Mafia's 'bankers' forced to return

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The Independent Online
(First Edition)

THEY LEFT Siculiano, a desolate Sicilian village, in the late 1950s with hardly a lira in their pockets and, an elderly local recalls, with 'patches on their pants'.

They returned to Rome at the weekend with a fortune estimated at pounds 250m, vast properties and businesses in South America and dealings all over the globe. They were surrounded by cameramen and a huge police guard. But they were not making a triumphant return to Siculiano - they were heading for jail.

For Pasquale, Paolo and Gaspare Cuntrera are believed to be, as Repubblica put it, the Rothschilds of the Mafia's drug empire. They not only allegedly ran heroin and cocaine between Europe and the Americas, but are said to have laundered the Mafia's and Cosa Nostra's drug money through at least 25 banks in Europe, Central America, Canada and Thailand and invested it in legitimate enterprises.

Their expulsion from Venezuela, where they had been living in great luxury, crowned a week of phenomenal successes in Italy against the Mafia - more than a dozen top bosses, killers and dangerous henchmen have been captured. The Italian authorities had been trying to get their hands on Pasquale Cuntrera for 10 years: three times the Venezuelan courts had refused extradition requests.

The Cuntreras' expulsion was a posthumous victory for Giovanni Falcone, the top anti-Mafia judge assassinated in a bomb attack last May. Only three days before his death, he met the Venezuelan justice minister and apparently persuaded him that the Cuntreras were as much a menace to Venezuela as they were to Italy.

It is thanks to the Cuntreras and the Caruanas, a family closely linked through blood and marriage, that Siculiano is one of the world's drug capitals. Perched on a hill overlooking the sea in the south of Sicily, it has a population of 5,000 and a Carabinieri station that looks more like a fortress. Virtually no one will talk to strangers about the family that built the great white house up the hill - the one that is heavily fortified, with barbed wire and bars on the windows - but who have not yet come to live in it.

The Cuntreras' arrest is expected to be a big blow to the Mafia's drug industry, depriving it of trusted money-launderers. But Achille Serra, one of Italy's chief Mafia-hunters, warned: 'This is only the beginning. There is a long way to go yet before it is broken.'

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