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'Biggest cocaine importer in world' Roberto Pannunzi jailed in Italy after extradition from Colombia

  • @peterpopham

A man described as Europe’s most wanted drug trafficker and Italy’s answer to Pablo Escobar was on Sunday night languishing in an Italian jail, after being extradited from Colombia.

Roberto Pannunzi, 65 connected by blood and marriage to the powerful ’Ndrangheta clan based in Calabria, in the Italian deep south, was captured on Friday in Bogota in a joint operation by Colombian police and the US’s Drug Enforcement Administration.

Nicknamed “Bebe” and known in Colombia as “el Señor” (the Gentleman), Pannunzi is said to have done more than any other mafia boss to bring the smuggling of cocaine and heroin into the modern age by becoming a trusted middleman for trade across continents. He was on excellent terms not only with ’Ndrangheta and Cosa Nostra of Sicily but also with the Colombian drug cartels. His name was a byword for high-quality cocaine. Nicola Gratteri, Italy’s top anti-Mafia prosecutor, commented: “He is the biggest cocaine importer in the world. We know that he organises purchases of 300,000kg at a time.”

It is said that Pannunzi travelled the world with a suitcase of cash so as to be able to bribe his way out of trouble if need be. He is said to have offered his captors in Colombia $1m to set him free. Born in Rome of a Calabrian mother, Pannunzi moved to Toronto with his family as a child.

As a young man there he fell under the influence of Antonio Macri, nicknamed Zzi ’Ntoni, who had pioneered the importation of drugs into Canada, bypassing the New York gangs. He also became friendly with a Cosa Nostra leader from Sicily, Salvatore Miceli, with whose help he obtained top-quality heroin refined in Palermo. His career as one of the first fully international drug smugglers was underway. Roberto Saviano, best-selling Italian author of Gomorra, commented: “He is a modern figure who has transformed the world’s drug traffic.”

Though linked to ’Ndrangheta through a brief marriage to the daughter of a Calabrian boss, Pannunzi made a point of keeping excellent relations with all the different clans. As such, and in contrast to Pablo Escobar, he is said never to have killed anyone. In Rome he operated for years under the cover of running a men’s boutique, and his own appearance was always immaculate.

Pannunzi had been captured twice before – and walked free both times. When he was captured again in Madrid in 2004, he was handed over to Italian authorities, tried, and jailed. But in 2010, he was transferred from jail to a private clinic near Rome for medical treatment, from where he managed to escape. A few days earlier he had said: “If I must die, I prefer to die a free man.” In Italy he has sentences totalling 16 years to serve.

Deriving from the Greek words for “man” and “heroic”, the ’Ndrangheta have never enjoyed the fame of Cosa Nostra in Sicily, but in the past two decades they have overtaken the Sicilian clans as the most powerful and successful Italian drug smuggling gangs, and Pannunzi has played a large part in that success.

The secret network has been in existence for well over a century and possibly much longer. A written code of rules discovered in the 1890s referred to the gangs’ behaviour as based on honour, secrecy, violence, solidarity and mutual assistance. One explanation for their success in overtaking Cosa Nostra is that the gangs are organised strictly by families, with a sense of omerta that is correspondingly stronger than in Sicily. As a result, supergrasses are almost unknown.