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Feature Articles


February 2008
Drug Trafficking In Italy

By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus


Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

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     Up to the 1960s, the mafia made most of its profits from the building trades and associated contracting. Then drugs arrived. Sicily became one of the points of passage of narcotics from Asia to their final destinations. It was the vecchia mafia, the old mafia capos, such as Bontade, Inzerillo and Badalamenti, that initially acquired an interest in joining the booming international drug consortia. By comparison, cigarette contrabanding and other traditional mafia earning ventures, in totality, could not match the income from the narcotrade. Drugs were easier to transport and hide. Drugs are grown in one place, refined in another, and marketed in a third. The new racket made necessary the internationalization of the Sicilian mafia as it transited and modernized from the provincial vecchia mafia to the more far-flung Cosa Nostra.

     Between 1971 and 1981, a river of ill gotten gains flowed into the city and province of Palermo, much of it recycled through an unprecedented expansion of housing. Most of the construction was funded by mafia money laundered through cooperating financial institutions. Narcodollars exceeded legitimate loans by a ratio of more than six to one.

     The most recent European statistics on the abuse of controlled substances show that cocaine consumption has increased while age for first-time users has declined. Two million persons between the ages of 15 and 24 admitted to narcotic use over the month previous to the survey, and 4.5 million during the year 2007, a million more than in 2006. At least in part, this increase is due to easier access to cocaine, which presently has a street value of from 30 to 50 euros per gram. The most consumed drug is cannabis; twenty-five percent of the sample indicated use at least once during their lifetimes. Although heroin consumption has diminished, overdose mortalities remain high, at an annual rate of 8000. The data for Italy parallels the European totals.

     Heroin and cocaine enter Italy by sea, through airports and over the Alps. This international drug traffic is coordinated by Italian criminals and their associates. One major syndicate is composed of traffickers from Pakistan, Ghana and Nigeria. Drugs arrive transported by couriers ("mules") or mixed in with various cargoes of merchandize, such as rolls of carpets, shipments of machine parts or secreted in manufactured goods. The methods are numerous; as one technique is closed by the authorities another avenue will be tested.

     The port of Naples is a major trafficking destination. Narcotics arriving from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central America, after transiting through one or more European countries, enter through Naples to be distributed in several Italian provinces. The Italian authorities have been very active in stemming this trade. One operation by the Polizia di Stato detained forty smugglers, Italians and foreigners, in Frosinone, south of Rome, sequestering 30 kilos of heroin and cocaine. Two of the arrestees, suspected of having ties to a fundamentalist Islamic group, were in possession of 800 thousand euros in cash.

     Notable narcotic networks operate in the region of Calabria, at the toe of Italy. The ‘ndrangheta clan Ruà-Perna of Consenza city has been particularly active in marketing heroin, cocaine and hashish. Police raids have rounded up a number of suspects. A recent antidroga operazione netted nine clan members, some of whom were engaging as well in a favorite mafia money-maker, the extortion of merchants through intimidation.

     Sicily is a destination point of the international narcotraffic. Much of the hashish and cocaine consumed in Sicily arrives by air. A recent raid by the Palermo Polizia di Stato, code-named "Cowboys," struck a blow to the supply chain by detaining nine suspects who sought to bring in a drug load of 39 kilos. The luggage containing the narcotics arrived on a flight from France and Belgium to be distributed by private land transport to retail locations transport throughout the island.

     An ongoing investigation, from late 2007, by Sicilian authorities, has been documenting a vast trafficking enterprise composed of Cosa Nostra members, Calabrian ‘ndranghetisti and camorristi from Naples. The plot reached into the prison system with the arrest of Giuseppe Trapani, a prison employee, along with five other employees, one an educator. Trapani quickly confessed to smuggling contraband into the prison, including drugs and cellular phones, to be sold to inmates at bargain rates. Accused of aggravated corruption and trafficking, a total of nineteen men were remanded to the Pagliarelli maxiprison.

     A similar police undertaking in the Sicilian port city of Messina, called "Sperone," after the name of a city quarter infested with criminals, bagged a crew of five pushers who peddled marijuana, cocaine and amphetamines in their local neighborhoods. The arrest and subsequent confession of a courier gave the Guardia did Finanza officers the route by which the contraband arrived in Messina: transported from Naples by vehicle, hidden in boxes of clothing.

     A major drug bust requires time, patience and investigatory acumen. One of the more recent and far-ranging was the arrest of a band of 33 men for importing large quantities of hashish into Italy from Morocco, via Spain, to the city of Turin in northwestern Italy. A load of 2300 kilos of hashish was sequestered, among the accused an ex-soccer ace of the Juventus squad, Michele Padovano. Presently 39 years of age, he is director general of Alessandria soccer. Padovano played actively from 1994 to 1997. Upon retirement, he went to the front office and entered Torino politics as a candidate at the communal level.

