Grizzled hair, a neat moustache, and elegantly dressed. A bottle of French champagne on the table and another of fine French cognac nearby. Pasquale Condello – one of Italy’s most wanted fugitives from justice, and one of the reputed masterminds of the Calabrian mafia, or ‘Ndrangheta – put up no resistance when a crack five-man Carabinieri police team burst into an anonymous looking apartment just after sunset on Monday on the outskirts of Reggio Calabria. The 57-year-old was quickly handcuffed and although he had a gun, he declined to use it.
‘Cool and detached’
The building had already been surrounded by 100 more police to prevent him escaping their dragnet.
The mafia boss, survivor of innumerable vendettas between rival families struggling for the leadership of organised crime in this remote part of southern Europe, had been on the run for nearly 20 years.
He jumped $100,000 (68,000 euros; £51,000) worth of bail in 1990 after being let out of prison under leniency rules which have since been changed.
Police intelligence pinpointed his hideout, a non-descript apartment belonging to another member of his family.
Italian special forces were involved in the raid
In the room were his 30-year-old son-in-law and a 28-year-old nephew who were also taken into custody.
The suspected mob mastermind reacted in a “cool and detached manner”, according to those present.
“I have nothing to do with your investigations, nor the charges for which you have issued nine arrest warrants for me,” he calmly told the officer in charge.
He was bundled away into a police car and flown immediately to a high security jail in northern Italy for further interrogation.
While on the run, Pasquale Condello has been sentenced in absentia to four life prison terms – plus another 22 years in jail – for murder, mafia association, extortion, money laundering and drug-related offences.
In 1989 he allegedly ordered one of his hitmen to kill Ludovico Ligato, a former head of the Italian State Railways.
Francesco Mollace, a public prosecutor who has been working for years on the Condello case, described him as “the new face of the Calabrian mafia, which deals with politicians and high finance”.
According to police sources, the suspected mob boss owns real estate and businesses worth more than $80m (54m euros; £41m) in Rome and other Italian cities.
Who are the members of the ‘Ndrangheta?
Authorities say the ‘Ndrangheta is the most dangerous mafia network
The word comes from the Greek “andranghatia”, meaning heroism or virtue.
They are the equivalent of the self-styled “men of honour” of the much better known Sicilian mafia.
Justice authorities in Italy now rate the ‘Ndrangheta as the most dangerous existing form of organised crime.
They believe that the super-secretive ‘Ndrangheta works with Turkish and Albanian mobs and, through the latter, with the Russians.
According to a 2006 report by Italy’s anti-Mafia law enforcement agency the DIA, the Calabrian Mafia now holds a virtual monopoly on cocaine trafficking in Europe, generating an estimated annual turnover of some $50bn (33bn euros; £26bn).
The secret of its survival appears to be that it has always remained closely family-oriented, whether in the settling of local clan vendettas (usually through murder), or during the past two decades in a period of international expansion, through its local control of narcotics trafficking from Colombia.
Shipments of cocaine often arrive direct in ships docking at the Calabrian container port of Gioia Tauro.
The families, though prone to feuding, remain closely knit, so the risks of infiltration or betrayal by police or informers are less than among the more dispersed Sicilian mafia.
The Sicilian mafia expanded many decades ago to North and South America and even to as far away as Australia, and has suffered some severe recent setbacks through cooperation between police forces on both sides of the Atlantic.
Italians are asking themselves why Pasquale Condello, just like the much better known former head of the Sicilian Mafia, Bernardo Provenzano, succeeded in living for years with apparent impunity in a series of safe houses in his home town.
(Bernardo Provenzano was another long-time fugitive from justice who managed to elude capture during four decades until he was taken into custody almost two years ago).
Connivance by local politicians seems to be the answer.
“The fact that although Condello was on the most-wanted list, he was hiding in Calabria shows what impunity the mob feels,” said Calabrian politician Jole Santelli, a member of the Italian parliament’s anti-mafia commission.
“There is a secret network which allows mafia bosses to keep running their business as usual.”
Who are the Calabrian mafia?- By David Willey – BBC News, Rome – Wednesday, 20 February 2008, 01:59 GMT – http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7253800.stm