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Italy’s most powerful mafia mingles with devoted Christians

Ndrangheta mafia, Our Lady of the Mountain, Polsi, Calabrian mafia, Catholic Church, Calabria, Ndrangheta
Photos by Michele Amoruso

International

Italy’s most powerful mafia mingles with devoted Christians

The sacred and the profane mix uneasily at this holy spot for both the ’Ndrangheta mafia and Catholic worshippers in Italy’s south. Writes Cecilia Anesi

The crowning of Our Lady of the Mountain of Polsi is, first of all, a celebration. But not everyone celebrates for the same reason. Some are led here by religion, and some by organized crime.

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This annual festival is one of the holiest religious ceremonies in the region of Calabria, in Italy’s far south. Worship at this site may even predate the advent of Christianity here. It is also a traditional gathering place for the ’Ndrangheta, the powerful Calabrian mafia whose influence in this impoverished province rivals that of the Catholic Church.

Amid the walls of the sanctuary, the ’Ndrangheta have traditionally met to initiate new members, hold trials for infractions of mafia rules, and open and close new branches of the syndicate. They do this in Polsi precisely because it is a sacred place for Calabrians, and because the power of the mafia cannot be disentangled from the beliefs of the region. The governing body of the ’Ndrangheta is literally called the Santa — the “saint.”

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“They gather in Polsi because it is the sacred place … because the strength of the “Santa,” compared to other criminal organizations, is that it observes the rules in an orthodox way,” said Nicola Gratteri, the chief prosecutor of Catanzaro known for leading a major anti-’Ndrangheta crackdown in 2010.

For the past two years, the ceremony has been cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but this year both the faithful and the ’Ndrangheta returned in force. So did antimafia prosecutors, who are trying to ensure that the religious ritual isn’t fully co-opted by the mafia. They made their presence conspicuous, arriving in a helicopter alongside the prefect of Reggio Calabria, and arranged for cameras to be installed to monitor the sanctuary for signs of secret mafia meetings.

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The sanctuary of Polsi is located at the bottom of a deep gorge in the Aspromonte mountains, among ancient woods and even older rocks. Its origin is described in various local legends. One popular tale speaks of a vision had by a local shepherd who, in search of a lost bullock, ended up on his knees adoring the cross. The Blessed Virgin and Child appeared and asked him to build a church dedicated to her.

Today, an entire village-like complex has sprung up around the sanctuary, with paved streets, two squares, several dormitories, and even a small police station. But the heart of it all is still the holy statue of Mary carrying the baby Jesus, known as Our Lady of the Mountain of Polsi, or the Madonna of Polsi.

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The faithful complain that journalists are over-eager to brand the ceremony as “the party of the mafia,” pointing to the flocks of genuine pilgrims who come from far and wide to worship the Madonna.

“The sanctuary belongs to the people,” said the bishop of Locri, Monsignor Francesco Oliva, “who come in their thousands on foot to visit the shrine also and above all in quiet moments, far from celebrations, when silence and prayer are in force.”

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Pilgrims arrive from all corners of Calabria, some having walked for days. Some come adorned with the famous scallop shell that shows they’ve also walked the famous Camino de Santiago in Spain. At the entrance to the sanctuary, they take off their mountain shoes after who knows how many hours, and go barefoot.

They’re walking barefoot before God, a wooden sign says.

This year, there is an additional reason to celebrate: It’s the coronation feast of Our Lady, which has been held every 25 years since the 1800s, when the Pope granted the statue the right to be “canonically crowned,” as the ritual is known in the Catholic Church. Although the shrine contains several Madonna statues, only the largest and holiest is crowned during this special event.

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The last crowning took place in 2006, meaning that technically this is nine years too early for another one. However, it so happened that the large statue of the Madonna was recently restored. The rector of the shrine, Don Antonio Saraco, read this as a sign from God: After two celebrations skipped due to COVID-19, he decided to move forward the feast and mark this year as a special one.

At least 6,000 people descend on the sanctuary from villages all over Calabria, especially the village of San Luca and two cities on the Tyrrhenian side of Calabria: Bagnara Calabra and Rosarno. The various attendees can be differentiated through their style of dancing; the people of Rosarno skip, for example, while the people of San Luca drag their feet.

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As the ceremonies get started, a young calf is brought among the offerings to the Madonna, dragged into the church by the nostrils as they drip with blood.

On the morning of September 1, the tarantellas begin. Groups of musicians armed with tambourines, bagpipes, and glass bottles on which knives are masterfully scraped set the stage for the dances. As many as ten circles at a time fill all corners of the sanctuary in a continuous rhythm, as dancers take their places two by two in the middle of the circles: men with women, women with women, men with men. At mass at 9:30 p.m., when the bearers of the statue are presented for a blessing, everyone attends.

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Young and old walk in procession towards the statue, at the end of the main nave of the small church. The air is thick, and the humidity of a passing storm makes things worse.

“Do not touch the Madonna, she has just been restored,” reads a sign, but the hands still reach for the statue’s blue knee, touching it in quick, silent gestures. Some attendees make their way to the front of the church to pray or give religious declarations, almost like they’re on a conference stage, even as younger people congregate in the building’s transepts and chat like they’re at a cafe. The prayers of the women on the benches in the nave blend with the chatter in the transepts into a continuous buzz.

