Who are the ‘Ndrangheta crime family? Operation Eureka explained as 139 arrested in mafia crackdown

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The Mafia-style syndicate is one of the world's most power drug traffickers, but is perhaps most famous for kidnapping an American oil heir and cutting off his ear

Police across three European countries have successfully seized billions of euros worth of cocaine and assets, and arrested dozens of people believed to be associated with the infamous 'Ndrangheta organised crime group.

Coordinated raids took place across Italy, Germany, Portugal and Slovenia on Wednesday morning (3 May), part of a multi-agency sting called "Operation Eureka". It was the culmination of years of investigation, aimed at understanding and shooting down one of the world's most powerful drug trafficking syndicates.

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But what exactly is the 'Ndrangheta, and how successful has Operation Eureka been at stopping the flow of cocaine from South American into Europe?

Who are the 'Ndrangheta crime family?

The ‘Ndrangheta is a Mafia-style organised crime syndicate, and one of the world’s most powerful drug-trafficking groups. It is incredibly rich and powerful, purportedly making €53 billion in 2013 alone - according to the Demoskopika Research Institute.

European authorities have been waging a campaign against the Calabria-based ‘Ndrangheta in recent years, after the group eclipsed the Sicilian Mafia as the key mover of tens of billions of euros in cocaine from South America to the European market.

Police guide an arrested person out of a house in western Germany, as part of the "wide-scale" operation against the notorious Italian 'Ndrangheta mafia across Europe (Photo by ALEX TALASH/AFP via Getty Images)Police guide an arrested person out of a house in western Germany, as part of the "wide-scale" operation against the notorious Italian 'Ndrangheta mafia across Europe (Photo by ALEX TALASH/AFP via Getty Images)
Police guide an arrested person out of a house in western Germany, as part of the "wide-scale" operation against the notorious Italian 'Ndrangheta mafia across Europe (Photo by ALEX TALASH/AFP via Getty Images) | AFP via Getty Images

The 'Ndrangheta originated in Calabria in the late 18th century, one of Italy's southernmost regions, and to this day one of its poorest. Its name is thought to have derived from Greek words, meaning a courageous man.

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Following mass emigration from the area in the 1950s, the syndicate established chapters across Europe, as well as a number of other countries including the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. It is now made up of a number of clans called 'ndrine, based on blood ties.

Reuters reports the group started to expand rapidly in the 1970s, reinvesting ransom money from kidnappings - one of its primary activities at the time - into drug trafficking, building close ties with South American cartels.

The 'Ndrangheta kidnapped dozens of high-profile victims, including famously John Paul Getty III, the American oil tycoon's grandson, in Rome in 1973. It held him prisoner for five months in a cave in the Calabrian mountains, eventually cutting off his ear to pressure the family into paying millions of US dollars - after they initially suspected the kidnapping was a ruse.

The ‘Ndrangheta has also been firmly established in Germany since the 1970s, and is likely the most powerful organised crime group in the country, according to the German federal office of criminal investigation.

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How many alleged members have been arrested, and what is "Operation Eureka"?

Police across Europe arrested at least 139 people on Wednesday (3 May), raiding homes and seizing millions of euro in assets in a coordinated crackdown across multiple countries.

At a press conference in the Calabrian capital Reggio Calabria, officials estimated the operation had resulted in the seizure of 23 tonnes of cocaine over years of investigation, which deprived the ‘Ndrangheta of some €2.5 billion (£2.2 billion) in revenue. Assets worth €25 million (£22 million) were also seized.

Wednesday's operation, coordinated by European Union agency Eurojust, aimed to dismantle a network that includes the 'Ndrangheta, Colombian drug producers, and paramilitary groups, which move tonnes of cocaine from South American producers to Europe and Australia each year.

The investigation uncovered how these networks used ports in Ecuador, Panama and Brazil to ship the Colombian drugs to northern European ports, also on occasion dealing in weapons.

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Money would change hands via a Chinese wire transfer service, according to Italian officials and a carabinieri press release. The drug proceeds were then laundered through restaurants, ice cream shops and car washes.

German interior minister Nancy Faeser said: “With today’s coordinated measures across Europe, law enforcement authorities have dealt a serious blow to the ‘Ndrangheta... Today’s raids are one of the largest operations to date in the fight against Italian organised crime,” she added.

In Italy, carabinieri police backed by helicopters said arrest warrants were served on 108 people, who were accused of mafia association; possession, production, and trafficking of drugs and weapons; money laundering; and other crimes. In Germany, more than 1,000 officers searched dozens of homes, offices and stores in the states of Bavaria, North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Palatinate and Thuringia, prosecutors said in a joint statement. More than 30 suspects who had outstanding warrants were arrested.

The investigation also confirmed the enduring strength of a handful of well-known ‘Ndrangheta clans that operate in the Calabrian town of San Luca.

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In addition to Italy and Germany, arrest warrants were also served in Belgium, France, Portugal, Romania and Spain, while raids were also conducted in Slovenia.

Portugal’s judiciary police said that they had arrested a 62-year-old Italian man on charges of criminal association, money laundering and drug trafficking as part of the European operation. They also seized about half a million euro and various documents, among other confiscated items.