This week, Postdoctoral Fellow Dr Zora Hauser was interviewed by Fluter, Germany's Federal Agency for Civic Education magazine, about her work investigating the presence of the Calabrian Mafia, the 'Ndrangheta, in Germany.
Zora is in the process of turning her DPhil thesis about the international expansion of the 'Ndrangheta, which she completed here at Oxford, into a book (forthcoming with Oxford University Press). Her current research investigates criminal governance and illicit economies in a variety of settings.
The following text was published in Fluter on 9 March 2023, and translated into English via DeepL. Some edits have been made for length and clarity.
"A discreet infiltration, a lingering presence"
In no other European country outside of Italy is the Calabrian Mafia as strongly represented as in Germany. Mafia researcher Zora Hauser explains why - and how - the 'Ndrangheta tries to establish contacts within the German political sphere.
Ms Hauser, you completed your doctorate at Oxford University with a thesis on the Calabrian Mafia 'Ndrangheta in Germany. Why did you choose this topic?
In 2007, six Calabrian men were murdered outside a restaurant in Duisburg. It was the culmination of a feud between mafia families that had started in Calabria in the 1990s and subsequently spread to Germany. Since then, people in Germany have been paying more attention to the mafia problem.
And yet, in 2017, when I started my doctoral thesis, the 'Ndrangheta was still virtually unexplored. Ten years after the Duisburg murders! Especially surprising in Germany, considering it is the country in Europe where the 'Ndrangheta is the most active outside of Italy.
Do you have an explanation for why this is?
First of all, to do research on the 'Ndrangheta in Germany, you have to speak Italian and German. Then, you have to get access to investigation files and data. That is not easy in Germany. I have contacted the Federal Criminal Police Office and State Criminal Police Offices and asked for documents, mostly unsuccessfully. German legislation makes it difficult to make documents such as arrest warrants or wiretap protocols available to the public.
If we want to better understand the 'Ndrangheta, however, such data would have to be made available for research.
Is it possible to trace how long 'Ndrangheta members have been living in Germany?
The first mafiosi came to Germany in the 1960s, and the first 'Ndrangheta cells were established in the 1970s. Most of them are still active today.
According to the Federal Criminal Police Office, 505 'Ndrangheta members were living in Germany in 2021.
It is important to note, however, that the number of unreported cases is high. The Federal Government recently estimated the number in Germany at around 1,000 'Ndranghetisti.
It is often claimed that the 'Ndrangheta came together with the migrant workers who were specifically recruited by Germany in the 1950s and 1960s to make up for the labour shortage in the post-war period.
There are two theses that are repeatedly voiced but contradict each other. One: The 'Ndrangheta is an inevitable and direct consequence of Italian migration. The other is that its members have strategically planned their expansion abroad.
And which thesis is correct?
Neither of them. There is no evidence that the 'Ndrangheta systematically - and strategically - infiltrated certain regions. First and foremost, individual mafiosi left Calabria for personal reasons, such as to escape law enforcement or more generally to seek refuge.
For example, I dealt with a mafia clan whose boss came to Hesse in the 1970s. He had killed his own boss in Calabria and was afraid that the family would take revenge.
Do you know why he went to Germany of all places?
Because he had relatives there. If he had had family in Switzerland, he probably would have gone there. So, in this context, migration does play a role.
Did the man take his business with him from Italy?
Yes, over the years he relocated his criminal activities and built up a mafia cell in Germany. Today he is in prison in Italy, but his group is still active in Germany.
You have done a lot of research on the ground, in regions like Thuringia and northern Hesse, where the Calabrian Mafia has a strong presence. How do people react when you ask them about the 'Ndrangheta?
Sometimes Italians can be reluctant to talk about the mafia. There was a similar attitude in the German villages and small towns where I did my fieldwork.
I wanted to know what it was like for them when the police arrested several of their neighbours on suspicion of mafia membership.
