The organized religiosity of organized crime (Part-1)

Mapfinal

Organized crime map – Italy

The Santuaro di Santa Maria di Polsi is a Catholic sanctuary in the heart of the Aspromonte mountain range that runs north to south along the middle of the toe of Italy, near San Luca in Calabria. Founded by Roger II, King of Sicily in 1144, the church and monastery are situated in a spectacular setting at the bottom of a gorge that is surrounded by high mountains on the east side of the 6000ft Mont Alto, the highest peak of the Aspromonte.

Like other pilgrimage destinations, such as the Haj for Muslims or Amarnath and Sabrimalai for Hindus, in India, the inflicting of fatigue and pain upon the pilgrim is considered essential, in order to give him a sense of having ‘earned’ the right to spirituality. Somehow, kneeling in the corner of your prayer room at home isn’t the same thing. This is in spite of the widespread belief that God is omnipresent and is not necessarily found only in Jerusalem or Mecca or Sabrimalai.

Like those above pilgrimage destinations, the Polsi sanctuary too is difficult to access and cannot be reached by mechanised transport. The pilgrims, like any others around the world, feel that they have to trudge up to have a glimpse of the Santa Maria and bask in the momentary reflected piety. I have never understood this, but then I am not a religious man, thank God. 😀

In September every year, around 200 leading members of the most powerful and probably the cruelest organized crime group in the world, join the pilgrims in the long hike up the Aspromonte mountains, ostensibly to visit the sanctuary and express their devotion to the Virgin Mary.

I say ‘ostensibly’ because the real reason for their pilgrimage is not devotion, but to have a tête-a-tête. Since the 1950s, the chiefs of the locali have been meeting there during the September Feast. These annual get-togethers, known as the crimine, have traditionally served as a forum to discuss future strategies and settle disputes, under the auspices of the Catholic church.

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A 100 miles to the north, is a sleepy town called Cosenza that is bathed year round in bright sunlight. In January, with clear, azure-blue skies and a balmy 15°, Cosenza could well have been a tourists’ paradise. One such day in January 2014, brought to the world an unspeakable horror that the locals are still trying put behind them and move on.

For 3-year-old Nicola “Coco” Campolongo, it had promised to be an exciting day. Coco had just been strapped into the car-seat in the back of the 8-year old Fiat Punto by his grandfather, Guiseppe Iannicelli, who drove while his Moroccan companion, 27-year-old Ibtissa Taoussa, sat in the front passenger seat. Taoussa was ‘Aunt betty’ for Coco.

As the tiny car negotiated the busy thoroughfare, Coco’s head constantly swivelled round and round, as every child’s does, when he’s being taken on an outing. When he noticed a motorcycle keeping pace just inches away to his right, he gazed out at it in awe. The bike was one of those heavy Yamaha racing motorcycles.

Sitting astride were two men, dressed in leather from head to toe, with black helmets, their visors pulled down. When the man riding pillion turned his head to look at him, Coco waved wildly at the man and he even waved back. The motorcycle then speeded up, overtaking the Fiat and positioning itself in front. It remained there till the next intersection, where the bike came to a sudden halt, even though the light had turned green.

The old man was slow in reacting. He slammed on the brakes and fought to bring the skidding Fiat to a halt, barely managing to stop inches away from the tail lights of the Yamaha.

As the pillion rider twisted his torso, this time completely around facing the Fiat, the old man growled something in Calabrese that, roughly translated, meant, “Get the f—k out of my face, ars—le.” Grandpa Joe was a man with a mercurial temper.

The two seconds that the pillion rider took to unzip his jacket front and draw out a Beretta 7.62mm automatic would have been enough for a younger man to immediately put the car in gear and ram the motorbike, possibly run the two riders over and make his escape. Even if it had taken three seconds instead of two, he would probably have still made it, since the pillion rider would be too startled to aim accurately.

But Coco’s nonnino was old, no longer that murderous young button man with a leopard’s instinct for survival as he had once been. He just stared dumbly ahead till a third eye appeared in the center of his forehead. Immediately, the aged drug trafficker slumped forward on the wheel, pressing the horn down and setting it off.

The traffic around the two parked vehicles began to scatter and passersby did what this town had trained them since childhood for – dive for cover. Just as well, because the pillion rider got off the bike and ambled over to the passenger side and peered in for just a second, before he brought the gun up once more and shot the terrified moll too, right between the eyes, at point blank range, the gun’s muzzle hitting the woman’s forehead before the round exited in a fiery flash.

