German and Italian authorities say that the eastern German city of Erfurt has become an operational hub for the 'Ndrangheta mafia. Investigators say Germany's lax laws have created fertile ground for organized crime.
The German Federal Police and Italy's anti-mafia authority (DIA) have confirmed to a regional German broadcaster that the mafia organization 'Ndrangheta has turned the Thuringian city of Erfurt from a subsidiary hideout into a major business hub.
According to a report by the MDR Thuringia public broadcasting network, the 'Ndrangheta has invested some 100 million euros ($110 million) in Germany and Europe via its so-called "Erfurt Group," which has built up a network of money-laundering firms and restaurants.
The DIA has known about the Erfurt Group for years, but the MDR says the group consists of six hardcore members, plus more than two dozen other men.
The new findings are centered on recent major investments in seven exclusive restaurants in Rome and Lisbon - all emanating from Italian businessmen based in Erfurt. Three of them - "Il Passetto," "Caffé Napoleon" and "Pallotta," all in idyllic locations around the Eternal City - were bought for 15 million euros over the past two years. These acquisitions attracted the attention of the Italian authorities because they came on top of the 1.3-million-euro purchase of another Rome restaurant, the "Alla Rampa," in 2006 - by the same Erfurt group, via bank accounts in the tax haven of San Marino.
The Erfurt mob
Six people were killed in the Duisburg shootings in 2007
The three latest restaurant investments, coming on top of other activities in Germany, have convinced authorities in both Italy and Germany that Erfurt has become much more than a minor outlying base. Investigations suggest that some 20 companies and 30 restaurants across Germany are connected to the Erfurt group, including in Leipzig, Dresden, Baden-Baden, Kassel, Munich and Münster.
This amounts to a money-laundering operation worth up to 100 million euros for the 'Ndrangheta, a worldwide organized crime network based in the Calabria region of southern Italy and allegedly involved in forced prostitution, loan-sharking, insurance fraud, racketeering, extortion, and the trafficking of drugs, weapons, and children.
But despite the increased activity, the 'Ndrangheta has rarely come to the attention of the German police, or the German media. One exception was the murder of six people who were shot dead outside a pizzeria in the western city of Duisburg in 2007, apparently as a result of a feud between two families. In response, the BKA set up a special unit to fight Italian organized crime.
German laws - weak on mafia organizations
But some investigators have argued that the authorities are also hampered by Germany's laws. For one thing, mafia membership itself is not a crime. Moreover, in a blog entry written for the investigative journalist network "Correctiv," Margherita Bettoni pointed out that the burden of proof for mafia-related crimes lies with prosecutors in Germany - unlike in Italy. In other words, if a mafiosi suspect is caught in Germany, it is up to the state to prove that his income is illegitimate, and show which crimes it comes from - in Italy, the suspect has to prove that their income is legal.
Petra Reski was threatened after publishing books on the mafia in Germany
"After that, the investigations basically stop fairly quickly - it's really enough if a policeman asks, 'Where do you get the money,' and the person, the straw man or whoever, says, 'my uncle from Calabria gave it me,'" said Petra Reski, author of several books on the mafia and its operations in Germany, most recently The Honored Society.
Reski, who has been threatened and sued because of her work, also believes that there is little political will to tighten the laws in Germany, because of the investment that organized crime brings. "It's like a sacred cow in Germany, money-laundering, because there is still great interest in getting the mafia to invest its money in Germany," she said.
"Not least, why Erfurt?" she added. "The re-development of eastern Germany has been co-financed by 'Ndrangheta and the Cosa Nostra. There are even transcripts of phone calls from the night after the Berlin Wall fell where mafiosi are discussing where they should invest their money in the east - that's no secret in Italy, though in Germany the information about the mafia is very rudimentary."