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Analysis: Italian mafia brokering Mexican drug trade

Calabrian syndicate has re-focused efforts on shipping drugs from Latin America to West Africa, grossing $60 billion a year.

Mourners applaud one of the three coffins of shooting victims as it leaves a church funeral in the Calabrian village of San Luca, Italy August 23, 2007. Six men died in a hail of bullets outside a pizzeria run by Calabrians in the town of Duisburg, northwest Germany, where the 'Ndrangheta organised crime syndicate is believed to have a well-established presence. (Tullio Puglia/Reuters)

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.”