ROME >> Police conducted a major crackdown on the ‘ndrangheta crime syndicate Tuesday, arresting scores of suspects in Italy and Germany and seeking more in countries as far away as Canada and Australia.
The cross-border operation shows how the ‘ndrangheta, today considered more powerful than the Sicilian Mafia, has extended its reach well beyond its original base in Italy’s southern Calabria region.
Thirty-one suspects were picked up in Italy, Italian police said, mostly in Calabria but also elsewhere in the country, including near Rome. Six suspects, all Italian citizens, were apprehended in Germany on an Italian-issued European arrest warrant, German and Italian officials said.
Three suspects in Canada and one in Australia were still being sought, said Renato Cortese, a top official with police in Calabria.
Authorities said the operation also sheds light on the group’s structure and how it operates outside its home region.
"There is a perfect reproduction of the Calabrian model," said Giuseppe Pignatone, the prosecutor of Reggio Calabria.
"The foreign groups always maintain contact with the mother house, which is the Reggio Calabria area, where they periodically come to take their orders, directives, long-term strategies, as well as give an account of what’s going on," he said in comments to Radio 24.
In the past decade, the ‘ndrangheta has emerged as a powerful and aggressive organization, becoming one of the world’s biggest cocaine traffickers.
In a shocking act that brought the ‘ndrangheta under the international spotlight, in 2007 six Italian men were gunned down as they left a birthday party at an Italian restaurant in Duisburg, Germany. The massacre was part of a long-running feud between two clans of the ‘ndrangheta.
In a confidential cable released by WikiLeaks some weeks ago, a U.S. diplomat said the grip of the ‘ndrangheta on the economy and every aspect of life is so pervasive that Calabria would be a "failed state" if it were not part of Italy. The cable dated from December 2008.
The government has since launched a crackdown on the ‘ndrangheta that has resulted in hundreds of arrests, millions of euros (dollars) in seized assets and the appearance of a handful of rare turncoats. The justice minister, Angelino Alfano, hailed Tuesday’s arrests as another success in the fight against the mob.
Tuesday’s raids followed up on a massive police operation in July that put over 300 people behind bars, dealing a serious blow to the group. Cortese, the police official, said the recent arrests stem from wiretapped conversations of a top boss who was arrested in July.
The boss, Giuseppe Commisso, nicknamed "the master," was allegedly heard discussing the ‘ndrangheta’s involvement abroad during meetings at his dry-cleaning shop.
"He was the one people went to report to, including from Canada and Australia," Cortese said.
Among those picked up in Italy on Tuesday was Francesco Maisano, a boss who tried to hide in an underground bunker when police raided his home, according to the ANSA news agency.
Five of the suspects in Germany were arrested in the area of the city of Konstanz along the Swiss border, while the sixth was apprehended in the state of Hesse to the north, said Juergen Gremmelmeier, a spokesman for local prosecutors.
The suspects were identified as being Italian citizens aged between 32 and 58, but Gremmelmeier said he had no further details.
They were to go before a judge later in the day. If they agree to extradition they could be sent to Italy relatively quickly, Gremmelmeier said, but if they decide to fight it a decision could take longer.
The suspects picked up in Germany were not connected to the Duisburg shooting, Cortese said.
Associated Press Writer David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.