He regularly moved tons of cocaine from South America to Europe, authorities allege, sealing his status as the world's most powerful cocaine broker. He eluded arrest for years.
But in a most ordinary place –a shopping mall, in Bogotá– authorities captured Italian mobster Roberto Pannunzi.
Gen. Andrea De Gennaro, an Italian anti-drug customs police official, described Pannunzi as being able to "move thousands of kilos of cocaine — out of every 10 shipments, eight passed through" Pannunzi's hands, De Gennaro said, as Italian law enforcement officials and prosecutors rejoiced over his capture.
Italian news reports said the fugitive, who fled while under arrest in a private Rome clinic in 2010, was captured Thursday.
Colombian police said Pannunzi had a false Venezuelan ID when nabbed earlier in the week and alleged that he imported two tons of cocaine every month from Colombia to Europe.
Italian anti-Mafia prosecutor Nicola Gratteri told reporters that Colombia had agreed to deport Pannunzi, and the convicted drug dealer's arrival aboard a flight to Rome was scheduled for Saturday night.
Pannunzi, 67, had fled twice from arrest in Italy, including the 2010 escape from the hospital, where he had been admitted after telling authorities he felt unwell. In 1999, Pannunzi also escaped from yet another Italian clinic while under house arrest, which had been permitted for purported health reasons. The first spell on the run ended with his arrest in Madrid in 2004.
When Colombian and Italian authorities captured him in Bogota, Pannunzi immediately told them he had heart problems, Gratteri told Italian state TV.
Gratteri also described how Pannunzi repeatedly managed to avoid capture — until this time.
"He traveled for years with a suitcase full of money" to corrupt would-be captors, Gratteri said. "And he had a backup 'safe-conduct' instrument — a diamond necklace around his neck" that he could use to buy his freedom, the prosecutor said.
Prosecutors said Pannunzi, while born in Rome, is a Calabrian engaged by the 'ndrangheta," an organized crime syndicate based in Calabria, southern Italy.
Italian investigators say the 'ndrangheta has eclipsed Sicily's Cosa Nostra in power and influence thanks to aggressive efforts to dominate cocaine trafficking from Colombia.
Gratteri said Pannunzi was such an influential trafficker "he was the only one able to succeed in selling (cocaine) both to the 'ndrangheta and to Cosa Nostra" as well as to the Camorra, a Naples-area based crime syndicate.
The Mafia in Sicily dominated heroin trafficking to Italy a few decades ago. But defections among Cosa Nostra's ranks helped Italian authorities to capture the mob's top bosses. The 'ndrangheta, more organized around tight-knit family clans, has suffered from far fewer setbacks from turncoats.
While the Sicilian mob was taking its blows from the state, the 'ndrangheta rapidly muscled in on much of the lucrative cocaine trafficking between South America and European markets to the point where their mobsters live in Colombia and cut deals directly with local drug lords, Italian prosecutors say.
Gratteri said Pannunzi organized purchases of 3.5 tons of cocaine at a time.
The LaPresse news agency reported that in earlier decades, Pannunzi had lived for about 10 years in the U.S. and also had dealings with U.S.-based Mafiosi.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.