash-based proceeds into the financial system were blocked. Getting quantities of cash into the first bank account, therefore, became their biggest challenge. Once they could get their money into a bank – any bank – it could then be transferred, bank to bank, with far lower chances of questions being asked. In practice, by the time any such money has passed through a third account, it has effectively been cleaned … legitimized … laundered. This is where we come onto the possible involvement of Al-Megrahi in the ’Ndrangheta.’
‘Tunis, as one of the closest points to Italy along the southern Mediterranean coast, has always been one of the ’Ndrangheta’s principal smuggling routes from Africa into Europe. Somewhere, and at some time, Suleiman Al-Megrahi must have come into contact with ’Ndrangheta – done some work for them – run errands for the society, or something. It appears he started doing more and more, earning their trust … I have it on reasonable authority that, despite being very unusual for a non-Italian, he rose to the rank of Quintino.’
‘A very senior figure in the society – Quintino is thought to be one down from the Capobastone, the boss. It seemed that Al-Megrahi emerged after the very bloody Second ’Ndrangheta War, which ended in the early 1990s. To safeguard the peace, the waring families set up a commission – La Provincia. I was told Al-Megrahi was appointed to this body as something akin to the ’Ndrangheta’s treasurer, although I doubt they’d ever use such corporate titles. Apparently, trying to get the drug cartel’s dirty cash into the financial system fell on him.
‘Al-Megrahi, though, is something of a genius,’ said McGuire. ‘He managed to work out a brilliant way to launder the ’Ndrangheta’s cocaine money, and on an industrial scale. He needed a legitimate front, a business that would not arouse suspicion as a handler of cash desposits. So he focused on buying ordinary, middle-market seaside hotels around the Mediterranean – which he immediately declared were casinos. Incidentally, I found no trace of his first five “casinos” ever having been awarded a gaming licence; as far as I know, they were never applied for. We are, after all, talking here about a branch of the mafia, so I imagine any local official or busybody poling up and asking too many questions probably found themselves either bought off or dead. Why, though, did he go for hotel/casinos? Because they could be used as a perfect money-laundering entry point:
‘Hotel guests, anywhere, frequently pay for hotel rooms in cash; but the critical element is that no one would question the idea of punters in a casino buying their chips with cash. With the takings from the accommodation and the casino’s vig – vigorish, the house’s cut – a business of that kind would, on a daily basis, be expected to be taking sizeable quantities of cash. A bank, therefore, would be far less likely to question such an entity on where its large cash receipts were coming from. Hey presto, those cash deposits became the cartel’s – unchallenged – entry point into the banking system. And how easy would it be to inflate the number of punters they had, the number of chips they bought – or how much their punters were losing at the tables or in the slot machines? Meaning that volumes of cash could therefore be expanded. Sackfuls of cocaine money could simply be poured into the caisses of those casinos. The ’Ndrangheta had created for themselves an ability to feed in God knows how much dirty cocaine money into the casino coffers, and then pay it straight into their unsuspecting bank account.
‘But then, to legitimize these hotels, Al-Megrahi latched onto the awakening in the 1980s and ’90s of the obsession with designer labels. Soon, he applied his genius for “brand”. First of all, he decided on a name as the front for the ’Ndrangheta’s chain of hotel/casinos, calling it after his region of Italy – Calabria – to invoke the same exoticism of other regional names like Tuscany, Umbria and Lombardy. Next, he saw the glamour of the world of Formula 1, and set out to harness it for his own ends. He went as far as buying a backmarker Formula 1 team that had been on the verge of going bust – and changed its name to Calabria.
‘Apart from the branding potential, just think for a moment about the operational aspects of a Formula 1 team… the organization is global – it crosses borders – it shifts huge amounts of equipment and material – in big trucks and freight planes. Can you imagine a better cover for moving supplies of drugs around? But Al-Megrahi had designs to extract far more from Formula 1 than just logistics. He had a much more sophisticated plan.
‘Spending millions on building his team, he was brilliant at creating an eye-catching lifestyle around the Calabria team. Lavish hospitality – huge parties – A-list celebrities – beautiful people. Calabria became the name to be associated with for the affluent and the people who wanted to be thought of as affluent. But then he backed up all this presentation with substance.
‘He started hiring the best people from the pit lane – managers, designers, drivers – even sourcing engines from Ferrari for heaven’s sake. And so, surprise – surprise, his Calabria cars started to perform. Al-Megrahi won the Constructors’ Championship in only his second year, making Shauni Brannigan World Champion. That success created an even bigger awareness and buzz around the Calabria name, associating the brand with elite achievement and international high-end acceptability. Before long, the Calabria brand was legitimized.
‘Al-Megrahi had managed to engineer the perfect, vertically integrated cover for a drug cartel. It’s hard not to credit him with a remarkable flair for organization, marketing and brand.’