Law Enforcement Straddles Atlantic To Round Up Alleged Mobsters

The FBI and Italian police made two dozen arrests on Tuesday in connection with an alleged drug trafficking ring. The ring involved mobsters in Brooklyn and members of the 'Ndrangheta, a powerful crime syndicate based in Calabria, Italy.

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Italian police and the FBI rounded up two dozen alleged mobsters today in Italy and New York. The authorities were working together to break up a conspiracy between Mafiosi in Brooklyn and members of the 'Ndrangheta - that's a major crime syndicate in Italy's Calabria region. Seven of the defendants were charged in New York with drug trafficking and money laundering. NPR's Joel Rose reports that investigators believe the international crime syndicate was trying to expand its reach.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: According to the indictment, 24 alleged mobsters intended to move heroin from Italy to the U.S., and they planned to smuggle cocaine from South America into the Italian port of Gioia Tauro by hiding the drugs in frozen fish and pineapples. At the heart of the conspiracy, prosecutors say, was a Brooklyn man named Franco Lupoi.

LORETTA LYNCH: Lupoi, really, is the linchpin of this group. He's the bridge that connects these two organizations.

ROSE: That's United States attorney Loretta Lynch announcing charges today in a conference call with reporters. Prosecutors allege that Lupoi had ties to the Gambino crime family in New York and that he was connected through marriage to the Italian crime syndicate known as the 'Ndrangheta. Lynch says this is the latest sign that the 'Ndrangheta is looking to expand its drug trafficking business beyond the southern Italian region of Calabria.

LYNCH: That has been their area of operations and they have been very prolific and very busy there. But because of these family connections that are now growing overseas, the 'Ndrangheta see opportunities in the U.S. So we felt it was very important to try and essentially put an end to that as early as we could.

ROSE: But those who follow the 'Ndrangheta closely are skeptical that this case marks the end of anything.

ANTONIO NICASO: This is an important investigation but we would be very silly to think that we would stop the 'Ndrangheta just with an operation.

ROSE: Antonio Nicaso is a native of Calabria who's written more than 20 books about organized crime, including the 'Ndrangheta. Despite its low profile in the U.S., he says the 'Ndrangheta is a major player in Italy, where it has largely eclipsed the Sicilian mafia. Nicaso says the 'Ndrangheta takes in an estimated 29 billion euros a year from its drug trafficking operations alone.

NICASO: This little-known criminal organization is the king of cocaine in Europe, an organization capable to import cocaine by tons because they have broker based in Colombia, in Bolivia, in Peru. They are building solid connection with the Mexican cartels.

ROSE: So perhaps it's not surprising that the 'Ndrangheta might want to capture a bigger share of the U.S. drug market by hooking up with local crime families. George Venizelos, the assistant director in charge for the FBI's New York office, says it's not clear whether the organization made inroads into the U.S.

GEORGE VENIZELOS: I'm sure they're always looking to expand their drug business. So do they have a major foothold in this country? I don't believe so. But I'm sure they - there is some target opportunities out there for them that they're probably trying to take advantage of relationships of family members.

ROSE: The seven U.S. defendants were arraigned today in Brooklyn, including Franco Lupoi. They pleaded not guilty. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

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