A ten-year investigation by Italian authorities into the nation’s drug trafficking networks offers a glimpse into the Italian mafia’s links with Mexican gangsters, and the role that the latter play in the global cocaine trade.
As Proceso recently reported, Italian officials issued 34 arrest warrants in Palermo, which charged members of Sicily’s Cosa Nostra and Naples’ Camorra gangs with importing cocaine from Colombia into Europe via Italian ports. The investigation also revealed the presence of a network linked to the Italian groups in Monterrey, which allegedly worked with Mexican traffickers to arrange the shipment of cocaine loads across the Atlantic Ocean.
The network in Monterrey was led by two Italian brothers, Elio and Bruno Gerardi, whose business was ostensibly dedicated to exporting industrial ovens. However, inside the ovens, the group often hid hundreds of tons of cocaine, which, authorities say, were shipped on behalf of the Cosa Nostra. The brothers were originally based in Colombia, but after a shipment to Mexico was seized by Colombian authorities in 2002, the brothers fled the South American nation, and Monterrey turned into a vital center of operations.
The Gerardi brothers remain at large, though several other targets of the investigation, including a number of figures linked to the Cosa Nostra, have been arrested. In addition to the Italians, the investigation also named a handful of Mexicans who participated in Gerardi’s network. It does not, however, say whether the men worked for one of the two principle Monterrey drug cartels -- the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas -- or if they were independent. The investigation also revealed links between the Gerardis’ Monterrey-based group and traffickers in Morocco and Poland.
The investigation into the Gerardi operation demonstrates the degree to which Mexico has become a vital actor not merely in the US cocaine supply chain, but in the global drug trade. For a gang dedicated to moving South American cocaine to Europe, there was no inherent need for a Mexican connection, but the centrality of Mexican traffickers to the global trade drew the Gerardis to forge links with Mexican traffickers as early as 2002. The freedom of movement available in Mexico also made the country a logical center of operations following the Gerardis' exit from Colombia. While the Gerardis were investigated by US and Italian authorities, and forced to flee Colombia because of government pressure, there is no evidence of similar heat in Mexico.
Similarly, Mexicans have popped up in drug trafficking investigations around the world. For instance, three brothers from the Pacific state of Sinaloa received a death sentence in Malaysia, after they were arrested in a methamphetamine processing lab in the Asian nation that lies some 8,000 miles from Mexico’s borders (their case remains in the appeal process). In similarly remote Australia, the government fingered Mexican gangs as the nation’s foremost cocaine suppliers. Mexican gangsters have operated in South America for years, and have also popped up in Africa, a staging area for shipments that later make the leap to Europe.
The most important structural factors driving the Mexican groups’ relevance to the global trade include the nation’s proximity to the US, the world’s largest cocaine market, and the weakness of Mexico's criminal justice institutions. As a result of the first factor, Mexican gangsters have grown fabulously rich and have established deep logistical networks emanating from South American producer nations, qualities that are useful in trafficking cocaine anywhere around the globe. Thanks to the second factor mentioned above, the Mexican gangs have long enjoyed a significant degree of impunity. Because it is relatively unlikely that arrests will interrupt drug-smuggling operations, the Mexican organizations can thrive for years, if not decades, and in so doing accumulate vast amounts of institutional knowledge and personal relationships that are invaluable in carrying out illicit activities.
This is also not the first time Mexico has featured prominently in an investigation into Italian drug networks. In 2008, hundreds of people linked either to Calabria’s 'Ndrangheta and the Zetas and Gulf Cartel (which, at that point, were part of the same organization) were arrested for their alleged role in a cocaine-trafficking ring. As the book "Contacto En Italia" demonstrates, much of the cocaine was shipped from New York, and all of it came from South America, yet, despite the lack of geographic relevance, the Mexicans were the key suppliers.
Italy is also plays an important role in the European cocaine trade, for reasons that in some ways mirror Mexico’s in the Western Hemisphere. Just as Mexico serves as the gatekeeper to the US, Italy, with its long coastlines and huge ports like Naples, is a logical entry point for cocaine, heroin, and other drugs on their way into the larger European market. And just as Mexican organizations like the Sinaloa Cartel are some of the hemisphere’s most venerable, Italian groups like the Cosa Nostra are among the oldest and most notorious gangs on the continent.