A once-obscure crime group operating out of the Calabria region, the 'Ndrangheta has grown into what law enforcement officials consider to be one of the most powerful and dangerous organized crime outfits in Italy.
For decades, the 'Ndrangheta was a collection of local Calabrian clans who carried out extortions and other rackets, overshadowed by the more powerful groups like the Sicilian Mafia and Neapolitan Camorra. But as Italian prosecutors and police focused on those larger targets, the 'Ndrangheta was able to consolidate its power and fill the vacuum left by the decimated Mafia families.
Also working to the 'Ndrangheta's advantage, said European police, was the fact that early on it built up cocaine smuggling networks that were able to move into the heroin market when the more traditional Italian Mafia families lost interest in heroin.
"The evolution of the drug markets overturned long-standing balances," said a 2013 report prepared for the European Union. "Heroin was chosen by Cosa Nostra in the 1970s as the main market forcing the 'Ndrangheta to, then, less lucrative cocaine. When the heroin market declined and left the primacy to cocaine, the 'Ndrangheta was in an ideal position to exploit its consolidated links with producers."
This gave the 'Ndrangheta [the term is said to derive from the Greek words for courageous man] increased market share, profits and power, police have said. The clans also started building up their coffers in the 1970s and '80s by kidnapping for ransom, mainly in northern Italy. The ransom money was then plowed back into drug trafficking, investigators said.
Police said the 'Ndrangheta has a clannish secrecy that has stymied law enforcement. The leaders also have a reputation for bloodthirsty tactics. In one reported case an 'Ndrangheta leader killed a man and then fed his remains to pigs.
Communities of Calabrian immigrants around the world are said by police to offer international links for the 'Ndrangheta.