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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.

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.