Police have arrested more than 100 suspects – including “high value” figures – and raided homes across Europe in a crackdown on the Italian 'ndrangheta organised crime syndicate
“We think that among the arrests were several persons of a high value who played a huge role in the organisation, not only in Belgium but in other European countries,” said Belgian federal prosecutor Antoon Schotsaert.
The swoop was part of an investigation spanning Italy, Germany, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, Slovenia, Romania as well as Brazil and Panama, according to EU law enforcement agency Europol. The network was devoted primarily to international drug trafficking from South America to Europe and Australia, Europol said in a statement.
In Germany, more than 1,000 officers searched dozens of homes, offices and stores in the states of Bavaria, North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Palatinate and Thuringia, prosecutors said in a joint statement.
“Today’s raids are one of the largest operations carried out so far in the fight against Italian organised crime,” said Germany’s interior minister, Nancy Faeser, adding they had “dealt a serious blow to the `Ndrangheta.”
In Italy, carabinieri police backed by helicopters served arrest warrants on 108 people who were accused, among other things, of mafia association; possession, production, and trafficking of drugs and weapons; and money laundering.
European authorities have been waging a campaign against the Calabria-based 'ndrangheta, arguably the world's richest organised crime group, in recent years. The 'ndrangheta, which has its roots in the southern region of Calabria, the toe of Italy's boot, has surpassed Cosa Nostra as the most powerful mafia group in the country, and one of the largest criminal networks in the world.
The group has exploited tens of billions of dollars in cocaine revenues over decades to extend its criminal reach across Europe and into several continents as the Sicilian Mafia lost influence.
State police in Bavaria said the arrests were the result of more than three years of an investigation dubbed "Operation Eureka".
They said Italian and Belgian investigators believe that the crime group smuggled close to 25 tonnes of cocaine between October 2019 and January 2022 and funnelled more than €22m (£19.4m) from Calabria to Belgium, the Netherlands and South America.
The ‘ndrangheta clans were also involved in running weapons from Pakistan to South America, supplying Brazilian criminal group PCC (Primeiro Comando da Capital) in exchange for cocaine shipments, Europol added.
In Germany, the 'ndrangheta has been firmly established since the 1970s. It is considered the strongest of the Italian organised crime groups in the country, and is mainly focused on international narcotics trafficking, according to Germany's Federal Office of Criminal Investigation.
More than 30 suspects who had outstanding warrants were arrested in Germany.
Among other things, the suspects are accused of money laundering, gang tax evasion, commercial gang fraud, and narcotics smuggling, a statement from the German state office of criminal investigation in North Rhine-Westphalia said.
A press release from carabinieri in Regio Calabria, where the 'ndrangheta is based, said arrest warrants were also served in Belgium, France, Portugal, Romania and Spain. Raids were also conducted in Slovenia, German security officials said.
In Germany, the main focus of the operation was in North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate, with around 500 officers deployed in each state.
In North Rhine-Westphalia, 51 houses, apartments, offices and business premises were searched and 15 suspects were arrested.
In Rhineland-Palatinate, police searched 50 premises and arrested 10 suspects.
The task forces in Rhineland-Palatinate were supported by special units of the federal government and other states as well as customs and the tax investigation department, German news agency dpa reported.
The state interior minister of Rhineland-Palatinate, Michael Ebling, called the raids an "effective blow" against organised crime.
"Today sends out a very clear signal: There is no place for organized crime in Europe and there is certainly no place for it here with us in Rhineland-Palatinate," he said, according to the dpa news agency.
Reuters contrbuted to this report
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