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The mafia’s new outposts

Italy’s most powerful organised crime network, the ‘Ndrangheta, has worked its way into different European countries including Malta by establishing businesses as a cover for its illicit drug trafficking operations, Italian anti-mafia and counterterrorism prosecutors have said.

Last week, a court in the northern Italian city of Reggio Emilia handed down 118 prison terms totalling over 1,200 years for the mafia group’s infiltration of the economy in the region. But its web of influence has extended beyond Italian cities.

Prosecutor Federico Cafiero De Raho told Euronews that the mass sentencing proved that cells of the ‘Ndrangheta “are able to develop everywhere.” The ‘Ndrangheta’s activities made a whopping $60bn in revenue in 2013, according to Italian think tank Demoskopika.

The group, based in the southwestern region of Calabria, has gained strength over the last decade as a result of trafficking drugs into Europe from South America. The mafia clan is reportedly estimated to control about 80% of Europe’s cocaine traffic. 

To develop its trafficking operations, he said the group uses ports in Europe and cover companies set up or bought in different European countries, expanding their base.

The ‘Ndrangheta organisation has interests spanning the globe from Calabria to Colombia, and as far away as Australia. It is wealthier and more powerful than more notorious clans such as Cosa Nostra.

In 2015, six companies registered in Malta had their assets seized as part of a clamp down by Italian police on illegal gaming activities and money laundering linked to the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta’ group.

Further links were discovered by the press, revealing a number of other Italian nationals on Italian prosecutors’ list of wanted people who have companies and home addresses in Malta. The alleged mafia-linked companies were surrounded by an intricate web of fiduciary companies established in Malta.

An Italian prosecutor with long experience exposing the Calabrian mafia had warned it was easier to collaborate with Peru and Colombia than with Maltese authorities.

‘Ndrangheta is not the only mafia clan linked to Malta, described as the “ATM for the Italian mafia” by the Investigative Reporting Project Italy (IRPI).

IRPI said that when online gaming systems are controlled by organised crime they can essentially function as ATMs for criminals. “This is the conclusion reached by anti-mafia prosecutors in Palermo, who in February 2018 cracked down on a vast Maltese gambling network allegedly linked to families belonging to the Cosa Nostra, Sicily’s infamous mafia organisation,” IRPI said.

Investigations into two major and seemingly unconnected scandals in Malta also had another common link – a mafia clan in Sicily that thrived on the lax supervision of Maltese authorities.

‘Operation Beta’ by the Italian Carabinieri in 2017 led to the arrest of 30 individuals as part of a major clampdown on illegal gaming activities and money laundering linked to the Sicilian mafia family Santapaola-Erculano.

Almost a year later, the Italian police arrested individuals involved in an operation including Sicilian, Maltese and Libyan individuals smuggling Libyan fuel into the European market. Again, a link to the Santapaola-Erculano emerged.

Sicilian Nicola Orazio Romeo is one of the accused in the case involving Darren Debono and Gordon Debono who, together with Libyan ‘smuggling king’ Fahmi Bin Khalifa, were arrested last year for smuggling fuel from Libya and selling it as regular fuel in Europe through an Italian trader.

Saviour Balzan

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