Analysis: Italian mafia brokering Mexican drug trade

NEW YORK — This Friday, mafia boss and notorious narco-trafficker Vincenzo Roccisano is scheduled to appear before a Nassau County judge after his February arrest, at a Long Island restaurant, for illegally re-entering the United States. Four years ago, Roccisano was deported from the U.S. to Italy after serving a 20-year sentence for routing drugs from Latin America to Europe.

Roccisano’s arrest may look like a throwback to decades past when Italian mafiosi — not Mexican traficantes — controlled the flow of drugs.

Yet the arrest represents a significant shift in the roles of various international crime groups. Experts credit Roccisano with revolutionizing the supply model for trafficking drugs from the Americas to Europe over the past two decades. In recent years, his Calabria-based syndicate, called 'ndrangheta, has outperformed competing Sicilian and Neapolitan clans in the European narcotics trade.

“The ‘ndrangheta has become the principle, transatlantic broker,” said Francesco Forgione, former director of Italy’s Parliamentary Anti-mafia Commission. “They’re working with the Mexican cartels to get drugs to Europe.”

Rather than distribute the drugs in the U.S. itself, as the Italian mafia of yore once did, the ‘ndrangheta — which means “valor” in Calabrian dialect — has ceded these operations to Mexican cartels while focusing its efforts on shipping drugs from Latin America to West Africa. From there, the ‘ndrangheta controls major shipping routes to Europe where cocaine, for example, is worth three times as much as on U.S. streets.

In recent decades, business has slumped for traditional Italian-American crime dynasties.

Last month, New York authorities arrested 14 members of the Gambino family after a series of raids and charged them with numerous crimes including under-age sex trafficking, racketeering and murder.

“They’ve taken some substantial hits,” said former NYPD commander Joseph A. Pollini, who currently lectures at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. Pollini credits the downfall in the U.S. to a federal law passed in 1970 known as the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, which makes it easier to prosecute members of illegal groups.

The law was the primary vehicle behind the life sentences of Gambino crime family members Ronald Trucchio, Terry Scaglione and Steven Catallono and their associate Kevin McMahon in 2006.

“Ultimately, the families diminish,” said Pollini.

Yet some experts credit their fall to competing international crime groups.

“I lay it at the feet of the Mexicans," said Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) spokesman Rusty Payne. “They have power, money and a huge amount of people working internationally. Business is good for them right now.”

According to the 2010 Drug Threat Assessment released last month by the Department of Justice, “Mexican [drug trafficking organizations] continue to represent the greatest threat to the United States.”

In recent years, Mexican syndicates have been caught red-handed dealing directly with the ‘ndrangheta.

On Sept. 16 and 17, 2008, a DEA-led sweep known as “Project Reckoning” nabbed more than 500 suspects connected to the Mexican Gulf Cartel. In the bust — spanning from Italy to the U.S. and Latin America — agents confiscated over 16 tons of cocaine, 51,000 pounds of marijuana and 1,000 pounds of methamphetamine, as well as more than $60 million in cash. Most of the arrests were Mexicans, but 14 — eight in Calabria and six in New York — were high profile members of the ‘ndrangheta.

Two weeks later, President George W. Bush added the ‘ndrangheta to the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act, a blacklist of global crime groups. If a suspect belongs to any group on the list, the government can freeze all of his assets. Al Qaeda, Mexican cartels and other illegal groups that move freely across international borders dominate the 700-member list.

“Only criminals enjoy the true spirit of globalization,” said Antonio Nicaso, an internationally recognized author and lecturer on Italian organized crime. “Many [‘ndrangheta members] are avoiding the U.S. because they can.” Nicaso said that the ‘ndrangheta owes its meteoric success to its ability to cross borders swiftly and to work with other groups. Law enforcement, on the other hand, tends to move slowly from country to country.

“There’s nothing that stops criminals,” said Jennifer Shasky, director of the U.S. Attorney General’s Organized Crime Council. “We have treaties to work with and issues of national sovereignty. They don’t.”

While international operations can be hugely successful, they’re also time-consuming, costly and above all require mutual trust between the foreign agencies, said Samuel Gonzalez Ruiz, former head of the Mexican Attorney General’s organized crime unit.

“When you have problems of governmental corruption, you have severe problems in the relationship,” he said. “Politically, they tell you there’s very strong [inter-governmental] communication, but the reality is very different.”

Meanwhile, the success of the Calabria mafia suggests its ties with Mexican groups are strong. According to EURISPES, a Rome-based think tank, the ‘ndrangheta’s hold on the European drug economy allows it to gross over $60 billion a year — more than any other Italian mafia group. Gross revenue among all of the groups is estimated at over $200 billion — more than 11 percent of Italy’s entire GNP.

Most of that money comes from the drug trade.

Christopher Livesay is a freelance journalist in New York City. His current work focuses on human rights, science and art.