Hundreds held in huge police raid on Italy's 'Ndrangheta mafia

by Charles ONIANS
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Weapons siezed during the raid by 2,500 police as well as army paratroopers

Italian police said Thursday they have arrested 334 people, including a police colonel and a former MP, in a major operation against the southern 'Ndrangheta organised crime syndicate, considered Italy's most powerful mafia group.

The swoop by helicopter-borne tactical units was the biggest in years and targeted the 'Ndrangheta in Vibo Valentia -- near the tip of Italy's boot -- but also in regions farther north, including Veneto, Lombardy and Tuscany.

Some 2,500 police as well as army paratroopers took part in the raid, which netted the former MP, from Silvio Berlusconi's party, as well as the head of the Calabrian mayors' association.

"This is the biggest sweep since the Palermo maxi-trial (475 suspects tried in 1986-87)," Cantanzo prosecutor Nicola Gratteri said in a statement.

The elite tactical ROS unit took part, while some of those held were arrested in Germany, Switzerland and Bulgaria on European arrest warrants.

"Some of the bosses knew that the operation was planned for tomorrow (Friday) so we had to bring it forward by 24 hours, which was a big (logistical) problem," said Gratteri, a renowned anti-mafia magistrate.

Including those already in prison, the vast operation targeted 416 people, crippling 'Ndrangheta's Vibo Valentia, Mancuso di Limbadi and Lo Bianco-Barba clans.

Police also seized property worth 15 million euros ($17 million). Seventy of those arrested are being held under house arrest.

Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese praised "a very hard blow to the 'Ndrangheta".

- Influence peddling -

Those arrested include Giancarlo Pittelli, a renowned lawyer, and former MP and senator from ex-PM Berlusconi's Forza Italia party. Lawyers, accountants and other officials were also arrested.

Gratteri said that Pittelii helped the organised criminals gain access to "politicians, Freemasons and influential professionals".

Pittelli, 66, "systematically made available to criminals his considerable wealth of knowledge and privileged relations with leading figures at the political-institutional level, in the business world and in the professions, also to acquire information covered by official secrecy".

A colonel with the paramilitary carabinieri police force was arrested for allegedly passing privileged information to Pittelli.

"I was impressed by the degree of permeability that the 'Ndrangheta has had in the public administration and within State organs," Gratteri said.

The municipal police chief and head of town planning in Vibo Valentia, Filippo Nesci, was also among those arrested.

The suspects face charges including criminal association, murder, extortion, loan sharking and money laundering.

- Hotels, shoe shops and funerals -

The investigation revealed the 'Ndrangheta's "consolidated capacity to infiltrate the business sector, operating with increasingly sophisticated mechanisms, thanks to the contribution of collusive professionals".

The crime group is extensively involved in buying tourist businesses including hotels, bars and restaurants to launder money, the prosecutor said.

They have bought land and luxury cars at auction and opened shoe shops in the capital, Rome. The group is also involved in providing funeral services.

Some of the 'Ndrangheta's businesses used to launder money were registered in Britain. Police seized 11 sidearms, 12 rifles or machine guns, and "abundant ammunition of various calibres".

Of Italy's three main mafia groups, the 'Ndrangheta is centred in the Calabria region, while the Camorra syndicate is based in and around Naples and the Costa Nostra Mafia is in Sicily.

In December 2018, European Union authorities announced the arrest of around 90 suspected 'Ndrangheta mobsters in six countries in Europe and South America.

Weapons siezed during the raid by 2,500 police as well as army paratroopers

The raid targeted the 'Ndrangheta in Vibo Valentia -- near the tip of Italy's boot -- but also in regions farther north, including Veneto, Lombardy and Tuscany

Police released video showing an undated meeting of 'Ndrangheta bosses close to Vibo Valentia