Gioia Tauro, Italy - In Calabria, one of Italy's poorest regions, the Gioia Tauro port has become known for the massive quantities of cocaine transported by organised crime groups.

"The port was born with an original sin," said Roberto Di Palma, an Italian magistrate and mob researcher, during a conversation with Al Jazeera at his Reggio Calabria office. 

The "original sin" Di Palma refers to is the 'NdranghetaEurope's most powerful crime syndicate, an organisation that is more dangerous and influential than the Mafia, its better-known Sicilian cousin.

The coastal road leading to the Gioia Tauro port runs past a number of abandoned warehouses and un-farmed plots of land. In Calabria - home to powerful 'Ndrangheta families with global influence - the illegal activities of organised crime dwarf the revenues of the legal economy.

Roberto Di Palma, magistrate on organised crime, in his Reggio Calabria office [Antonella Corigliano/Al Jazeera]

The Gioia Tauro port is one of Europe's largest when it comes to transhipment, the term the shipping industry uses to describe ports used primarily as intermediate destinations.

Every year 3.6 million containers arrive at the Gioia Tauro port, a number that makes it extremely difficult for the companies operating there, as well as the team of 25 policemen supervising it, to control the port's inflows and outflows.

"How can we check everything?" a nearly desperate company manager told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.

"It's nearly impossible. If we checked every cargo, no ship would stop and the port would die."

Di Palma said "when it comes to drug trafficking, it is always hard to have reliable numbers. What we can say with certainty is that in terms of numbers of drug requisitions by port authorities, Gioia Tauro tops Europe".

90 percent purity

When estimating cocaine volumes, authorities involved in fighting narcotrafficking use what is known as the one-to-10 rule of thumb.

According to this rule, for every police seizure there are about nine drug shipments that freely transit through the port.

According to data published by the DIA, the Italian law enforcement agency dealing with organised crime, between 2011 and 2014 total seizures amounted to 5.5 metric tonnes, implying that almost 50 tonnes of cocaine probably transited through the port over that time period. 

Vincenzo Caruso, who is in charge of port security and a lieutenant colonel with the Guardia di Finanza, a police force that deals with financial crimes, said in a phone interview with Al Jazeera that "the cocaine arriving in Gioia Tauro is usually about 90 percent pure, meaning that it can be cut up to four times before being placed on the market".

Given that the average street price of cocaine in Western Europe is somewhere between 60-70 euros ($67-79) a gram, the estimated market value of the cocaine that transited through Gioia Tauro between 2011 and 2014 is somewhere between 30bn-35 billion euros ($34bn-39bn).

Italian police estimate the 'Ndrangheta controls between 60-80 percent of Europe's cocaine market. Narcotrafficking, coupled with other activities including real estate, the illegal arms trade, and hazardous waste management, yield the group an annual revenue of roughly 56 billion euros ($63bn), more than the combined annual revenue of Deutsche Bank and McDonald's

'Rip-off', 'Ndrangheta's new smuggling technique involves planting people inside ports and using them to smuggle drugs in random shipping containers [Antonella Corigliano/Al Jazeera] 

Data from the UNODC, the UN agency monitoring drug trafficking and consumption, show the volume of seizures have declined. However, Di Palma said these numbers should be taken with caution, since the 'Ndrangheta has recently refined its smuggling techniques, for a time duping port authorities.

Refining techniques

The 'Ndrangheta's new smuggling technique is called "rip-off" and is at the centre of a new book Oro Bianco (White Gold), authored by Nicola Gratteri and Antonio Nicaso, the world's top researchers on the Calabria-based crime syndicate.

A few years ago, cocaine smuggling was mainly carried out by establishing fake cargo companies under the control of the 'Ndrangheta.

But now the group relies on men whom it has placed in key ports along cocaine trafficking routes, a technique it first experimented with in Gioia Tauro, a port where it was able to take more risks thanks to the strong influence it exercises in the region.

The strategy involves a 'Ndrangheta member strategically placed at a port who opens up a container bound for Gioia Tauro, and hides cocaine parcels inside it. His counterpart in Gioia Tauro is then informed of the container's number. When it arrives at the Italian port, the crime syndicate rushes to empty it before customs or police are able to check it.  

"It's nearly impossible for authorities to find out what is going on," a port worker in Gioia Tauro told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.

"There are just too many containers coming and going, and the 'Ndrangheta's influence is strong despite the work of the authorities."

Nicola Gratteri, Reggio Calabria’s district attorney, and Antonio Nicaso, a writer on the ‘Ndrangheta [Antonella Corigliano/Al Jazeera]

The recent economic crisis also plays a role. A number of companies operating in Gioia Tauro were hit heavily and at risk of going bankrupt. The 'Ndrangheta loaned money to companies in crisis, allowing them to take them over and operate in the port without anyone noticing.

The new smuggling technique has two benefits, Nicaso and Gratteri told Al Jazeera.

It reduces costs because the criminal organisation no longer has to open up fictitious cargo companies. It also diminishes risk, because cocaine is smuggled in smaller quantities - up to 200kg per shipment. If seized, the loss is not a major setback.

Impossible to halt

This makes it harder for authorities to stop the inflow.

Nevertheless, the Gioa Tauro Guardia di Finanza has been quick to find ways to fight the "rip-off" technique.

Caruso and his men were the first to take notice. As the Guardia di Finanza caught on, it started checking the codes on the cargo container locks to see whether they were tampered with. If the code was different, the cargo probably contained a drug parcel.

This strategy has now been imitated across Europe by other national authorities fighting narcotrafficking.

'Ndrangheta's new smuggling technique is called 'rip-off', putting men inside port operations to direct coke smuggling [Antonella Corigliano/Al Jazeera]

As authorities discovered more and more containers that had been tampered with, the 'Ndrangheta responded by forging locks with the same numerical code as the original in order to bypass police checks.

This made it once again hard, if not impossible, for Gioia Tauro's authorities to find drug parcels. However, Caruso said "new prevention techniques are being developed, and we are certain we'll soon have positive results".

Di Palma, Gratteri, Nicaso, and Caruso complain that the 'Ndrangheta and its cocaine smuggling are often falsely considered to be a local or national problem; the 'Ndrangheta is an organised crime network that operates on an international scale.

Authorities in Gioia Tauro can put up a fight, they say, but until there is a coordinated effort by international police, it may be nearly impossible to bring to a halt an industry worth billions.

Source: Al Jazeera