Authorities arrested a cocaine broker who acted as a link between Italy's mafia clans and Colombian cocaine suppliers, in perhaps the biggest blow yet to recently revived Colombia-Italy drug trafficking operations.
Roberto Pannunzi, alias "Bebe" (Baby), was captured in a Bogota shopping center on July 5 and two days later extradited to Italy, where he is facing an outstanding conviction, reported El Tiempo.
Pannunzi has been at the center of the cocaine trade between Colombia and Italy for over 30 years, and was one of the first Italians to establish links with Pablo Escobar's Medellin Cartel during the '80s cocaine boom.
Although widely considered an integral figure in mafia drug interests, Pannunzi operated independently, serving as an intermediary for Italy's main cocaine traffickers in the 'Ndrangheta mafia clans, while also maintaining links with the Cosa Nostra, according to Italian prosecutors, who labeled him the "biggest cocaine importer in the world."
Pannunzi was renowned as a skilled diplomat, who pioneered a cooperative approach to cocaine trafficking by convincing distinct and sometimes antagonistic criminal organizations to pool resources to buy shipments, which he would then transport to Europe.
Authorities believe he was operating primarily in Colombia and Venezuela but also had connections to Mexican drug trafficking organizations.
Pannunzi has been arrested twice before, once in Colombia in 1994, and then again in Spain in 2004. The first time, he was freed because he could no longer legally be held on remand. The second time, he escaped from a hospital after complaining of health problems.
InSight Crime Analysis
Pannunzi's capture is the latest in a series of arrests of Italian mafia figures in Colombia. So far this year, Iacomino Tomasso, who organized cocaine shipments for the La Camorra mafia, and Santo Scipione and Domenico Trimboli, who worked with the 'Ndrangheta, have also been captured. However, with his long history and broad network of contacts, Pannunzi's capture may prove to be the most significant.
Authorities believe the recent arrests are indicative of a surge in Italy-Colombia drug trafficking operations, which they say are a result of mafia figures released from prison looking to re-establish old connections.
However, with Italian mafia groups having also established relations with Mexican cartels over the last decade, it could be that their return to Colombia is also driven by a desire to control the cocaine trade closer to the source. Arguably, Colombia has also become a more appealing country for independent drug traffickers, as its fractured underworld has created more space for those looking to establish their own drug trafficking connections.