Multiple investigations by Italian law enforcement agencies have found that various criminal groups exploit Malta’s geographical proximity to Italy and the “enormous potential” the island offers for the trafficking of drugs and for the laundering of illicit proceeds.
This observation was made in the annual report published by the Central Directorate for Anti-Drug Services, which is a joint organisation made up of personnel from the Italian Police, the Guardia di Finanza, and the Carabinieri tasked with the prevention and prosecution of drug trafficking.
The 300-page report found that in 2021, 91 tonnes of narcotic substances were seized in Italy, compared to the 59 tonnes in 2020 and that this growth is partially due to the relaxation of the COVID-19 restrictions. Most of the report is a detailed analysis of all the work carried out by Italian law enforcement agencies but Malta features in a number of their investigations.
Malta: a favourite destination
Among the various criminal organisations involved in drug trafficking, the report finds that the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta continues to play a dominant role “thanks to the presence of its representatives and operational brokers, established at the production sites and in the areas of temporary storage of drugs, not only in national territory, but also on a European level, and continues to play a primary role in the management of drug trafficking worldwide,” the report says.
One investigation (operation CRYPTO) found that the ‘Ndrangheta proved capable of planning and executing massive imports of cocaine from Northern European ports (Holland, Germany, and Belgium) and Spain, destined for drug markets located in Lombardy, Piedmont, Emilia-Romagna, Lazio, Campania, and Apulia, but also in Malta.
Another investigation (operation BUENAVENTURA) by the Naples Guardia di Finanza into operations by the Camorra (the criminal organisation from Campania) found that this group trafficked narcotics from Columbia and Spain to be sold in Italy and Malta.
The authorities arrested two groups of individuals. One group that was based in Torre Annunziata was dedicated to importing the drugs directly from Spain and remained operational within the neighbourhood. A second group, also based in the Neapolitan region, was responsible for the transfer from Campania to Sicily of large consignments of hashish destined for Malta, where some consignments arrived together with cargoes of weapons and ammunition.
“The island is a favourite destination for Italian organisations to run their illegal activities,” the report notes.
In December last year, operation LA VALLETTE which was carried out by the Italian finance police in Catania and Ragusa, found an organic but well-established network based in eastern Sicily with several branches and connections in other Italian regions and abroad that managed and trafficked narcotics that were illegally purchased in Albania, Puglia and Calabria and then resold in Sicily, Lombardy and Malta.
The crackdown resulted in the arrest of 17 individuals including two Maltese, and the seizure of 432kg of unspecified narcotics.
Part of a growing trend
The increase in illicit drugs confiscations in Italy appears to correspond with the broader trend in Europe that shows how overall, there remains an increasing number of different illegal substances highly available, often of high potency or purity.
The latest report by the EU drugs agency (EMCDDA) and Europol, found that large drug shipments are transported by exploiting commercial infrastructures, while at the same time, many criminal organisations are becoming more innovative in scoping new trafficking routes, methods for concealment and new production processes.
The dismantling of over 350 drug production facilities in the European Union in 2020 indicates how globalisation appears to be driving some of these changes, with particular concern towards the greater interaction that appears to exist between international and European-based crime groups.
The study also found that Malta was among 12 EU countries where large quantities of cocaine were seized in 2020, indicating an increase in trafficking and production of the drug in Europe. For the fourth consecutive year, record amounts of cocaine (214.6 tonnes) were seized in Europe in 2020, a 6% increase from 2019, suggesting high availability of – and demand for – the drug.
The report references the confiscation by Malta Customs of a shipment with 612kg of cocaine originating from Colombia and Ecuador. The shipment was valued at around €70 million. More recently, a record 800kg of cocaine, with a street value of €108.2 million, was found hidden in a container at the Freeport. The shipment was en route to Mersin in Turkey from Turbo, in Colombia.
A key finding of the EMCDDA report suggests that “the largest quantities of cocaine continue to be seized in Belgian, Dutch, and Spanish ports, but as suggested even by the cases in Malta, increasing amounts are also now seized in ports elsewhere in Europe, suggesting that trafficking groups are extending their activities to ports where cocaine interdiction measures may be perceived as less intensive”.