Gunning down Francesco Fortugno in front of dozens of bystanders was cold-blooded enough, but the hit man's next move was even more chilling. As Fortugno, a leading politician in Italy's deep-south region of Calabria, crumpled to the floor with five bullets in his torso, the masked attacker lowered his handgun and strolled calmly through the exit of the local polling station to a waiting car. The bleeding 54-year-old former physician and father of two, who had just voted in Italy's center-left coalition primary, died minutes later at the same Locri hospital where he had once worked.
The callous nature of the murder marked it unmistakably as a professional hit by Calabria's powerful crime syndicate, the 'Ndrangheta, a word of Greek origin meaning courage or loyalty. The message was just as clear: We're in charge here. The gangland execution of the respected Vice President of the Regional Assembly as he cast his vote was a warning that no one is safe, particularly not politicians like Fortugno who might have ideas about changing the status quo. The Bishop of Locri, Giancarlo Bregantini, noted that there were "two places in the world where they shoot at the polling stations: Iraq and Calabria." Though the outcome of the vote wasn't at issue in Calabria, the polls provided a perfect setting for the mob to make its point. "This murder was carried out for maximum political symbolism," says Agazio Loiero, Calabria's Governor, who has received multiple death threats since gaining office last spring. "The killers want to show that they can strike anyone, anywhere, at any time that the territory of Calabria is under their control."
At the packed funeral service for Fortugno, attended by national politicians and mayors from across southern Italy, Bregantini declared: "This isn't just about Locri. All of Italy's political autonomy is at stake." The high-profile murder has raised fears in Rome that the growing brazenness of 'Ndrangheta could escalate into a bloody war against national authority, like the one that erupted in the 1980s when the Cosa Nostra sought to tighten its hold on Sicilian society and politics.
Life is already bleak on this southern tip of Italy's boot-shaped peninsula. The honest people of Calabria struggle just to get by in one of Europe's most economically depressed corners, where nearly 25% of families live below the poverty line. Meanwhile, the region's mob bosses are ruthlessly expanding their empire. Once considered less sophisticated and less organized than its nearby Sicilian cousins, 'Ndrangheta was notorious in the 1980s for brutal but not necessarily lucrative kidnappings for ransom. For decades, Calabrian gangsters were satisfied with taking a cut from the limited economic activity of the countryside. But after an intense government campaign forced the Sicilian Mafia to scale back its narcotics business, the coastal region of Calabria offered an ideal alternative as a drug-trading route.
Over the past decade, officials say, the Calabrian clan has evolved into Europe's leading cocaine trafficker, with a network extending from Europe to South and North America and Australia. Its members are also deeply into related criminal enterprises like arms dealing, toxic-waste dumping, money laundering and graft from public-works contracts. Last week, Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu declared that 'Ndrangheta is "the most entrenched, most powerful, and most aggressive of Italy's large criminal organizations."