More than 100 suspected Italian mafia members arrested in Europe-wide raids

Police raided 150 addresses in eight countries across Europe in the "biggest ever" swoop targeting the notorious Italian 'Ndrangheta mafia, prosecutors said on Wednesday.

A suspected 'Ndrangheta member is arrested in Cologne, western Germany, in 2018.
A suspected 'Ndrangheta member is arrested in Cologne, western Germany, in 2018. Photo by Oliver Berg/ AFP.

Eric van Duyse, a spokesman for the Belgian federal prosecutors’ office, told a news conference that 1,400 police officers in Italy were involved in the raids, revising down a figure of 3,000 prosecutors had given earlier.

“It is likely the biggest operation ever carried out in Europe against the Calabrese mafia,” they said in a statement.

Van Duyse said that more than 1,000 police officers in Germany took part, adding that the European raids were triggered from a Belgian prosecutors’ investigation opened five years ago “under the greatest secrecy”.

The EU countries where the raids took place were Italy, Germany, France, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Slovenia and Romania, prosecutors said.

In Belgium, there were 25 police raids, and 13 people were arrested, including at least six who were wanted under European arrest warrants issued by Italy.

Thirty people were arrested in Germany alone as dozens of apartments, houses and offices were searched.

“The suspects are accused, among other things, of money laundering, organised tax evasion, organised fraud and narcotics smuggling,” the regional prosecutors said in a joint statement.

READ ALSO: Top Italian ‘Ndrangheta boss arrested after five years on the run

The ‘Ndrangheta is Italy’s most powerful and wealthy mafia, controlling the bulk of cocaine flowing into Europe. It operates in more than 40 countries around the world.

It has successfully expanded well beyond its traditional domains of drug trafficking and loan sharking, now using shell companies and frontmen to reinvest illegal gains in the legitimate economy.

Investigators in Italy’s Reggio Calabria on Wednesday identified 108 suspects as part of the case, for alleged crimes including mafia association, international drug trafficking and weapons trafficking.

Grip on cocaine imports

A spokesman for the Belgian federal prosecutor’s office said it had launched the European investigation and had been working on the case for “four, five years”, in cooperation with other EU states.

Around 20 raids were carried out in Belgium alone.

In North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, police detained 15 suspects, while raiding 51 properties.

In the southern state of Bavaria, police were investigating eight people, including four who were arrested.

READ ALSO: What is Italy’s ‘Ndrangheta mafia?

Another 11 suspects were picked up in the states of Thuringia and Rhineland-Palatinate, while two men sought in Saarland were detained in Italy.

Based in Calabria, the region that forms the tip of Italy’s boot, the ‘Ndrangheta is considered one of the world’s most powerful crime syndicates due to its grip on the cocaine import market.

It has extended its reach across all parts of the world, and it has long surpassed Sicily’s Cosa Nostra as Italy’s biggest mafia organisation.

Its presence in Germany was confirmed in 2007 when six people were killed outside a pizzeria in the town of Duisburg.

The victims were rival clan members killed as part of a long-running feud between families from the town of Calabria’s San Luca, home to the Giorgi family.

Late last month Italian authorities announced the arrest of a top boss of the ‘Ndrangheta mafia after almost five years on the run, who featured on the police’s list of most dangerous criminals.

READ ALSO: Italy’s ‘Ndrangheta mafia ‘on all continents’ and still growing

Pasquale Bonavota, 49, had been wanted since November 2018, after escaping an arrest warrant for homicide and mafia association issued by a magistrate in Calabria, in southern Italy.

Bonavota is considered the brains of the ‘Ndrangheta’s Bonavota clan, which includes his two brothers, based in the Sant’Onofrio area of the Calabrian province of Vibo Valentia.

He was described as being a leader who “took the most important decisions” along with other top ‘Ndrangheta bosses, and “looked after the interests of the association in the Rome area and in the gambling sectors and drug trafficking”.

The arrest of Bonavota came three months after the high-profile capture of Sicilian mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro.

The Cosa Nostra boss had been a fugitive for 30 years.

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Family of Italian student murdered in Cairo seek justice in new trial

A second trial of four Egyptian security officers accused of kidnapping and brutally murdering student Giulio Regeni in 2016 opened in Rome on Tuesday, with his parents vowing to uncover the truth.

Family of Italian student murdered in Cairo seek justice in new trial

Giulio Regeni, 28, had been conducting academic research when he was abducted in January 2016. His body was found nine days later, dumped on the outskirts of the Egyptian capital, bearing extensive signs of torture.

The murder severely strained ties between Italy and Egypt, while Italian MPs later accused Cairo of being “openly hostile” to attempts to try the suspects.

In 2021, Italian judges threw out the first trial the day it opened because prosecutors had not been able to officially inform the four suspects of the procedures against them.

But the Constitutional Court ruled in September that the case could go ahead in their absence.

On the new trial’s opening day Tuesday, Regeni’s parents, Claudio and Paola, and his sister Irene unfurled a large yellow banner bearing the words “Truth for Giulio Regeni”, before entering the court.

After a hearing that lasted one-and-a-half hours, the family’s lawyer, Alessandra Ballerini, said her clients looked forward to “finally (having) a trial against those who did all the evil in the world to Giulio.”

“We have been waiting eight years for this moment,” Ballerini told journalists outside the courtroom.

None of the four defendants – General Tariq Sabir, Colonels Athar Kamel and Uhsam Helmi, and Major Magdi Ibrahim Abdelal Sharif – were present in court.

All face charges of kidnapping, while Sharif is also charged with inflicting the fatal injuries on Regeni.

Defence lawyers asked that the case be thrown out, arguing that the charges indiscriminately targeted the group without attributing specific acts to each individual.

The court said it would rule on their legal objections at the next hearing on March 18th.

Ahead of the trial, the court-appointed defence lawyer for Kamel, Tranquillino Sarno, told AFP that the four men were “absolutely untraceable.”

Even if they were convicted they would “certainly not serve their sentences”, he said.

Investigators believe Regeni was abducted and killed after being mistaken for a foreign spy. As part of his doctoral work, Regeni had been researching Egyptian trade unions, a particularly sensitive political issue.

His mother later said his body had been so badly mutilated that she recognised her son only by the “tip of his nose”.

Five of his teeth had been broken, 15 of his bones had been fractured and letters had been inscribed into his flesh, according to the family’s lawyer.

An Italian parliamentary commission found in December 2021 – just weeks after the case was thrown out – that Egypt’s security agency was to blame for Regeni’s death.

It also accused Egypt’s judiciary of acting in an “obstructive and openly hostile manner” by failing to disclose the whereabouts of the defendants.

In December 2020, all four suspects as well as a fifth were cleared of responsibility for Regeni’s murder by Egypt’s public prosecutor, who said he would drop the case.

By AFP’s Ljubomir Milasin