Italian Mafia Capo Santo Scipione

A spate of recent arrests suggests the Italian mafia may be making a comeback in Colombia, where the fractured criminal landscape makes it easier for them to exert control over the drug trade.

The first to fall was Iacomino Tomasso, formerly the right hand man of legendary Cosa Nostra leader Bernardo Provenzano, also known as "The Capo of Capos," who was arrested in 2006. Tomasso was arrested in Bogota, from where he had allegedly been running a trafficking network that sent cocaine shipments from the Caribbean coast to another Italian mafia group, la Camorra.

According to the authorities, Tomasso worked closely with a Colombian partner, Juan Carlos Davila Bonilla, alias "El Gordo," who was arrested shortly after. The pair also employed the narco-paramilitary group the Urabeños to provide security for their shipments, according to the authoritites.

Two months later, Tomasso's arrest was followed by the capture of two drug traffickers working for rival organization the 'Ndrangheta: Santo Scipione and Domenico Trimboli. Scipione, who is believed to have lived in Colombia since 2000, is one of the highest ranking 'Ndrangheta capos, while Trimboli, working on Scipione's orders, handled the logistics of the mafia's Colombia-Italy cocaine connection.

Officials say that while the 'Ndrangheta also maintained logistical networks in the Caribbean, their main trafficking method was sending shipments from the Pacific coast on boats which head up to the Panama Canal before crossing the Atlantic.

The arrests were the result of a three-year international operation that brought together Interpol with law enforcement agencies from Colombia, Italy, and the US.

InSight Crime Analysis

Iacomino Tomasso has a long history of operating in Colombia and over the years has been a key player in developing networks linking Colombian cartels to the Italian mafia. His capture this year was the second time he has been arrested in Colombia – the first came just weeks after his boss Provenzano was arrested in 2006.

At the time, Tomasso was operating as the Sicilian mafias' point man in the Colombian cocaine trade, making deals and alliances with the drug trafficking organizations in Valle de Cauca, Antioquia, and along the coast.

However, it is the arrests of the Scipione and Trimboli that are key to understanding the main connections between Colombia and Italy today. Over the last 20 years, the 'Ndrangheta has come to dominate the cocaine trade in Italy, and has used its profits -- estimated to be between  $30 and $50 billion a year -- to become arguably Italy's most powerful organized crime group.

The 'Ndrangheta or Calabrian Mafia is one of four main Italian organized crime groups operating today, along with the Cosa Nostra, or the Sicilian Mafia; the Camorra or Neapolitan Mafia; and the Sacra Corona Unita or United Sacred Crown. According to the FBI, the four groups have approximately 25,000 members in total, with 250,000 affiliates worldwide and cells in Canada, South America, Australia, and parts of Europe

The origins of the 'Ndrangheta date back to the 19th century, but the group remained a mostly local federation of crime families until its entrance into the drug trade. According to experts on the 'Ndrangheta, the families first entered the cocaine trade buying imported drugs from the Cosa Nostra, whose entrance into Colombia had been facilitated by Tomasso.

By the end of the 90s, they had established their own networks and worked closely with the notorious paramilitary warlord and leader of the AUC, Salvatore Mancuso, whose appeal was increased by his Italian heritage. By 2004 Italian authorities estimated the group was responsible for bringing in 80 percent of the cocaine that entered the country.

However as the axis of the cocaine trafficking world shifted from Colombia to Mexico, so did the Italian mafia. Again, the Cosa Nostra seems to have led the way, with the brothers Elio and Bruno Gerardi acting as their connection in Mexico after fleeing the attentions of law enforcement agencies in Colombia. But again, the 'Ndrangheta was not far behind: the organization established links with the Gulf Cartel, then did  business with the Zetas after they broke away from the Gulf Cartel in 2010.

However, there are numerous disadvantages for the Italian mafia groups in doing business with the Mexicans. Logistically, it adds an extra leg to the journey, which increases costs and risks. There is also the fact that the big Mexican cartels dominate the cocaine world through wealth, power and violence, which leaves little room for negotiation over who does what and how much they get paid. Then there are the growing signs that the Mexican cartels, among them the Zetas, are looking to increase their influence inside Europe to profit from distribution networks, as they do in the United States.

