He owns a house in the mafia-ridden town of Rosarno. In the adjoining plot of land,say neighbours,he grew vegetables that he drove to market in an Ape,the three-wheeler beloved of parsimonious Italian peasants. But,say investigators who on July 13th led one of the biggest-ever operations against organised crime in Italy,80-year-old Domenico Oppedisano also presided over what the interior minister,Roberto Maroni,calls Italys most powerful,most aggressive criminal fellowship.
Enriched by the transatlantic cocaine trade,the Ndrangheta,the little-known mafia of Calabria (the toe of the Italian boot),is reckoned by police and prosecutors to be more of a threat than the Neapolitan Camorra or even Sicilys Cosa Nostra. Some 3,000 police and semi-militarised Carabinieri,armed with more than 300 arrest warrants,executed this weeks raids. They found drugs and weapons. They impounded property and cash worth tens of millions of euros. And they caught several alleged Ndrangheta leaders,including the previously unknown Mr Oppedisano. He headed a council,known as Il Crimine (The Crime),that agreed on the syndicates policies and settled its disputes.
Investigators are convinced that the Ndrangheta,like its Sicilian equivalent,is hierarchical. They found evidence that the leadership in Calabria exercised authority over gangs as far away as Canada. In July 2008 one Carmelo Nuzzo Novella,a 58-year-old suspected mobster,was shot dead in a bar after airing the view that the Ndrangheta in northern Italy should be autonomous.
Publication of details from the inquiry highlighted the extent to which this shadowy mafia has penetrated Italys industrial and financial heartland. Most of the warrants were for execution outside Calabria. They were used to seize alleged mobsters and their abettors as far north as Novara,near Turin.
Evidence amassed included a film taken secretly of a meeting of Ndrangheta affiliates near Milan. Investigators said the organisation planned to exploit contracts generated by the 2015 Universal Exposition in Milan; that one of its men was running the local health service in Pavia; and even that it was funnelling votes towards a prominent northern member of the Chamber of Deputies,Italys lower house (the lawmaker,a member of Silvio Berlusconis People of Freedom movement,is not suspected of conniving with the mobsters).
Ministers said they had dealt the direst blow to the Ndrangheta in 40 years. That may be right. But Calabrias mafia is resistant. We have slashed a few tyres,said Nicola Gratteri,deputy chief anti-mafia prosecutor in Reggio Calabria. We have not yet damaged the engine.