Gioia Tauro has been continuously inhabited for more than 2500 years. From about 400 BC or so it was inhabited by Greek colonists who called it Matauros or Metauros. It was one of the smaller ancient Greek centers among the settlements in Southern Italy (Magna Graecia). The ancient poet Stesichorus is said to have been born there. The remains are a little further inland in the old town of Gioia Tauro on a rise overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea.
In the 1970s, Gioia Tauro was the main centre for industrial development in Southern Italy, following a burst of violence in Reggio Calabria in 1970, signaling frustration over the central government's neglect of the region. The construction of a large steel plant and port facility was meant to bring income and jobs to Calabria. Until then Gioia Tauro had been a productive and beautiful agricultural area. Profitable farms and olive groves were expropriated and demolished.
The 'Ndrangheta, a Mafia-type criminal organisation based in Calabria, and in particular the Piromalli clan, exploited the construction of the steelworks until the project was abandoned in 1979, when the crisis in the steel industry could no longer be ignored and the government decided there was no economic basis for it. In the meantime some 1,000 people were killed in conflicts over construction contracts. For a while the homicide rate of Gioia Tauro, with a population of about 17,000 at the time, was higher than that of New York City.
Following this, a proposed electrical energy power station was never built, due to environmental problems. Gioia Tauro became an example of the failure that characterized much of the development of Italy's South as "industrialisation without development."
The seaport has seven loading docks with an extension of 4,646 metres (15,243 ft); it is the largest in Italy and the seventh-largest container port in Europe, with a 2007 throughput of 3.7 million TEUs from more than 3,000 ships. In 2011 the port was in seventh place for EU container traffic, on a lower throughput of 3.4 million TEU
In 2002 more than one-third of national traffic went through the seaport; it specializes in transshipment activities, replacing the port of Malta as the node for overseas traffic to and from the US and the Far East.The Medcenter Container Terminal (Medcenter, Contship) is the main operator working in the port.
'Ndrangheta control of port
According to a 2006 report, Italian investigators estimate that 80% of Europe's cocaine arrives from Colombia via Gioia Tauro's docks. The port is also involved in the illegal arms trade. These activities are controlled by the 'Ndrangheta. In 2014 the US FBI and the Italian police made arrests in a joint operation aimed at smashing a new trafficking route for drugs and weapons that officials said had brought together the Gambino crime family of New York and the 'Ndrangheta. It was alleged that representatives of the criminal organisations discussed plans to ship cocaine and heroin from Gioia Tauro to the United States, selling more than 1.3 kilograms (2.9 lb) of heroin to an FBI undercover agent, thinking it would be distributed across the United States. A mafia expert said that the US mafia understood that the Sicilian Cosa Nostra had been so weakened that it allowed the 'Ndrangheta to rise.
The Piromalli-Molè clan managed to condition the management of the new container terminal. Established in the mid-1990s, it became the largest terminal in the Mediterranean, moving over 2 million containers in 1998. Since 1994, when Contship Italia rented the port area to start transshipment activity and the Medcenter Container Terminal was set up thanks to 138 billion lire (about US$86 million) in state financing, the Piromallis aimed to oblige the Medcenter company, through its vice president Walter Lugli, and the Contship company, through its president Enrico Ravano, to pay a kickback of US$1.50 for each transshipped container, about half of the net profits earned by the two companies.
In February 2008 the parliamentary Antimafia Commission concluded that the 'Ndrangheta "controls or influences a large part of the economic activity around the port and uses the facility as a base for illegal trafficking." In its report it said that "the entire gamma of internal or sub-contracted activities is mafia-influenced, from the management of distribution and forwarding to customs control and container storage." The extortion of Ravano and Contship was part of a project that "did not involve simply this security tax, which grew with the port, but also control of activities tied to the port, the hiring of workers, and relations with port unions and local institutions". "It effectively eliminated legitimate competition from companies not influenced or controlled by the mafia in providing goods and services, performing construction work and hiring personnel. And it threw a shadow over the behaviour of local government and other public bodies."
'Ndrangheta infiltration of city council
The city council of Gioia Tauro was dissolved in 1991 because of infiltration by the 'Ndrangheta. In April 2008, it was dissolved for the second time for the same reason. The town is home to several 'ndrine, such as the Alvaro, Mammoliti, Molè, and Piromalli families.
Gioia Tauro's former mayor and deputy mayor, Giorgio Dal Torrione and Rosario Schiavone, were arrested on mafia charges on October 13, 2008. Both had been forced to step down in April, when the city council was dissolved on suspicion of mafia infiltration. 'Ndrangheta boss Gioacchino Piromalli was arrested as well, along with his nephew, also named Gioacchino Piromalli, who is a lawyer. The mayors were accused of employing the younger Piromalli. Police believe the legal work was a front to enable the Piromallis to regain a slice of the business generated by the port of Gioia Tauro.
^Il caso Gioia Tauro, Relazione sullo stato della lotta alla criminalità organizzata in Calabria, Commissione parlamentare d'inchiesta sul fenomeno della mafia e delle altre associazioni criminali similari, July 2000