Police seize gang targeting Italy's finest wines

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The Independent Online

Police in the city of Potenza, in Italy's deep south, yesterday announced that they had smashed a gang of thieves they dubbed the "Banda del Brunello", the "Brunello gang", for their dedication to stealing some of Italy's most expensive wines. Brunello di Montalcino from the town of Montalcino in Tuscany is one of Italy's most celebrated red wines, retailing for £40 or more per bottle.

Police in the city of Potenza, in Italy's deep south, yesterday announced that they had smashed a gang of thieves they dubbed the "Banda del Brunello", the "Brunello gang", for their dedication to stealing some of Italy's most expensive wines. Brunello di Montalcino from the town of Montalcino in Tuscany is one of Italy's most celebrated red wines, retailing for £40 or more per bottle.

Ten of the alleged gang were arrested and two more are still on the wanted list at the conclusion of a police operation lasting nine months, during which they tailed them from one hypermarket to the next, accumulating evidence and information.

The gang's technique, police said, was always the same. Two or three members would set off from their base in Naples, scouring central and northern Italy for virgin terrain. They would put up in a hotel close to the selected store then stroll through the supermarket, putting decoy items into the trolleys and concealing bottles of expensive wines such as Brunello, as well as champagnes, whiskies and brandies, inside specially designed containers in their coats. Sometimes the bottles would be hidden under sheets of plastic inside the trolleys. The thieves were careful to stay out of sight of close circuit television cameras while removing and hiding the bottles. When they were done they strolled out through the "no purchase" exit.

Police believe that many of their raids remain to be uncovered. "We are working on filling out the complete picture," said the leader of Potenza city's flying squad, Ferdinando Rossi. "We are sure that many robberies have not yet come to light." Police are convinced of this because the "Banda del Brunello" was keeping supplied a bootleg wholesaler in Naples that is said to have done Euros 2,000 of business per week.

After loading up their cars - bland, inconspicuous family estates - with loot, the gang would return to Naples where the bottles went to replenish the cellar of the secret shop operated by other members of the gang. Their customers were the managers of bars and wine stores in Naples and the surrounding area, who sold the wine and liquor on to their customers at the standard retail price.

The smashing of the Brunello gang could not have come at a more embarrassing moment for the great but troubled city of Naples. Months of tit-for-tat killings between rival factions of the Camorra, the local version of the Mafia which controls the city's illegal drug trade, pushed the murder statistics to a record 136 for 2004. The new year was ushered in on Sunday with three more deaths in the city: the father of the man who heads a splinter gang that has broken away from the dominant Di Lauro Camorra outfit was shot dead, as was a sidekick of the embattled Di Lauro leader himself. A third man, a passerby caught in crossfire on 28 December, died in hospital. The new killings come despite the arrival of hundreds of police reinforcements with orders to stamp the warfare out.

Italy's head of state, President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, was visiting the city when the gunfire erupted again. "Naples will make it," he declared. "It will undoubtedly succeed in overcoming the difficult moment that it is going through because of organised crime." Residents of Scampia, one of the two sections of the city that has been convulsed by the recent killings, pleaded with Ciampi to come and see conditions for himself. "A visit by you would be an important signal, an encouragement to us to go ahead," they said.

But as the breaking of the Brunello gang underlined, criminality is now deeply rooted in the culture of the city. Police believe the drink thieves have been in business since 1999. Twice in the past two years gang members were caught in the act and charged. But knowing well the snail's pace of Italian justice, they merely shrugged and went back to work.

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