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'Ndrangheta 'snatching U.S. Cosa Nostra drug trade'

Italian, FBI bust highlights new reach of Calabrian Mob

11 February, 19:05
'Ndrangheta 'snatching U.S. Cosa Nostra drug trade' (By Denis Greenan).

(ANSA) - Rome, February 11 - Calabria's 'Ndrangheta mafia, once a poor relation of the Sicilian Mafia, has grown in heft and reach thanks to its dominance of the European cocaine trade and is even muscling in on the drug operations of one of Cosa Nostra's historic five families in New York, investigators said after a major Italian-FBI bust Tuesday.

"This was an important operation because we proved that the power of the 'Ndrangheta now far surpasses that of Cosa Nostra", Reggio Calabria prosecutor Nicola Gratteri told ANSA from New York after 26 arrests in a probe into a new drug route from Guyana to Europe via the 'Ndrangheta-infiltrated Calabrian port of Gioia Tauro.

"Cosa Nostra purchased heroin from the Ursino family in Calabria, which was also seeking to launder 11 million euros in New York. They set up a joint venture, with input from a Mexican cartel, to import 500 kilos of cocaine a month from the US to Italy". Top anti-mafia cop Raffaele Grassi said that over the past six years, 'Ndrangheta has made a grab for Cosa Nostra's former relationships with US mobsters, including the Gambinos in New York, and South American narcos.

"New Bridge has shown that the 'Ndrangheta has expanded far beyond its place of origin", said Grassi, who directs Italy's national anti-racketeering division. "Not only has it infiltrated northern Italy and Europe, it is carving ever bigger slices of the criminal pie. It is exporting heroin to America and importing cocaine into Italy, using the Gambino family's contacts with the South American cartels", he explained.

The blitz came in the wake of a similar joint Italy-US operation against the Sicilian Mafia in 2008 that bust a drug trafficking ring involving Cosa Nostra families in Palermo and members of the Gambino family in New York.

Some 80 people were arrested on that occasion on suspicion of mafia association, homicide, extortion and other crimes. Since then the 'Ndrangheta has usurped Cosa Nostra as Italy's richest and most powerful crime syndicate with contacts and activities across the globe.

In the latest bust a total of 40 people were placed under investigation in connection with the probe, which allegedly involves 'Ndrangheta families based along Calabria's Ionian coast and operating across Italy, the United States, Canada and central and South America.

Francesco Ursino, the alleged head of the Ursino 'Ndrangheta clan based in Gioiosa Ionica and son of convicted boss Antonio, and Giovanni Morabito, nephew of the convicted boss Giuseppe, known as 'u' tiradrittu' (the unstoppable), were among those arrested in Italy. Italian police detained 18 people during the raids, while the FBI reportedly arrested eight in New York in a two-year joint operation nicknamed New Bridge.

MAFIAS 'WORKING HAND IN GLOVE, TOTAL SYNERGY'.

New Bridge uncovered evidence that the Ursino clan in Calabria "worked hand in glove and in total synergy" with the Gambino family in New York to set up their international drug trafficking operation, Italian prosecutors said in their 18 arrest warrants.

The Gambinos brought their contacts within the South American drug cartels to the table while the Ursinos contributed their "organizational capacity and control of the territory".

Together, they set up a "ramified logistical network".

Prosecutors said the go-between was Franco Lupoi, 44, a reputed member of the Gambino family who was reportedly among those taken into custody in New York.

Key information used to launch the raids came from under-cover agents, the FBI said.

One, whose assumed Mob name was Jimmy, was said to have "dined regularly with bosses in Brooklyn". He found out that drugs was arriving in liquid form concealed in tins of pineapple or coconut.

One top Gambino operative was arrested at New York's Marriott Downtown Hotel.

'LIKE FORT KNOX'.

One of those arrested Tuesday said the organisation was as "well armed" and with a base comparable to the famously well-defended US gold-bullion depository of Fort Knox, magistrates said. Raffaele Valente, who investigators believe is at the head of the US arm of the presumed international drug trafficking and money-laundering ring, made the comments on January 17 during a recorded conversation in New York.

During the conversation the magistrates said Valente boasted of occupying a "position of authority within the family" and said that he was with people who could "crush the others underfoot".

RICHEST AND MOST IMPENETRABLE. 'Ndrangheta (from a Greek word meaning 'heroism' or 'virtue') once lived in the twin shadow of Cosa Nostra in Sicily and the Camorra in Naples.

While those two syndicates, notably the Sicilians, were growing fat on the transatlantic heroin trade through operations like the infamous 'French connection', 'Ndrangheta was only just emerging from its traditional stock-in-trade of kidnappings in the Calabrian highlands.

It has since become a highly sophisticated global network while controlling swathes of its home turf where police fear to tread, Italian officials say.

As well as being the richest, 'Ndrangheta is also regarded as the most impenetrable of Italy's mafias, with its close-knit family-based organisation outdoing the Sicilian mafia in its ability to defeat police efforts to turn members into State witnesses.

The European law enforcement agency Europol identified the 'Ndrangheta mafia in a June report as one of the "most threatening" organized crime groups on the global level, due to its "enormous financial might" and "immense corruptive power," with a presence in Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, US, Colombia and Australia, where 'Ndrangheta turf wars have gained headlines.

In Europe, 'Ndrangheta really only came into the public eye in 2007, when six clan members were gunned down on the midsummer Ferragosto holiday in the German city of Duisburg in a feud that began as a wedding spat in 1991.

A string of 'Ndrangheta-linked businesses have been seized in the last few years all over northern Italy, and especially in the affluent Lombard belt around Milan, and a Lombardy regional councillor was placed under investigation for buying votes from transplanted clans.

On the Italian Riviera, the town councils of Bordighera and Ventimiglia were dissolved for 'Ndrangheta infiltration in 2011 and 2012, the first non-Calabrian municipalities to be wound up because of such penetration.

In Rome, the Calabrian Mob has laundered money in a string of plum properties, as attested to by recent seizures èpolice say are only the tip of the iceberg.

Last November Grand Hotel Gianicolo, a former monastery converted into a four-star hotel for the Catholic Church's Jubilee in 2000, was seized from Calabrian businessmen linked to the 'Ndrangheta.

It is one of the swankiest properties on the hill, Gianicolo or Janiculum, that affords one of the most breathtaking views over Rome.

"This goes to show how far 'Ndrangheta money has penetrated the Italian capital," police said at the time.

"They are quite bold about where they will launder their money".

Five years ago a former Dolce Vita-era bar and restaurant on the storied Via Veneto, the Caffe' De Paris, turned out to be in the hands of the Calabrian Mob.

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