Calabrian 'Ndrangheta Europe's leading crime machine —legacy of Kosova war?

From AP, March 22:

ROME — Italian police said Tuesday they have arrested five people suspected in the killing of a local politician who was shot last year at a polling station in southern Italy where he was voting in a nationwide primary.

Police in Reggio Calabria said the five arrested in pre-dawn raids included the suspected gunman and alleged mobsters. Authorities have issued arrest warrants for four more people who are already in jail, they said.

Police said that the suspects' conversations had been wiretapped and that an informant was used in the investigation.

Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu praised the arrests, saying they were another success of the country's strategy against organized crime in the south.

Francesco Fortugno, a 54-year-old physician, was vice president of Calabria's regional council and represented the center-left Margherita party in the regional legislature. He was killed Oct. 16 as he voted in Locri, a town in the heart of an area where the 'ndrangheta organized crime syndicate operates.

Many killings and kidnappings blamed on the 'ndrangheta have occurred in the vicinity in recent decades.

From a Time magazine report at the time of Fortugno's killing:

Gunning down Francesco Fortugno in front of dozens of bystanders was cold-blooded enough, but the hit man's next move was even more chilling. As Fortugno, a leading politician in Italy's deep-south region of Calabria, crumpled to the floor with five bullets in his torso, the masked attacker lowered his handgun and strolled calmly through the exit of the local polling station to a waiting car. The bleeding 54-year-old former physician and father of two, who had just voted in Italy's center-left coalition primary, died minutes later at the same Locri hospital where he had once worked.

The callous nature of the murder marked it unmistakably as a professional hit by Calabria's powerful crime syndicate, the 'Ndrangheta, a word of Greek origin meaning courage or loyalty. The message was just as clear: We're in charge here. The gangland execution of the respected Vice President of the Regional Assembly as he cast his vote was a warning that no one is safe, particularly not politicians like Fortugno who might have ideas about changing the status quo. The Bishop of Locri, Giancarlo Bregantini, noted that there were "two places in the world where they shoot at the polling stations: Iraq and Calabria." Though the outcome of the vote wasn't at issue in Calabria, the polls provided a perfect setting for the mob to make its point. "This murder was carried out for maximum political symbolism," says Agazio Loiero, Calabria's Governor, who has received multiple death threats since gaining office last spring. "The killers want to show that they can strike anyone, anywhere, at any time — that the territory of Calabria is under their control."

At the packed funeral service for Fortugno, attended by national politicians and mayors from across southern Italy, Bregantini declared: "This isn't just about Locri. All of Italy's political autonomy is at stake." The high-profile murder has raised fears in Rome that the growing brazenness of 'Ndrangheta could escalate into a bloody war against national authority, like the one that erupted in the 1980s when the Cosa Nostra sought to tighten its hold on Sicilian society and politics.

Life is already bleak on this southern tip of Italy's boot-shaped peninsula. The honest people of Calabria struggle just to get by in one of Europe's most economically depressed corners, where nearly 25% of families live below the poverty line. Meanwhile, the region's mob bosses are ruthlessly expanding their empire. Once considered less sophisticated and less organized than its nearby Sicilian cousins, 'Ndrangheta was notorious in the 1980s for brutal but not necessarily lucrative kidnappings for ransom. For decades, Calabrian gangsters were satisfied with taking a cut from the limited economic activity of the countryside. But after an intense government campaign forced the Sicilian Mafia to scale back its narcotics business, the coastal region of Calabria offered an ideal alternative as a drug-trading route.

Over the past decade, officials say, the Calabrian clan has evolved into Europe's leading cocaine trafficker, with a network extending from Europe to South and North America and Australia. Its members are also deeply into related criminal enterprises like arms dealing, toxic-waste dumping, money laundering and graft from public-works contracts. Last week, Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu declared that 'Ndrangheta is "the most entrenched, most powerful, and most aggressive of Italy's large criminal organizations."

After Fortugno's funeral, police launched a series of coordinated raids in Calabria, Rome and Milan — as well as in Belgium, France, Serbia and Montenegro, and Spain — that has so far netted more than 40 suspected 'Ndrangheta members and associates believed to be involved in the cocaine trade. But Italian officials worry that the clan has a lucrative new financial target in its sights. Earlier this month, a general contractor was chosen to build what will be the world's longest single-span suspension bridge to connect Calabria to Sicily. Antimob investigators say the criminal networks on both sides of the Strait of Messina are hungrily eyeing the j5.7 billion project in hopes of a slice.

