United States and Italian law enforcement authorities yesterday announced the dismantling of a major trans-Atlantic mafia ring, which uncovered a plot to smuggle some 1,000 pounds of cocaine from Guyana to Southern Italy with the help of Mexican drug cartels already operating here.
The US Attorney’s Office said the “Guyana-Italy cocaine conspiracy” was part of an attempt by Franco Lupoi, a member of the Gambino crime family, to exploit his ties to Italian criminal organisation ‘Ndrangheta to extend his criminal network around the globe.
Lupoi was among the 24 persons arrested yesterday between the United States and Italy on narcotics trafficking charges,
among other crimes, which involved the movement of hundreds of millions of dollars in drugs between South America, Italy and the United States.
According to a Reuters report, American and Italian officials told a news conference in Rome FBI and Italian agents jointly carried out “Operation New Bridge” simultaneously just after midnight in Brooklyn, New York, and just before dawn in Italy.
It said those arrested were accused of international drugs trafficking, money laundering and membership in organised crime.
“The clans of the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta, a version of the Sicilian Mafia on the southern mainland, and members of the Gambino Mafia family in New York, were in the advanced stages of plans to smuggle some 500 kg (1,000 pounds) of pure cocaine from Guyana in South America to the port of Gioia Tauro in Calabria,” according to the report.
Italian investigators estimated the street value of the cocaine after cutting at about 750 million euros (US$1 billion), it noted.
The report also said the sting operation involving undercover agents and wire taps offered more evidence the Calabria-based had overtaken its Sicilian cousin, the Cosa Nostra, and was trying to make inroads in the United States by forging ties with one of the traditional New York mob families, the Gambinos.
In a release issued yesterday, the US Attorney’s Office identified Lupoi; ‘Ndrangheta member Raffaele Valente, also known as “Lello”; Bonanno associate Charles Centaro, also known as “Charlie Pepsi”; Dominic Ali; Alexander Chan; Christos Fasarakis; and Jose Alfredo Garcia, also known as “Freddy” as those in the United States. It added that Italian law enforcement authorities arrested 17 members and associates of the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria, Italy, who were involved in the narcotics trafficking conspiracy, among other crimes.
According to the US Attorney’s Office, Lupoi’s father-in-law, Italian defendant Nicola Antonio Simonetta, a member of an ‘Ndrangheta clan, traveled to Brooklyn in 2012 and met with Lupoi and an undercover FBI agent. The agent recorded them discussing plans to ship narcotics between the US and Italy via the port of Gioia Tauro in Calabria.
It is being alleged that Lupoi exploited these underworld connections to link his criminal associates in New York with those in Calabria, forming conspiracies to traffic heroin and cocaine. On the Italian side, he allegedly engaged Italian defendant and ‘Ndrangheta leader Francesco Ursino and others as suppliers of heroin and buyers of cocaine. “During two joint FBI-INP operations in Italy, Lupoi and Ursino sold more than 1.3 kilograms of heroin to an FBI undercover agent for what they believed was eventual distribution in the United States. In New York, Lupoi, Chan, and Garcia sold the undercover agent more than a kilogram of heroin,” the release said.
According to the US Attorney’s Office, Lupoi also set into motion a plot to transport 500 kilograms of cocaine, concealed in frozen food, in shipping containers from Guyana to Calabria. In the course of these conspiracies, Lupoi assured his confederates of his relationship with a corrupt port official in Gioia Tauro, indicating that in return for €200,000, the official could guarantee passage of unlimited containers of contraband. “In New York, Lupoi joined forces with defendants Alexander Chan and Garcia to orchestrate the Guyana-Italy cocaine conspiracy. In conversations recorded by the undercover agent, the conspirators discussed their connections to Mexican drug cartels operating in Guyana, South America, and plotted to transport 500 kilograms of cocaine internationally, hidden in shipments of frozen fish or pineapples,” the release said.
It added that on the Italian side, Ursino and his co-conspirators planned to use a fish importation company to receive the shipment. However, as set out in Italian court documents, “the conspiracy slowed when shipping containers originating from the same Guyanese shipping company were seized in Malaysia and found to contain more than $7 million in cocaine hidden in pineapples and coconut milk.”
The Reuters report also said that the FBI and Italian investigators intercepted email messages between mobsters in Italy and a fruit canning company in Georgetown, Guyana.
In November 2012, the Malaysian news agency Bernama reported that a container from Guyana was intercepted with cocaine in coconut milk and that a Nigerian drug syndicate was believed to be behind it. The report had said that the Bukit Aman Narcotics CID director Datuk Noor Rashid Ibrahim said the tactic was foiled by the Selangor Customs Department after detaining the ship carrying a container cargo in which a section contained drugs worth RM22 million.
“Based on information from United States Drug Enforcement Administration (US DEA), the ship which arrived on Monday (Nov 12) at Port Klang was filled with 980 cartons of cans containing coconut milk and pieces of pineapple.
“Sixteen cartons comprising 384 cans of coconut milk were identified as mixtures with 400 grammes of cocaine in each can by the Chemistry Department,” he had told a media conference.
He said the container, which originated from Guyana, was to be sent to Mozambique with South Africa as a transit point to transfer the container into another ship.
According to the FBI the seven defendants arrested in the United States were scheduled to be arraigned yesterday afternoon before Chief United States Magistrate Judge Steven M. Gold, at the United States Courthouse at 225 Cadman Plaza East in Brooklyn, New York. The case has been assigned to United States District Judge Sterling Johnson, Jr.
The charges were announced by Loretta E. Lynch, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, and George Venizelos, Assistant Director in Charge, Federal Bureau of Investigation, New York Field Office (FBI).