Coco was beside himself by now, hopping up and down, restrained by his car seat, unable to comprehend what was unfolding in front of his eyes. He kept repeating, “Nonnino! Nonnino!” over and over.

The pillion rider didn’t get back on the bike. Instead, he strolled round to the rear of the hatchback and stood there for a while, not moving, his head swiveling around till he was satisfied there was no emerging threat. There couldn’t be. The outfit that he worked for owned this town.

Stretching out his right arm, he brought the Beretta up one last time, it’s muzzle bumping against the rear window of the car, six inches from the back of little Coco’s head. His expression impassive, the hit-man fired two shots in quick succession and Coco’s head exploded like a melon. The toddler slumped forward, his upper torso hanging in front, restrained by the car seat’s harness.

In the deathly silence that followed, the pillion rider casually walked over to the driver side, opened the door, dragged Iannicelli’s corpse out onto the pavement and out back, opened the trunk and stuffed it in. The bike revved up, the Fiat’s engine fired and the two-vehicle convoy began moving forward unhurriedly. At the next corner they took a sharp left and disappeared from view.

Iannicelli was a convict on nocturnal payrole and when he didn’t call in for a couple of days, the cops went looking for him. Then, a few days later, a hunter spotted the burnt-out skeleton of a small hatchback inside the compound of a derelict building at the edge of town and alerted the police who discovered the macabre scene inside.

There was a body in the trunk, charred beyond recognition and another in the front passenger seat, similarly cooked. In the back seat, the investigators found the charred remains of a tiny body, still strapped to a blackened car-seat, unrecognizable as the remains of a human being.

A shiny 50-eurocent coin was found on the roof of the burnt-out car, a known custom of the criminal group that owned the town, a message that meant that it was a vendetta for an unpaid drug debt.

Welcome to the world of the ‘Ndrangheta, the deadliest organized crime group in the world, with annual revenues from drug trafficking and murder of over $80 billion, a tidy sum which also happens to equal 3.5% of Italy’s GDP and double that of the auto behemoth, Fiat.

Maybe it is the apostrophe in front of the name, but it sends a chill down my spine.

Ndrangheta

Coco was not the only child collateral damage. Clockwise from Coco, blue-eyed three-year-old Domenico Petruzelli didn’t know his mum’s boyfriend was a ‘Ndrangheta goon. One day in March 2014, hitmen forced the family car off the road and opened fire with machine guns. Domenico died instantly, in a hail of bullets.

 Valentina Terracciano, just two, was killed in 2000, in a machinegun crossfire which raked a flower shop in Pollena Trocchia, near Naples. The store belonged to her uncle, a Camorra member and the real target.

Claudio Domino, 11, was shot in the forehead because he was witness to a murder, in Palermo, Sicily.

Annalisa Durante, 14, was a bystander used as a human shield in a clash between two rival Naples clans in 2004. She was fatally shot in the back of the head.

(In the last decade alone, over 80 children and some 800 innocent bystanders have fallen for being at the wrong place at the wrong time).

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If you get on the wrong side of the ‘Ndrangheta, one of the following two things can happen to you – they will either dissolve you in in a vat of highly concentrated hydrochloric acid, alive or feed you alive to deliberately starved pigs who will nibble at you, sometimes for as long as 24 hours, before you finally die.

The pain attached to such forms of killing simply cannot be imagined by any sane mind. The ‘Ndrangheta most probably has something akin to our Methods Department at my workplace, which creates manufacturing methods, constantly looking for newer and more ingenious ways to make parts.

I am trying to imagine a mass-circulated email, similar to the ones we get at work, updating us on how a new component is being planned to be trial manufactured. The acid vat procedure might read like –

Opn-1

Sequence-1      :

Ensure test sample is breathing. Revive with cold water if necessary. (It isn’t much fun otherwise).

Sequence-2      :

Put on CSTW-2 ear muffs, in case he screams (he will and it’ll be awful loud in there).

Sequence-3      :

Lower sample gently into vat.

Sequence-4      :

Soak for 24 hours.

Sequence-5      :

Neutralize contents of vat with caustic soda and discard in sewer.

(Caution: Make sure the floor around the vat isn’t slippery and your partner does not bear a grudge against you).

I would prepare a process chart for the hungry-pigs method but trust me, you don’t have the stomach for it.

(to be continued…)

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