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Worldwide raids strike at cocaine-trafficking Italian mob

More than 130 suspects tied to the powerful 'ndrangheta were arrested across 10 countries, stretching from Europe to South America.

(CN) — In a massive international operation against the notorious 'ndrangheta, more than 130 people were put in handcuffs early Wednesday, suspected of membership in one of the world's most powerful criminal groups.

Germany and Italy were the focus of the raids and arrests, which involved more than 2,770 officers in those two countries, as well as Belgium, France, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Romania, Brazil and Panama, according to an announcement from the European Union police agency Eurojust. The early morning raids included the seizure of several companies and 132 arrests.

Eurojust called it the “largest-ever coordinated hit” against the ‘ndrangheta, a highly secretive network of criminal clans based in the mountainous southern Italian region of Calabria. The 'ndrangheta has cornered much of the world's trade in cocaine, taking over where the weakened Sicilian Mafia has receded.

This was not the first major strike against the 'ndrangheta. In December 2019, a massive operation involving about 2,500 Italian police officers led to the arrests of hundreds of alleged 'ndrangheta members, most of them rounded up in Calabria. Those arrests led to the opening of a massive trial against more than 300 suspects in January 2021 inside a heavily fortified courtroom in Calabria.

Eurojust said Wednesday's operation hit several powerful ‘ndrangheta families based mainly in San Luca, a town in the province of Reggio Calabria. Authorities said some of these families were involved in the “San Luca feud,” decadeslong clan violence that culminated with massive shootings in Italy and abroad, including the killing of six people in Duisburg, Germany, in 2007.

Those arrested Wednesday were accused of drug trafficking, firearms trafficking, illegal firearms possession, money laundering, fraudulent asset registration, tax fraud, tax evasion, aiding and abetting of fugitives, Eurojust said.

The 'ndrangheta moves drugs mainly from South America to Europe and also Australia, according to Eurojust. Police said they uncovered that the San Luca network was working with the organized crime group Gulf Clan in Colombian and an Albanian-speaking crime group operating in Ecuador and multiple European countries.

Eurojust said the ‘ndrangheta clans also were involved in firearms trafficking from Pakistan to South America, providing weapons to the criminal group PCC (Primeiro Comando da Capital) in exchange for cocaine shipments.

Investigators said they tracked an extensive system of laundered money that was invested in Belgium, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil.

“The criminal group was investing its profits in real estate, restaurants, hotels, car wash companies, supermarkets, and other commercial activities,” Eurojust said.

Europol, a pan-European police agency, was also involved in the joint investigation teams set up by Eurojust that led to Wednesday's raids.

In Germany, prosecutors said more than 1,000 officers searched dozens of homes, offices and businesses in the states of Bavaria, North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Palatinate and Thuringia.

The state interior minister of Rhineland-Palatinate, Michael Ebling, called the raids an “effective blow” against organized crime.

“Today sends out a very clear signal: There is no place for organized crime in Europe and there is certainly no place for it here with us in Rhineland-Palatinate,” Ebling said, according to dpa, a German news agency.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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