By a Biometrica staffer
If you recall, just over a week ago, we had written a piece on how organized crime groups (OCGs) managed to carve out a $2.6 billion cut in Italy’s strong tourism sector, based on an article by the Organized Crime And Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). That article was, in turn, based on a recent report published by Italian think thank Demoskopika. In that report, the think that had said that of that $2.6 billion cut, one organized crime group accounted for nearly $1 billion: the notorious Calabria-based ’Ndrangheta, which Interpol describes as “one of the most extensive and powerful criminal organizations in the world.”
On May 5, the Europol released a statement on new action taken at the EU level against ’Ndrangheta in Italy and Germany. What was the operation mentioned in the statement all about? Here’s a quick Q&A-style take:
- What was the operation’s main goal?
Combating international drug trafficking and money laundering
- Who conducted the operation?
Eurojust, Europol, and authorities in Italy and Germany. This investigation is part of the Italian DIA Project ONNET, an EU-financed initiative to tackle mafia-type organized crime groups active in Europe. The project was launched at Europol’s headquarters and targets the mafia-style criminal groups in their entirety, rather than one or more of their specific criminal activities.
- How many were arrested in total?
There were 31 suspects arrested in both countries, and they were all allegedly members of the ’Ndrangheta mafia
- Were there any other suspects who may not have been arrested yet?
A joint investigation team (JIT) between Italy and Germany has identified 65 other suspects, and their places were searched too during the large-scale action
- How many officers were involved in the operation?
The JIT action involved around 800 police officers and tax officials. On the ground, the operation was carried out in Italy by the Anti-Mafia Investigation Directorate (DIA) under the coordination of the Public Prosecutor of Turin and of the National Antimafia Bureau (DNAA). In Germany, the operation was coordinated by the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Konstanz, in cooperation with the Criminal Police of Friedrichshafen and the Economic and Financial Police of Ulm.
- Have any suspects been arrested before as part of the op?
The actions on May 5 were a follow-up to Operation Pollino, a Eurojust-Europol operation that led to the arrests of 84 suspects in December 2018 in Italy, Germany, Belgium and Netherlands. In view of the May 5 operation, a European Arrest Warrant has been issued for one of the main and already sentenced Pollino suspects, who was recently taken into custody in Spain and is awaiting surrender to Italy.
- Were weapons, cash or drugs etc seized as part of the operations?
Yes, in total, at least several hundreds of thousands in euros have been seized, as well as weapons, cocaine, two luxury vehicles and jewelry. A full assessment of cash amounts seized is ongoing and bank accounts have been frozen.
“During a period of at least several years, the OCG is suspected of having organised the trade in cocaine between Italy, the Netherlands, Germany and Spain using encrypted EncroChat and Sky ECC communication tools. A string of building and hospitality companies was allegedly used to launder the proceedings in Italy. The investigations in Germany focus in particular on drug trafficking and potential tax avoidance,” Europol said in the statement.
The ’Ndrangheta’s financial strength is said to be more than that of Deutsche Bank and McDonald’s combined, with an annual turnover of €53bn (£44bn), a study by the Demoskopika in 2013 estimated, according to an article in the Guardian published on April 27. The mafia group is said to be responsible for a sizeable portion of Europe’s cocaine trade. Italy’s largest mafia trial in three decades began in the Calabrian city of Lamezia Terme, news reports said earlier this year. About 900 witnesses are set to testify against more than 350 defendants, including politicians and officials charged with being members of the ’Ndrangheta the Guardian article from April 27 says.
Other agencies too have joined hands in the international fight to bring down the ’Ndrangheta. I-CAN, for instance, is the Interpol’s three year (2020-2023) initiative bringing together select countries for a new level of multilateral police cooperation to fight the mafia group. “The insidious spread of mafia-type crime poses a unique and urgent threat, as strong family ties and corrupt political and business practices allow it to penetrate all areas of economic life. Driven by power and influence, the ’Ndrangheta is involved in a wide range of criminal activities, from drug trafficking and money laundering to extortion and the rigging of public contracts. These enormous illegal profits are then reinvested into regular companies, further strengthening the organization’s hold and polluting the legal economy,” the Interpol website says.
Mafia groups like the ’Ndrangheta typically take control over legitimate businesses so that they can launder money from their illegal enterprises, like trafficking of drugs and arms. Around 4,400 businesses are at risk of mafia infiltration largely for the purpose of money laundering, the OCCRP article from over a week ago said, citing Demoskopika. This problem has only been worsened by the covid-19 pandemic.
Since the covid-19 pandemic began, though, global travel restrictions and repeated border shutdowns have taken a massive toll on tourism sectors across the world, UNWTO said in a statement published on March 31. In Italy, more than 13% of companies in the tourism sector are at risk of default due to the pandemic, the OCCRP article said citing Demoskopika’s Director Raffaele Rio. That would make them even more vulnerable to the aggressive economic infiltration strategies adopted by organized crime groups in the country. For the mafia, control over legitimate sectors and businesses is crucial because as their revenue from illegal streams increases, their need to find legal entities through which they can launder their money also grows. And these organized crime groups are raking in so much money, that after a point, they won’t just acquire individual businesses. They look to buy into entire industries.