ROME — U.S. and Italian authorities said Tuesday they had broken up a new heroin-and cocaine-trafficking ring coordinated by Italy's powerful 'ndrangheta organized crime syndicate and New York City's Gambino crime family. Seventeen people were arrested in Italy and another seven in New York, officials said.
The investigation underscored how 'ndrangheta is spreading its operations beyond Italy's borders as it consolidates its position as one of the world's most powerful drug traffickers, officials said. It also laid bare how the 'ndrangheta, based in the southern region of Calabria, is encroaching on territory once occupied by the Sicilian-based Cosa Nostra, since the Gambinos were the Sicilian Mafia's U.S. branch.
Italian anti-Mafia police said the "New Bridge" operation targeted a new cocaine trafficking route from South America to the southern Italian port of Gioia Tauro that united the Gambinos with the 'ndrangheta. In exchange, the Italians were to provide heroin to the American market.
The aim was to "build a bridge of criminality and corruption to stretch from South America to Italy and back to New York," said Marshall Miller, a top prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's office in Brooklyn.
Using wiretaps and an undercover agent named "Jimmy" who infiltrated the Brooklyn-based mob, officials said they thwarted the delivery to Italy of some 500 kilograms of pure cocaine that was to have been hidden in shipments of canned coconuts and pineapples being shipped from Guyana to Gioia Tauro.
"The 'ndrangheta can and has to be considered one of the most powerful organizations in the world for handling of international drug-trafficking," said Raffaele Grassi, head of the Italian police's central operative service unit. "The 'ndrangheta has left its territory of origin: beyond occupying areas of our country and infiltrating itself in northern Italy, the 'ndrangheta is looking for criminals beyond the borders, invading new markets to make profit."
FBI agents worked alongside Italian police in Italy and vice versa, and Miller and other officials from the U.S. Attorney's office in Brooklyn were on hand in Rome for the press conference announcing the arrests. The Italian suspects are accused of mafia association and drug trafficking, among other charges. Miller said one of the U.S.-based suspects was accused of laundering money through a Brooklyn-based bank and that several hundred thousand dollars was seized.