Italian police launch sweeping anti-mafia raids

Italian police launched sweeping raids on Friday in a vast anti-mafia operation whose targets included top organised crime bosses accused of extortion, drug trafficking and murder.

In "one of the largest operations ever carried out" in Rome, the blitz struck "a deadly blow to the mafia cell which had been operating in the capital for years," the police said.

Amid accusations of drug trafficking, usury, extortion and control of the slot machine market, 51 people who helped lead "illegal activities" in Rome and the suburb of Ostia on the coast were served with arrest warrants, police spokesman Mario Viola told AFP.

A second operation targeted members of the immensely powerful 'Ndrangheta criminal organisation in the city of Catanzaro in the southern region of Calabria, Viola said. There, the arrest warrants concerned 50 to 70 people, "including entrepreneurs, politicians and lawyers", he said.

Some 500 police officers took part in the Rome raids -- along with a helicopter, dog units and maritime police -- which aimed in particular to root out gangsters with links to Sicilian mafia who have infiltrated the Italian capital, buying up bars and restaurants as fronts for criminal activities.

"The mobsters are very dangerous. They use powerful arms, not only to commit murder but also to settle scores or knee-cap people in Rome," said Renato Cortese, head of the police rapid response team in Rome.

The warrants were the result of a long investigation during which detectives used wiretaps to uncover "every criminal step in the mafia organisation," police said, from the adoption of new members into the fold to dirty deals between bosses over territory.

Gangsters were also caught planning murders considered "necessary to guarantee and keep control of" profit-making activities in the area.

The mobsters involved come from "the beating heart of the Roman and Sicilian crime world," including key members of the Fasciani and Triassi D'Agati families, "which have for years shared up criminal business, particularly along the coast," police said.

"For practically the past 20 years, members of the Fasciani and Triassi clans have carried out their business in Rome, dividing up the territory in a sort of mafia pax, under which each was able to calmly carry out its own illegal trafficking," they said.

"While the Fasciani forced shop-owners to pay protection money, the Triassi had a monopoly over drugs and arms," prosecutor Giuseppe Pignatone said.

The blitz also flushed out one of the historic bosses of the Triassi family, Vincenzo, who was arrested along with his wife in Tenerife and incarcerated in a Spanish prison. Two other suspects were rounded up and arrested in Barcelona.

Anti-mafia association Libera praised the police for "this first hard hit" against the mafia in Rome, warning that the clans "have not just infiltrated but have put down roots" in the region.

In Calabria, the heartland of the 'Ndrangheta, arrest warrants were issued for 65 people in Lamezia Terme, in the Catanzaro region, including "businessmen, politicians and lawyers," as well as doctors and prison employees, Viola said.

A senator from former premier Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right People of Freedom (PDL) party was also placed under investigation for allegedly having bought votes with the help of the mafia.

Besides mafia association, some of those targeted are also accused of playing a role in several murders committed during a bloody mafia-on-mafia war between 2005 and 2011, as well as hundreds of acts of extortion, by which they demanded protection money from businesses.

The 'Ndrangheta -- whose name comes from the Greek word for courage or loyalty -- has a tight clan structure which has made it famously difficult to penetrate, and specialises in drug and arms trafficking, prostitution, extortion and illegal construction.

It is considered by many as more dangerous and difficult to predict that the better-known Sicilian-based Cosa Nostra.

The 'Ndrangheta runs an international crime network from its base in Calabria and has been linked to operations across western and northern Europe and as far afield as the Americas and Australia.