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Italian Police Break Up Drug Smuggling Ring Tied to Calabria Mob

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The Italian police announced Tuesday that they had broken up a drug-smuggling operation run by Calabria’s ’Ndrangheta mafia that spanned the entire country and, they say, controlled both businesses and corrupt public officials.

The authorities said they arrested 104 suspects Tuesday morning after an investigation that lasted almost two years. Most were jailed, with some others placed under house arrest.

“This was an important operation to dismantle a violent and powerful ring,” Francesco Messina, the director of the Italian police’s anticrime division, said in a phone interview.

The suspects were arrested on charges of mafia association, extortion and international drug trafficking. They were accused of importing from Latin America at least 1,000 kilos of drugs, which the Italian authorities seized in a series of raids beginning in late 2019.

The police said the drugs were smuggled to both southern and northern Italy.

In Calabria, the southern region where the ’Ndrangheta originated, shipments went to the port of Gioia Tauro, while in Tuscany they went to the port of Livorno, the authorities said.

Taking a page from drug smugglers in Latin America, the police said, the Italian mobsters sometimes had the contraband cast off ships while they were still in deep water off Gioia Tauro and then retrieved by Peruvian and Colombian military divers hired for the job. In Livorno, the police said, the smugglers simply bribed port officials.

Mr. Messina said the ’Ndrangheta’s cocaine smuggling operation showed how pervasive the organization’s reach is, both across the country and abroad.

“Once, we assumed that their methods were more aggressive in southern Italy, where they were born and have thrived,” Mr. Messina said. “But they clearly have the same violent methods in the port of Gioia Tauro and in Italy’s northern regions.”

Over the course of the investigation, police officer seized drugs not only at the ports but also at a countryside farm owned by the mobsters and from individuals traveling alone in seemingly random locations across the country: a gas station in Sicily, near a highway junction in Calabria, and in a town in the northern region of Emilia-Romagna.

The mobsters also preyed on businesses.

Near Switzerland, the police said, in the provinces of Como and Varese, they at first offered their skills to local entrepreneurs to help them avoid paying taxes and make larger profits — but then they threatened them, extorting money and eventually taking over their companies. Investigators in the area seized assets believed to be owned by the ’Ndrangheta with a value of over 2.5 million euros, or $2.9 million.

In one conversation wiretapped by the police, a mobster in northern Italy introduced another member of the network as a “good Christian — he was baptized with the sword, you know?” The reference was to the initiation rituals of Calabrian mafia families.

“This whole area belongs to us,” one man was overheard saying in another wiretap, as he stood next to trucks and containers at the port of Gioia Tauro, the largest maritime hub in southern Italy. “I am in charge here and they have to bow down.”

Prosecutors are also investigating the role of two local officials, the former mayor of a town near Como and one of his council members, who they say are believed to have met with the ’Ndrangheta mobsters in Calabria.

“Those who approach these people out of difficult circumstances or in the illusion to make good gains should know that they are playing with fire,” Riccardo Targetti, a prosecutor in Milan, said at a news conference on Tuesday.

The mobsters did not limit their activities to Italy, the authorities said.

In Switzerland, the canton of St. Gallen has become a “logistical base” for them, the police said in a statement. Some organization members live there and deal drugs coming from Italy. The country’s laws are less severe when it comes to punishing a series of crimes, including mafia association.

“In Switzerland you can live,” one mobster was heard observing in a wiretap. “Not like in Italy, where they put you in jail for life.”

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