Ironically, the rise of the Calabrian crime machine may be a direct result of the 1999 Kosova crisis, in which NATO groomed the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA, or UCK by its Albanian acronym) as a de facto proxy even as it turned to narco-trafficking to boost its war chest. A Jan. 19, 1999 report in Italy's Corriere della Sera (online at Balkania.net) noted that a sting by the Carabinieri's Anti-Mafia Directorate, dubbed "Operation Africa" due to its uncovering of Egyptian crime networks in Milan, resulted in the arrest of KLA operative Agim Gashi and also revealed extensive cooperation between the Albanian crime machine and Calabrian 'Ndrangheta to move Turkish heroin throughout Europe and plough the proceeds into KLA arms shipments. Calabria's location directly across the Adriatic from Albania made it an inevitable transfer point for the KLA's dope-for-guns pipeline.

From the European NGO Council on Drugs and Development (ENCOD), June 16, 1999:

Currently, there are two cities that serve as bridgeheads for the Albanian mafia of Kosovo in Europe: Milan and Paris. In these two cities, powerful criminal centres have been established, that weave the threads of the entire traffic. The money that is earned with drug trafficking have partly financed the guerrilla movement of the UCK, the Kosovo Liberation Army, that some years ago started a strenuous battle against the Serbian regime of Slobodan Milosevic. Often, the drugs are exchanged with arms, that are sent to the fronts in the Balkans, as has been proved by the seizure of several cargoes of arms that were being embarked in the Italian port of Ancona.

Still, very little is known about the identity of the major traffickers who are operating from the southern Balkans. However, the shadows are beginning to disappear. In fact, in recent time, the Italian justice has begun to identify the points of connection between the Kosovar gangs and the Italian mafia groups, in asmuch as two large police operations in the past year have been carried out against the Kosovar criminal groups operating in Italy.

With the operation "Africa", an agreement has been discovered between groups from Kosovo and the ‘Ndrangheta from Calabria. The agreement had been established in Milan, the largest turning point of drugs trafficking in Italy. The Italian part was represented by the gang of the Libri brothers, who proceed from the city of Reggio Calabria; in the pact, a weekly supply of twenty kilogrammes of heroin was foreseen.

Another more recent operation, the so-called "Operation Amarildo", led by the authorities of Brindisi, harbour city of Puglia and main boarding place towards the Balkan coasts, has put in evidence another pact, this time with the more famous Cosa Nostra, from Sicily. In this case, the drugs consisted of marijuana grown in Albania.

Other connections have been established on a more local level, above all in Puglia and the North of Italy, between individual groups of Albanian and Italian drugs traffickers in order to administer the retail trade in drugs. Recently, the investigations have been intensified, and are all related to the new role that the Balkan mafias have assumed in a country that is already saturated with local mafias, like Italy. The investigators, when asked about this issue, promise new clamorous developments.

See also WW4 REPORT #35

See our last posts on Italy and the Balkans and Kosova.

More arrests

From AKI, March 23:

Rome, 23 March (AKI) - Police on Thursday arrested dozens of people in several regions of Italy, as well as in Spain and Morocco, and seized over two dozen tonnes of cocaine and 17,000 tonnes of hashish in an international drug trafficking ring involving the Calabrian Mafia ('Ndrangheta) and criminal groups in Latin America and Morocco. Police also confiscated more than 15,000 euros in cash during the operation.

The police swoop, carried out at the request of anti-Mafia magistrates in Calabria, led to the arrest of several members of the Facchinieri and Parrello clans, who face charges of involvement in a drug-trafficking ring.

The operation, carried out in conjunction with Italy's drugs squad, has enabled police to trace the international narco-cash flows, the drug-trafficking routes and the sophisticated money laundering techniques involved. The gang handled the whole trafficking cycle, from the sourcing of large quantities of cocaine and hashish in producer countries, to their smuggling to Italy and distribution in the country.

The cocaine and hashish police seized was destined for Italy aboard motorboats, intercepted off the Canary Islands, and on flights arriving at the Rome's main Fiumicino airport.

"This is another serious blow inflicted on the 'Nrangheta, also at the international level," Italy's interior minister, Giuseppe Pisanu, said in a statement.

The Calabria-based 'Ndrangheta is one Italy's most powerful Mafia organisations, whose criminal activities extend from drugs, arms and human trafficking to money-laundering, extortion and murder.

From its southern base it has developed operational arms in northern Italy, in major European cities and in Australia.

The 'Ndrangheta is more firmly based on blood ties than other Italian crime groups. This has made it less vulnerable to the phenomenon of 'pentiti', or mafia turncoats, which has been fundamental for Italian police in their attempts to break Italian organised crime groups.

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