The fact that the Mexicans are able to force the mafia groups into this secondary role may well be one of the factors fuelling the return of the capos to Colombia. The tectonic shifts in the cocaine trade over the last 20 years have left the Colombian underworld much more fractured and its organized crime groups less capable of asserting dominance. As shown in Tomasso's case, even the most powerful of Colombia's criminal groups, the Urabeños, often do little more than provide traffickers with security services and guard shipments, leaving their cut substantially less than what the Mexicans would take.

It could be, as the Colombian police have suggested, that the rebirth of the Italian mafia in Colombia is little more than Italian traffickers reigniting old contacts after serving prison sentences in Italy. However, given the adaptability and flexibility the groups have shown in the past in finding new markets and opportunities, it is likely also influenced by the fact that they see dealing with Colombians as a way to exert more control –- and thus extract more profits from the cocaine trade.

Investigations

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Prev Next

Homicides in Guatemala: Analyzing the Data

Homicides in Guatemala: Analyzing the Data

In the last decade, homicides in Guatemala have obeyed a fairly steady pattern. Guatemala City and some of its surrounding municipalities have the greatest sheer number of homicides. Other states, particularly along the eastern border have the highest homicide rates. Among these are the departments of Escuintla...

Homicides in Guatemala: Collecting the Data

Homicides in Guatemala: Collecting the Data

When someone is murdered in Guatemala, police, forensic doctors and government prosecutors start making their way to the crime scene and a creaky, antiquated 20th century bureaucratic machine kicks into gear. Calls are made. Forms are filled out by hand, or typed into computers, or both. Some...

Colombia's Mirror: War and Drug Trafficking in the Prison System

Colombia's Mirror: War and Drug Trafficking in the Prison System

Colombia's prisons are a reflection of the multiple conflicts that have plagued the country for the last half-century. Paramilitaries, guerrillas and drug trafficking groups have vied for control of the jails where they can continue to manage their operations on the outside. Instead of corralling these forces...

Nariño, Colombia: Ground Zero of the Cocaine Trade

Nariño, Colombia: Ground Zero of the Cocaine Trade

The department of Nariño in southwest Colombia is the main coca-producing area in the country and in the world. It is a place scarred by poverty and years of armed conflict between guerrillas, the state and paramilitary groups. Perhaps nowhere else in the country are the challenges...

The Prison Dilemma: Latin America’s Incubators of Organized Crime

The Prison Dilemma: Latin America’s Incubators of Organized Crime

The prison system in Latin America and the Caribbean has become a prime incubator for organized crime. This overview -- the first of six reports on prison systems that we produced after a year-long investigation -- traces the origins and maps the consequences of the problem, including...

Where Chaos Reigns: Inside the San Pedro Sula Prison

Where Chaos Reigns: Inside the San Pedro Sula Prison

In San Pedro Sula's jailhouse, chaos reigns. The inmates, trapped in their collective misery, battle for control over every inch of their tight quarters. Farm animals and guard dogs roam free and feed off scraps, which can include a human heart. Every day is visitors' day, and...

The Lucky ‘Kingpin’: How ‘Chepe Diablo’ Has (So Far) Ridiculed Justice

The Lucky ‘Kingpin’: How ‘Chepe Diablo’ Has (So Far) Ridiculed Justice

José Adán Salazar Umaña is the only Salvadoran citizen currently on the US government's Kingpin List. But in his defense, Salazar Umaña claims is he is an honorable businessman who started his career by exchanging money along the borders between Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. He does...

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Murder

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Murder

  Life of a Sicario Anatomy of a Hit   The BACRIM's control over territories such as the north Colombian region of Bajo Cauca comes at the point of a gun, and death is a constant price of their power. In rural sectors, uniformed BACRIM armed with assault rifles still patrol in...

How the MS13 Tried (and Failed) to Create a Single Gang in the US

How the MS13 Tried (and Failed) to Create a Single Gang in the US

In July 2011, members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) attended a meeting organized in California by a criminal known as "Bad Boy." Among the invitees was José Juan Rodríguez Juárez, known as "Dreamer," who had gone to the meeting hoping to better understand what was beginning to...

Homicides in Guatemala: Introduction, Methodology, and Major Findings

Homicides in Guatemala: Introduction, Methodology, and Major Findings

When violence surged in early 2015 in Guatemala, then-President Otto Pérez Molina knew how to handle the situation: Blame the street gangs.