Milan, Italy – The arrests were ordered on the morning of September 28th. Fifty-five people linked to the ‘Ndrangheta, the least well-known and most powerful of the Italian mafias, were jailed for international drug trafficking (cocaine and marijuana) and money laundering.
A two-year long investigation unravelled a crime network worth millions of dollars that spanned from Calabria, Italy’s most southern region, to the Netherlands and reached all the way to North and South America. An operation that Cecilia Anesi, editor of Correctiv, a platform dedicated to the analysis of organized crime, described to the Daily Beast “as proof of the ‘Ndrangheta’s rise as an international cocaine broker and its expansion into North America.”
According to information obtained by the Daily Beast from internal sources of the Italian police, members of the Aquino-Coluccio clan, a family originally from Marina di Gioiosa Ionica (Calabria), used their south American connections to broker drug deals for their European partners.
Once purchased, the cocaine was transported to Europe through the ports of Amsterdam, Rotterdam (Netherlands), Antwerp (Belgium) and Hamburg (Germany) with the help of the Cupri family, a clan linked to the powerful Siderno-based Commisso family. The latter then used its Netherlands based import-export flower business as a cover up for transportation, logistics and as a means to launder tens of millions of dollars.
Nicola Gratteri, Reggio Calabria’s general attorney and one of the world’s top experts on the Calabrian organize crime syndicate, described the operation as “the third most important in history when it comes to fighting the ‘Ndragheta” [link in Italian]. The reason is that the operation brought to the arrest of some of the higher ranking members of the ‘Ndrangheta, those who control the vast majority of operations– arrests that constitute a large blow to the organization.
Acero-Krupy, the name chosen for such operation, is the latest result of an ongoing cooperation between special units of the Italian police, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). In an interview with the Daily Beast a member of the Servizio Centrale Operativo (SCO), an anti-organized crime division of the Italian police, says that “we have been working in synergy with our international counterparts and the results stand as a demonstration of it. However, I don’t think this is the end of it. More work will certainly be needed to bring the international drug trafficking of the ‘Ndrangheta to a halt.”
Just like its Sicilian counter-part, the ‘Ndrangheta has existed since the 19th century, but it was not until the end of the 1970’s that the organization was able to make the leap to international crime stardom. The growth of the Calabrian crime syndicate was so impressive that in 2008 George Bush’s administration placed the organization in the black list of organize crime syndicates involved in drug trade together with Al Qaida and the Kurdish PKK.
Antonio Nicaso, a professor of history of organized crime, in an interview with the Daily Beast states that there have “been signs of the presence of the ‘Ndrangheta in Canada and the US starting from 1906, but it’s always been marginal and it was not until after 9/11, when a lot of the police and investigative forces were deployed to counter the terrorism threat, that the ‘Ndrangheta expanded in the US. What happened is that while authorities were concentrated on terrorism, organized crime was able to grow under the radar.”
Alberto Cisterna, a former head of the Direzione Centrale Antimafia (Central anti-Mafia directory), in a recent interview underlined how there are two main reasons that the ‘Ndrangheta is attracted to Canada. The first is linked to the country’s secretive banking system. The second is logistics. Canada’s easily accessible ports and proximity to the United States make a gateway for the largest single cocaine market in the world.
It’s not a coincidence that the last important international anti-‘Ndrangheta operation before Acero-Krupy took place in the US, in New York City. Named Operation Columbus, the investigation was carried out for two years and exposed an international cocaine ring that pivoted around a pizza parlour in Queens called A Modo Mio [I do it my way, ndr]. The restaurant was owned by Calabria native Gregorio Gigliotti, 58, known for allegedly eating the heart of one of his enemies [link in Italian], and is wife.
The couple is now facing charges of conspiring to import 55kg of cocaine into the US hidden in two shipments of yucca coming from Costa Rica. “There are similarities with Operation Pizza Connection,” a member of the SCO tells to the Daily Beast, a reference to 1984 when the FBI and the Italian police uncovered a mafia-managed heroin ring that used Italian pizza parlours as wholesale distribution hotspots.
A very similar result was reached with Operation New Bridge in February of 2014. The FBI arrested seven people un New York City, including a number of ‘ndranghetisti and members of the historical Gambino and Bonanno mafia family, on charges of international drug trafficking and conspiracy. As Nicaso explains: “The operation demonstrated new power relations in the US. It shows how the ‘Ndrangheta is getting ahead of the mafia in its more traditional strongholds such as NYC.”
Commenting on the arrests, Loretta Lynch, the former US attorney for the Eastern district of New York, said that “the ‘Ndrangheta’s efforts to gain a foothold in New York have been dealt a lasting blow.” A statement that doesn’t find support among the men of the Italian special forces that worked on the operation who express caution on declaring a final victory against the ‘Ndrangheta. Nicola Gratteri, the world’s top export on the Calabrian crime syndicate, has also spoken cautiously about anything decisive.
It’s hard to know who is write, but as Giovanni Falcone, the Sicilian magistrate that was blown –up by the Mafia and a highly regarded figure by the FBI, used to say, on the one hand you have an organization that thinks and acts criminally 24/7, on the other you have a police force that does not fully understand the phenomenon and acts with limited resources. The war will most probably be a long one and to be won in the US it has to be fought in Italy, and vice versa.