Colombian, Italian and US authorities collaborated in a massive round-up of nearly 150 suspected members of a multicontinental drug trafficking ring, highlighting the deep links between Italian criminal organizations and Latin America's drug trade.
The operation saw the arrests of 144 suspects who were allegedly operating in Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama, Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Chile, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and Italy, according to La Repubblica, which also reported that authorities seized 11 tons of cocaine estimated to be worth some $3.3 billion.
The trafficking ring was allegedly headed by brothers Franco and Giuseppe Cosimo Monteleone, suspected members of the powerful 'Ndrangheta crime organization based in the Calabria region of Italy. The arrests also targeted suspects allegedly belonging to the Colombian rebel group known as the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN), as well as Colombia criminal groups known as bandas criminales, or BACRIM.
According to La Repubblica, the ELN provided security for drug labs and smuggling routes that carried the cocaine to BACRIM-controlled departure points, where it was loaded onto "go-fast boats" or commercial shipping vessels that trafficked the drugs to countries in the Caribbean and Central America for further shipment to Europe and the United States. Reuters reported that some of the contraband was hidden in shipments of tropical fruit.
The bust, dubbed "Operation Two Seas," comes just days after Italian police captured one of that country's most wanted fugitives, a suspected leading figure of 'Ndrangheta named Ernesto Fazzalari, who had been on the run since 1996.
InSight Crime Analysis
Operation Two Seas underscores the extent to which the 'Ndrangheta have made inroads in Latin America since the 1990s, when the group began importing Colombian cocaine to Europe. The presence of suspected 'Ndrangheta members has previously been detected in many of the Latin American countries named above, as well as in other countries in the region like Argentina.
Cultural and linguistic similarities, as well as strong trade and migration ties between Italy and many Latin American countries have likely contributed to the expansion of 'Ndrangheta operations in the region in recent years. According to some estimates, the group controls up to 80 percent of Europe's cocaine traffic.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of European Organized Crime
The recent bust is not the first of its kind, and it is unlikely to be the last. In June and October 2015, Italian and Latin American authorities mounted similar collaborative operations targeting 'Ndrangheta networks in the Americas, including one focusing on a cocaine trafficking ring with a presence in Costa Rica and New York City.
Given the 'Ndrangheta's geographic reach, financial power and criminal sophistication (pdf), this type of cooperation will be necessary for authorities as they continue efforts to disrupt the activities of the group and its affiliates going forward.