The recent capture of one of Italy’s top mafia bosses in the Colombian city of Medellín highlights the growing ties between Latin America’s drug cartels and Italy’s notorious crime families.
After a three-year manhunt, 39-year old Domenico Trimboli was arrested in Medellín’s upscale Laureles neighborhood, where he had purportedly lived for three years with his partner and two children. Born in Argentina, Trimboli was the head of the ‘Ndrangheta –Italy's richest and most powerful criminal organization– and was one of Europe's 20 most wanted criminals.
If convicted on drug trafficking charges, Trimboli faces up to 12 years in prison once extradited back to Italy.
The ‘Ndrangheta capo “had a lot of money and this facilitated his peaceful stay in Colombia,” said Nicola Gratteri, an Italian prosecutor in the Calabria region where the ‘Ndrangheta maintains its base of operations.
The ‘Nhdrangheta is an organized crime family similar to the Sicilian mafia and it is estimated that it earns between $30 billion and $50 billion annually, mostly from drug trafficking and pirated merchandise.
While not as infamous as the Cosa Nostra is in the United States, the ‘Ndrangheta – which operates through small, individual groups instead of the mafia’s pyramid structure – is arguably more important to Europe’s drug trade, as 80 percent of the cocaine entering the continent’s market comes through docks in Calabria, Italian officials estimated back in 2004.
The mafia is believed to have ties to both drug cartels in Colombia as well as with Mexico’s ultra-violent Zetas.
Ties between the ‘Nhdrangheta and the Mexican cartels date back a number of years. A 2008 joint operation by U.S., Italian, Mexican and Guatemalan authorities called “Project Reckoning” led to the arrest of 175 individuals on charges related to internal drug trafficking. Despite the seized cocaine being shipped from South America via New York, the Gulf and Zetas (then part of the same organization) were allegedly the key suppliers.
"The ties between the Zetas and the 'Ndrangheta are the most frequent example of Mexicans and Italians cooperating, even beyond 'Reckoning'," wrote Patrick Corcoran of the Latin American security website InSightCrime.org.
The 'Ndrangheta and Colombian drug traffickers have worked together since the early 1990s, when the Italian group began to import cocaine from the Andean nation and set up a local network in the country. The cocaine is imported to Italy in one of two ways: either through Venezuela and the Atlantic sea route or in some cases taken to Guinea Bissau in Africa and then on to Europe.
The U.S. Drugs Enforcement Administration (DEA) suspects that the group's leader, Santo Sciopone, has been living in Colombia since 2000.
Europe has a growing taste for cocaine and the price of the drug has spiked in recent years. With a kilogram of cocaine estimated at over $63,000 in Italy, compared to the average price of between $28,000 and $38,000 in New York, the Colombian and Mexican cartels see Europe as a lucrative and untapped market.
The European cocaine demand, which has risen dramatically in the last decade, paired with burgeoning trafficking routes through West Africa and Europe, has allowed Italian organized crime groups to comfortably climb in bed with the Colombian and Mexican cartels.
"They’re involved in drug trafficking and they’re getting it from the bad guys down south,” Rusty Payne, a DEA spokesman told Fox News Latino.