The organisation was founded in the late 1970s by Raffaele Cutolo, a Camorra boss who wanted to expand his operations into Puglia. When Cutolo was arrested, the Sacra Corona Unita continued on its own under new leadership.
Having initially concentrated on extortion from the considerable olive oil and wine producing industries of Puglia, their operations developed to include drug trafficking and gun running. The Sacra Corona Unita has extensive alliances with other international criminal organisations such as the Russian and Albanian mafias, Colombian drug cartels, Chinese Triads, and Japanese Yakuza.
The organisation has three distinct levels, and members can graduate from one to another by performing 'Riti Battesimali' (Baptism Rites), a religious term probably harking back to the Camorra associations.
The 'Società Minore', which is the lowest level, is made of of low level criminals wanting to move up in the world. After a trial period lasting forty days, they can swear an oath of allegiance to the Sacra Corona Unita and, provided they are not already wanted by the police, they can become a 'Manovalanza' (Worker).
The 'Società Maggiore', the second level, is itself spilt into two parts: The first is 'Lo Squarro' which is earned once a member has killed three people on behalf of the Sacra Corona Unita. If he tries to leave the organisation afterwards, he will be killed.
The second is 'La Santa'. Once he attains this position he is given a gun. This is to shoot himself if he fails the organisation. In addition, he gets a cyanide pill; some cotton, which represents Monte Bianco which is considered sacred; a lemon to treat the wounds of his comrades; a needle to puncture the index finger of his right hand; handkerchiefs, which represent purity of spirit and a spartenza which is a gift of some sort, usually cigarettes.
The third and final level of the organisation is the 'Società Segreta', which is effectively the leadership of the Sacra Corona Unita.
The Sacra Corona Unita is made up of approximately 2,000 members spread over 50 clans. Their main activities now are smuggling cigarettes, drugs, arms, and people. They also collect money from other criminal groups for landing rights on the southeastern coast of Italy.
Captured rifle scope
Puglia is a natural gateway for smuggling to and from post-Communist countries such as Croatia, Serbia, and Albania. Inevitably, the organisation is also involved in money laundering, extortion, and political corruption. However, a series of successful police operations have reduced the capacity of the organisation which had its heyday in the 1990s.