ROME – Police have arrested 334 people in one of the largest anti-mob operations ever seen in Italy, highlighting the growing reach of the ‘ndrangheta mafia, prosecutors said on Thursday.
The ‘ndrangheta is based in the southern region of Calabria, the toe of Italy’s boot, and has surpassed Sicily’s more famous Cosa Nostra to become the most powerful mafia group in the country — and one of the largest crime gangs in the world.
Police seized hundreds of suspects in early morning sweeps around the country, with some arrests also carried out in Germany, Switzerland and Bulgaria.
Among the possible charges facing those detained were mafia conspiracy, murder, extortion, loan sharking, corporate fraud and money laundering.
“Politicians were involved, as well as lawyers, accountants, public officials, court clerks — all people who had jobs and did not need to put themselves at the service of the ‘ndrangheta,” said prosecutor Nicola Gratteri, who led the investigation.
“The mobsters are not in a position to carry out sophisticated money laundering. To do that they need professionals,” he added.
Those arrested include Giancarlo Pittelli, a renowned lawyer. Gratteri said Pittelii helped the 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,” he said.
“I was impressed by the degree of permeability that the ‘ndrangheta has had in the public administration and within State organs,” Gratteri said.
A colonel with the paramilitary carabinieri police force was arrested for allegedly passing privileged information to Pittelli.
Gratteri said it was the largest haul of suspected mobsters in Italy since a massive anti-mafia sweep in Sicily in 1984 led to the so-called Palermo maxi-trial, when more than 450 members of the Cosa Nostra were tried.
The Palermo trial marked a turning point in the battle against the Sicilian crime gang, and its influence has waned dramatically over the past three decades, allowing ‘ndrangheta to surge to prominence.
Italian investigators say the group, which is made up of dozens of smaller clans that all answer nominally to senior leaders in Calabria, is now Europe’s top cocaine broker.
Among those arrested on Thursday was a former lawmaker from Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia (Go Italy!) party, the center-left mayor of a Calabrian coastal town and a senior official in the Carabinieri police.
“This has inflicted a very hard blow on the ‘ndrangheta,” said Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese.
Investigators say that while the ‘ndrangheta is still centered on Calabria, one of the poorest regions in Europe, it has successfully managed to infiltrate the wealthy north.
The head of the Valle D’Aosta region, which borders France and Switzerland, resigned last week after being placed under investigation for alleged vote-rigging linked to ‘ndrangheta at 2018 local elections. He has denied the accusation.