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In the left transept there is an apse containing a statue of the Madonna and child, a reproduction of the one that has just been restored. Under the statue, a group of young men form a circle.

“[When you see] men intent on talking in a circle, pay attention,” one police investigator tells IrpiMedia. Indeed, reporters see various meetings forming just like this, both indoors and outdoors, mirroring the more innocent circular tarantella dances.

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This is the same type of meeting which, in 2009, anointed the new ’Ndrangheta boss, Domenico Oppedisano, who was “crowned” head of the ‘Ndrangheta in under a stone statue of the Madonna of the Mountain. In 2017, in an effort to exorcise this type of ritual, authorities removed the statue and replaced it with the bust of a prominent local mafia victim: Don Giuseppe Giovinazzo, a priest killed in an ambush on the road that leads from neighboring Montalto to the sanctuary.

“We hope that his sacrifice did not fall into thin air,” said Bishop Oliva at the time.

Despite the efforts of authorities, it’s not hard to spot signs of the criminal group at the festival.

Take the presence this year of Francesco Mammoliti, a high-level boss recently released from a 40-year sentence that included a long stint under house arrest. The 73-year-old is believed to be the head of the powerful Mammoliti clan of the ’Ndrangheta, known as the Fischiante di San Luca, which specializes in international drug trafficking.

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Free since last spring, he is considered a major figure within the ‘Ndrangheta, among the first to obtain the rank of santista. Given up for dead by prosecutors in 2000, he worked from the shadows.

“In reality,” writes Claudio Cordova, director of the Calabrian media outlet Il Dispaccio, “he was alive and well and continued, even after his release, and under house arrest … to manage the criminal affairs of his own clan.”

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Reporters spot him walking near the sanctuary at sunset, his presence an alarm bell. Investigators believe the presence of a boss like Mammoliti at the celebration sends a signal: the ‘Ndrangheta is there because it has decided to be there. Even without meetings, Polsi is still a place to be seen — and thus demonstrate your power.

All around, on closer inspection, you can spot other ‘Ndrine — members of ’Ndrangheta families. Hundreds of people of various ages, but mostly young ones, all dressed for the big occasion in luxury brands that can cost thousands of euros.

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Polsi looks like a catwalk: Versace haute couture, with golden floral motifs standing out from deep blues, and the gray-on-black skulls of Philipp Plein, a German fashion house sported by the ’Ndrangheta narco Ciccio Riitano when he was arrested in 2019.

This year, many of the young men wear black sweatshirts with a colored phoenix on the shoulders, a hallmark of the fashion label Dsquared2, favored by American pop singers. This year, you could confuse it for the official sponsor of the Polsi party.

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Such ostentatious clothing in one of the most economically deprived areas of Europe? Another alarm bell.

Usually the statue of the Madonna is carried by 20 bearers from Bagnara Calabra, but for the coronation the honor is given to the men of San Luca, the ’Ndrangheta’s spiritual home. Given the weight of the statue, 60 porters are needed to carry it, with 30 standing by for backup, but this presents a problem: ’Ndrangheta members are not allowed to get involved.

Finding 100 men not linked to the crime group is no easy task in this Calabrian village. Certainly, not all 3,700 citizens are mafiosi. But the ’Ndrangheta relies on local family ties. More often than not, it finds a way to infiltrate. In 2019, scandal was narrowly averted when the young son of a local boss was stopped at the last minute from slipping in with the porters. But thanks to the efforts of the rector Don Saraco, and the Carabinieri, this year it was ensured that the Virgin was not carried directly by members of the ‘Ndrangheta families.

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Even the souvenir stalls set up in the square in the valley are problematic. Some are managed by the relatives of important ‘Ndrine from San Luca. A dispute breaks out between the stall holders and the Carabinieri. Reporters hear whispering in the streets that the local municipality, which authorized the stalls, could be dissolved because of mafia infiltration.

The stalls burst with religious items — scarves, cushions, bracelets with the Virgin Mary’s image — but they also sell CDs of music romanticizing local bandits, known as canto di malavita. Among the compilations available? ’Ndrangheta and ’Ndrangheta 2. Even at the side of the sacred church, some of the live music on offer is audibly pro-mafia, as songs like Nu Ballo Camorrista — “A Mafia Dance” — ring out.

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Many people glare at the camera lens. Journalists aren’t popular here; they are seen as creating problems, and people are afraid they will see and tell a distorted reality. In truth, there are few reporters present, another illustration of how the area has often been abandoned by the Italian state and broader society.

This continuous struggle between the sacred and the profane, darkness and light, is illustrated by a prayer from a young woman in the church the night before the procession.

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“I feel that evangelical meekness is the real answer to a land marked by so much blood and crossed by a thousand episodes of violence, mafia, ‘Ndrangheta …, corrupt politics in many sectors …” she says to a packed church.

“But what is violence? I would compare it to untreated, soured suffering. When we suffer alone and no one takes care of us, we become evil, ferocious, vindictive. If violence is an untreated wound then it is up to us, believers in Christ, meek and humble of heart, to be able to give our land and our people that attention and tenderness that can heal the open wounds.

“It’s up to us to transform violence into love.”

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