Inside the Mafia-Run Cocaine Network Shattered by European Police

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In early December, authorities dramatically curtailed the power of the Pelle-Vottari clan –  a grouping within the formidable ‘Ndrangheta mafia — arresting Domenico Pelle along with 89 others associated with the ‘Ndrangheta on charges that included mafia-type association, international drug trafficking, and money laundering.

Eurojust, the European Union agency that orchestrates judicial action among member states, coordinated police forces in Italy, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands to bring down members of several different ‘Ndrangheta clans.

The international police operation — the Italian files of which were examined by reporters —  shed a light on a multi-million-euro business that smuggled loads of cocaine as large as 200 kilograms from Brazil, Guyana, and Colombia into Rotterdam and Antwerp.

*This article was originally published by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). It was translated, edited for clarity and reprinted with permission, but does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See the original here.

A New Network

Domenico Pelle is only 26, but he had inherited the command of the powerful Pelle-Vottari clan (often referred to simply as the Pelle) when his father and older brother were arrested one after the other.

In the 1990s, the clan was trapped in a bloody feud with the rival Nirta-Strangio family which culminated, in 2007, in an infamous bloodbath in Germany known as the “Duisburg massacre.” Hundreds of arrests followed, and since then the Pelle have been rebuilding their power and finances.

This joint international police operation shows the extent to which the clan had succeeded, building a European-wide cocaine trafficking and money laundering network that involved members of at least two other clans and a smattering of freelancers. The Pelle had partnered with the Romeo clan and their allies, the Giorgi, as well as independent narcos linked to the Ietto family.

The Pelle had not been known as one of the narco-trafficking families. The investigation shows that they had compensated for their lack of experience by connecting with the other clans. On one side, the freelance narcos associated with the Ietto family have direct contacts in Latin America. On the other, the Romeo have access to ports in Northern Europe that can be used for import.

Last but not least are the Giorgi, who have been trafficking drugs in Germany and the Netherlands for decades, are experienced with transport logistics, and know how to launder money.

The result was a drug trafficking network that stretched from Latin America deep into Europe and smuggled at least 1.7 metric tons of cocaine to Calabria and 800 kilograms to the Netherlands in just two years. The true numbers are almost certainly much higher, as this count is based solely on police seizures and wiretaps.

A Network of Fronts

There’s one thing the young Domenico Pelle hadn’t calculated on: the trojan horse the police had installed on his phone. The software, which secretly recorded not only his phone conversations but even ambient audio, was implanted shortly after his father Antonio was arrested in 2016. The elder Pelle had been a long-time fugitive and among Italy’s 100 most wanted mafiosi.

The clans’ drug empire involved a series of legal businesses across northern Europe, including the Cafè La Piazza in Bruggen, a small German town near Dusseldorf. Investigators have gathered evidence that the ice-cream parlor was used to launder illicit profits.

Another restaurant in the same town, La Piazza 3, was used for the same purpose. Both had been opened by Giovanni Giorgi, a 52-year-old “entrepreneur” sent by the Giorgi clan to build a network of logistics bases and money laundering fronts.

Giorgi wasn’t acting on his own behalf. He was representing the interests of more than one clan, including the Pelle. Domenico Pelle would not appear in any documents as the owner of any of the establishments, but his wiretapped conversations show that the scheme really was his.

The cafe and restaurant in Bruggen were two of the clans’ three bases in Germany. The third and most important spot discovered by the Counter-Narcotics Group (GOA) of Italy’s Financial Police was the Leonardo da Vinci restaurant in Wesseling, a small town on the outskirts of Cologne.

Opened by Giorgi in 2013, it was the clans’ main logistical base, serving at once as a meeting point, money laundering hub, and place from which to organize Latin American drug shipments.

Enter the Freelancer

The Pelle-led network stretched beyond Giorgi. Police found that he was working with his nephew Giuseppe Marando, a freelance broker based in Wesseling.

Marando had headed a group of narcos from the Locride region since 2016, when his uncle, a known trafficker linked to the Ietto clan, was arrested in Cologne for trafficking cocaine from Nicaragua.

Since then, Marando has turned into a key man.

As the counter-narcotics group discovered, he figured out how to import cocaine directly from Latin America to the Netherlands or buy it from Turkish traffickers based in Germany.

Marando had established an import channel from British Guyana, where local associates set up a wood exporter called Unique Timber. The company served as a front for smuggling cocaine from the port of Georgetown to Antwerp and Rotterdam. Loads of timber were officially received by a German importer, Rigano Im-& Export GmbH, which had also been opened by Marando.

Using the same techniques, the narcos also imported cocaine from Colombia. German police discovered that Rigano received loads of charcoal — with cocaine hidden inside —  from Comercializadora Yotor SAS, a company operating out of the Colombian port of Barranquilla.