     Padovano had been under surveillance since October of 2004. According to the carabinieri, he played a significant role in the importation of the prized Moroccan hashish. The charge against the ex-athlete is that of financing trafficking. Padovano had a close acquaintance, a certain Luca Mosole, considered a drug lord. With two nicknames, Il dottore and Cico, Mosole cut a fine figure, living in resplendent luxury with no visible means of support. His calling-card a large wad of euro bills. Mosole was detained off the street, in 2005, in Malaga, Spain, together with three underworld associates. The truck in which they were traveling was packed with 1000 kilograms of hashish.

     Cosa Nostra arose when mafiosi began to extend their reach beyond Sicily, becoming prime movers both in the production and distribution of illicit narcotics. The capital realized sought an outlet: Funds were exported, deposited and recycled through the cooperation of financiers who occupied themselves with the transfer of money into a variety of investments.

     Drug trafficking and money laundering are of a piece; they come together. It is at that juncture where the so-called colletti bianchi ( white-collar mafia) come into the picture. Handling dirty money is good business and relatively risk free. The function of laundering is to create an unbridgeable gap between the source of the ill gotten gains and their eventual entrance into the legitimate economy. Hospitable nations, the "fiscal paradises" where laws are lax and corruption rife, do a thriving business in organized crime accounts. Italy is one of these fiscal havens as the government has been slow in gaining an adequate recognition of the problem.

     In the 1980s Cosa Nostra negotiated a big slice of the heroin trade destined for the United States. The Sicilian approach was not to act as a single combine. Each entrepreneur ran his own operation. Thus, in the Santa Maria di Gesù clan, Stefano Bontade and his brother, Giovanni, were both drug lords, but worked independently. The Sicilians broadened the avenues that already existed between themselves and their American counterparts, which allowed entrée into the American narcomarket in return for a piece of the action. (This complicity became known as the "Pizza Connection.")

     Expert French chemists were recruited to refine the morphine base in laboratories established in Sicily. The chemists were generously compensated and for a time the labs functioned at full production and in full secrecy. To escape detection, the overall production was compartmentalized. There was no one ethnic mob that oversaw the acquisition of the raw material, the production system and subsequent exportation to the United States. Rather, criminals of different nationalities were employed at various levels of the organization, each specializing in a set of tasks. Acquisition was the responsibility of those who knew the well-trodden routes of the cigarette contrabandists from the Middle East. At other levels, non-affiliated professionals served as technicians, while distribution and selling were separate spheres that did not overlap with the others. This difficult to penetrate (or figure out) cell-like organization structure represented an investigative challenge for the authorities. But not an impossible one.

     As the enterprise evolved over the years the dominance of the mafia in the international traffic began to diminish. At one point Cosa Nostra controlled 30 percent of the world heroin trade to the United States. By 1991, according to American estimates, that share had dropped to a mere five percent. The monopoly on narcotrafficking shifted to a complexity of Chinese, Puerto Rican, Kurd, Turk and Armenian criminals.

     Since 1985, with the discovery and closing of the large laboratory at Alcamo, in northwestern Sicily, no other drug refining plants have been uncovered in Sicily or any region in Italy. Cosa Nostra was brought under fire and opened to the light of day as more and more mafiosi became government informers, giving damaging testimony about their colleagues and the inner workings of the once secret society.

     What of the Italian scene today? The movement of controlled substances is transnational and multiethnic. The Italian mafias participate in combination with other gangs. The Italians are in the game with the cooperation and mutual assistance of foreigners, and with reference also to the process of laundering drug proceeds. ‘Ndrangheta is a significant player both at home and abroad. Officials state that the Calabrians have complete control of the national cocaine distribution system and function profitably in several international markets. Despite Australia’s insistence of no organized crime presence, according to the Italian police ‘ndrangheta has taken up residence. There has emerged in Italy a trafficking syndicate composed of mafias from the regions of Sicily, Campania and Puglia, coordinating operations across the Adriatic sea with their Albanian counterparts. Cosa Nostra dominance in the heroin trade has given way to cocaine as the current drug of choice. There appears a consensus that Cosa Nostra has lost its standing as the most powerful mafia in Italy.

"The Squadra Mobile of Rome, in collaboration with that of Naples, Caserta, Perugia, and Macerata, coordinated by the Direzione Centrale Anticrimine of the Polizia di Stato and by the Direzione Centrale Antidroga, are executing numerous arrests of components of a vast criminal organization, composed of Nigerians and Italians, dedicated to the international traffic of narcotics. The drugs are distributed nationwide by camorra clans. From Surinam and Guyana, the cocaine and heroin are brought into Italy by Nigerian couriers, hidden in shoes and body cavities." (La Stampa, 1/28/08)


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