Either people claimed they didn't know those arrested, which is unlikely in small villages, or they told me: "But that's just the restaurant owner from around the corner, he's certainly not a mafioso."
You also sought contact with mayors in these regions.
From police files I knew that mayors in both Hesse and Thuringia had had contact with suspected mafiosi. There, too, I was surprised: the mayors seemed to ignore every red flag.
Do you have an example of this?
There was a waiter from Calabria who leased a restaurant in a small town - and shortly afterwards renovated it at great expense. As mayor, I would ask myself: ‘Where does a simple waiter suddenly get so much capital?’ and above all: ‘Why is he investing massively in a restaurant that does not belong to him?’
One could at least suspect that he has laundered money from other businesses through the renovation.
One thing is sure: the investment makes little sense, at least economically.
Do you have an explanation why the 'Ndrangheta often sets up shop in smaller towns?
On the one hand, in a big city, there is more criminal competition. On the other hand, the smaller the town, the easier it is to establish contact with local politicians. It's easier to get in touch with the mayor of a small town in northern Hesse than with the mayor of Berlin. In addition, small villages are ideal for remaining under the radar. Though, many criminal activities still take place in bigger cities.
What then is the business of the ‘Ndrangheta in Germany?
The 'Ndrangheta consists of many different clans – or criminal families – some of which focus on different criminal activities. In principle, however, they do anything that brings profit. Some clans import large quantities of cocaine from South America via the Northern ports of Hamburg, Rotterdam and Antwerp. Others set up extortion rings. Most significantly in Germany, they engage in money laundering and infiltrate the legal economy.
In Italy, the 'Ndrangheta can rely on its close ties to politicians. Do you see the danger that the 'Ndrangheta could infiltrate German politics as well?
I wouldn't rule that out. However, the reach of the 'Ndrangheta in Germany is not the same as in Calabria. To claim that the mafia is as powerful in Germany as it is in Italy would be neither correct nor fair to the Italians who suffer under its presence in Calabria and other Italian regions.
At the same time, you see similar dynamics in the infiltration of the legal economy.
Indeed. Let's take the classic example: a mafioso opens a restaurant and seeks contact with local politicians. Such connections have been documented, no one can deny that. But there is no evidence that these relationships develop into corruption.
This is, by the way, a peculiarity of the ‘Ndragheta: they stay under the radar. While not giving up violence, their expansion is very discreet, a lingering presence. I think that's one of the reasons why they are still underestimated in Germany.
Last but not least, we should not forget that the 'Ndrangheta has been active in Italy for 150 years, in Germany only for 50. The question is how the organisation will develop in the future.
Are politicians and law enforcement doing enough to combat this?
Politically, not much is happening: the 'Ndrangheta is clearly not a priority. But from the police, interest has grown. This means that the people who deal directly with the phenomenon see the need to do more. I don't see this in politics - with the possible exception of the anti-mafia inquiry in the Thuringian state parliament.
You appeared there in 2021 as an expert. The committee is to clarify whether the operational measures of a lengthy investigation against an 'Ndrangheta cell in Thuringia were prematurely discontinued in the 2000s. It also deals with the question of what contact the suspected mafiosi had with politicians.
It is the first inquiry of its kind in Germany, and in Thuringia I see at least the start of a political interest. Unfortunately, not much is happening at the federal level. Yet the laws that make it more difficult not only for 'Ndrangheta members but for all criminal groups to operate in Germany are made at the federal level.
What needs to happen?
Money laundering should be combated more systematically, more effectively, and in the long term. For example, by introducing an upper cap to the use of cash, as the EU is currently planning, or more transparency in the land and business registers.
In addition, the police should be given adequate resources for conducting structural investigations, which can be very costly. Without political commitment, all of this is not possible and we cannot hope to systematically pursue any criminal network.
Last but not least, as a researcher, I have to insist on the importance of studying the phenomenon more closely. If you want to fight against something, you must first understand what it is.
You can contact Zora about her research here.