The investigations discovered that Giorgi and Marando were assigned these tasks by various clans — especially the Pelle — in order to build a logistical foundation for trafficking drugs across Northern Europe. These bases were then made available to all the narcos in the network.

A partner of Marando in the venture was the Calabrian Giuseppe Tirintino, who has been collaborating with prosecutors since 2016. While Marando was setting up the German company for the import of cocaine, Tirintino was based in Colombia and was in charge of organizing the shipments.

“We had a lot of expenses, the rental of the apartments, the rental of the company we had in Germany – the person who was acting as a proxy – the plane tickets as we had people going back and forth from Colombia, the phones…we were buying even 20-30 phones per time”, Tirintino explained to the Italian prosecutors.

In 2015, the German BKA police discovered, Rigano Im-& Export GmbHano paid shipping agencies based in Rotterdam and Antwerp to have the permission to import goods. At the same time, Marando was sending via Western Union large sums to his associates in Guyana. Marando was also sending money every 15 days to Tirintino in Colombia.

After the arrest of Tirintino in July 2015, Marando’s uncle Antonio Ietto was put in charge of logistics from Colombia. As he got back to Germany in August 2016, he was arrested too.

The Guyana channel remained stable throughout. In January this year, Marando and the Guyana associates – who had just traveled around the Caribbean and Colombia before reaching the Netherlands – were surveilled by Dutch police during a meeting at the BLVD Café of Amstelveen.

Across the Seas

The Pelle were careful to strengthen their business with backup channels. Narcotics police discovered that they had established a parallel route of import from Colombia in case Marando’s was busted. Two brothers from Naples, the Rubinos, were the suppliers.

Based in Colombia, the elder brother, Serafino Rubino, has been wanted since 2013. Nevertheless, he managed to provide the Calabrian clans with hundreds of kilograms of pure cocaine.

‘Ndrangheta clans don’t usually rely on non-Calabrian brokers, preferring to deal with family members from their home region. This time, however, Pelle made an exception. The Rubinos had apparently been “guaranteed” by a powerful female boss, based in Naples, who had become a good friend of his mother.

The two women had served jail time together and had concluded a pact: to collaborate on an international drug trafficking network. (Pelle’s mother was among those arrested in the most recent raids.)

The lady, Maria Rosaria Campagna, was a long-time partner of the infamous Sicilian boss Salvatore Cappello. According to the investigations, she had access to most Italian ports – especially that of Naples – and could guarantee the smooth pick-up of containers Campagna and the Rubino brothers had set up an informal holding, and while Campagna had contacts with Dutch and Argentinian traffickers who could organize shipments from Peru into Rotterdam, Serafino Rubino operated out of Cali.

According to wire-tapped Blackberry conversations between the two Rubino brothers, Serafino Rubino worked with two Colombians he called “Il Vecchio” (the old one) and “Big”. They were in direct contact with suppliers, and cover-up ventures. In mid-April 2016 Big had “120 kilos ready” which then were confirmed being 129 kilos of cocaine traveling to Europe. In the same days, Rubino told his brother he was also in touch with a “friend from a banana company from Santa Marta who had 100 kilos” and said he was “going up to supervise the whole thing,” meaning the organization of the cover-up shipment.

Rubino also told his brother whether he could find an airport in Italy with corrupted officials, saying his friend offered to send cocaine via planes as he has “unleashed dogs” (corrupted officials) at the airport in Bogota.

In mid-May 2016 the Rubinos and their Colombian partners organize for a Colombian narco to travel to Rome. His role would be the one of providing the Italian drug ring with the number of a container that was traveling to Naples full of cocaine. Having spotted police surveilled during the meeting, the culprits believe the Colombian is under investigation.

Therefore, the Rubinos decide to find other channels. In March this year, a wire-tapped conversation revealed that Serafino Rubino has gotten in touch with important suppliers.  “He [unknown] introduced me to a person who is the right-hand of the chief. This boy is reliable and rich and everything and yesterday he went to Spain to receive a job, they just sent 260 kilos last week,” Serafino told his brother.

Serafino also explains the same man would then travel to Naples to meet the Italian drug ring and guarantee on the shipment.

The Counter-Narcotics Group (GOA) of Italy’s Financial Police was waiting outside the fancy Naples hotel where the Colombian guest was staying. They identified him as Cesar Steven Linares Ramirez, 24, from Cali.. Even though he was described by Rubino as a top narco, such information could not be verified by police.

The End

The clans’ cocaine empire has now been stricken by the first Eurojust-led joint operation of its kind. Investigations that began independently in each country were merged into one. A joint contract allowed police from four different countries to help one another without having to file formal requests.

This meant that wiretaps, shadowing of suspects, and exchanges of information could happen without bureaucratic delays.

Now that the 90 arrests have been made, it’s time for trials to begin.

*This article was originally published by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). It was translated, edited for clarity and reprinted with permission, but does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See the original here.

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