Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

The Hague — Police arrested dozens of suspected mobsters in Europe and South America on Wednesday in a huge international swoop targeting Italy’s notorious ’Ndrangheta mafia clan, officials said.

About 90 people accused of involvement in drug trafficking, money laundering and violent crime were arrested in raids in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Suriname.

Hundreds of police took part in the operation, seizing four tonnes of cocaine, 120kgs of Ecstasy and €2m in cash from locations including Italian restaurants and ice cream parlours.

The crackdown on the organised crime syndicate based in Calabria, southern Italy, came just a day after Italian police arrested the new boss of the separate Sicilian mafia.

“Today we have issued a clear message to criminal alliances across Europe, and they are not the only ones who can work across borders,” Filippo Spiezia, deputy head of the EU’s judicial agency Eurojust, told a press conference in The Hague.

He said the “unprecedented and extraordinary result” targeted “dangerous members of the ’Ndrangheta family deeply involved in drug trafficking and money laundering”.

The ’Ndrangheta — which derives its meaning from the Greek word for heroism — is made up of numerous village and family-based clans in Calabria, the rural, mountainous and under-developed “toe” of Italy’s boot.

Despite intense police attention and frequent arrests, the organisation has continued to extend its reach.

It has surpassed Sicily’s Cosa Nostra and the Naples-based Camorra in influence, thanks to control of the cocaine trade and is the sole mafia organisation to operate on all continents, according to anti-mafia prosecutors.

Officials hailed Wednesday’s operation — dubbed “Operation Pollina” — as a serious blow to the group.

Italian police said 90 people had been arrested in all countries in the sweep targeting the ’Ndrangheta and its “projections across South America.”

In Germany, Wednesday’s operation focused on restaurants, offices and apartments, mainly in the states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Bavaria region.

German prosecutors said 47 suspects had been targeted and 65 premises were being searched.

Dutch prosecutors said the investigation began after they noticed money laundering at two Italian restaurants in the southern Netherlands that showed criminal links with Germany and Calabria, home of the ’Ndrangheta.

Using an often family-based network spread out around Europe, drugs would come into the Dutch port of Rotterdam and the Belgian port of Antwerp before being moved around the continent.

Prosecutor Fred Westerbeke said they had also probed ice cream parlours, adding that together with restaurants “the suspicion is that the mafia organisation is laundering money through these establishments and they are used as a cover for their criminal organisations".

He also confirmed that there had been raids in Suriname, a small South American country that was once a Dutch colony.

Dutch NOS television said the ’Ndrangheta were mainly active in the Netherlands in drug smuggling through the country’s huge flower export market. 

The Belgian operations were concentrated on the Limburg area, home to many people of Italian descent who moved there after World War 2 to work in coal mines, Belgian prosecutors said.

Italian anti-mafia prosecutor Federico Cafiero De Raho said the operations would affect the ’Ndrangheta’s drug trafficking operations around the world, including Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil. But he warned that it was “just a first step”, saying the arrests were “nothing for the ’Ndrangheta, there are thousands of people who should be arrested and billions that should be seized”.

The European police agency Europol however said it was a “decisive hit against one of the most powerful Italian criminal networks in the world”.

European Parliament president Antonio Tajani, who is Italian, sent “congratulations” to the police forces involved, adding: “Europe fights ’Ndrangheta criminal groups.”

On Tuesday, Italian police arrested new Cosa Nostra boss Settimino Mineo and dozens of other suspects in Sicily in a major swoop.

Jeweller Mineo, 80, was detained along with at least 45 others just before he was due to be appointed official heir to notorious mafia boss Toto Riina who died in prison in 2017.

AFP