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Italian police arrest 300 in anti-Mafia raids

July 13, 2010

By Guy Dinmore in Rome

Police early on Tuesday launched their biggest operation in recent history against the ‘Ndrangheta mafia, arresting more than 300 suspects including an alleged “boss of bosses” in the south and his counterpart in the northern region of Lombardy where organised crime is increasingly penetrating Italy’s mainstream economy.

Among those arrested or under investigation in the joint operation between Reggio Calabria and Milan were several local officials and four members of the Carabinieri police force suspected of having been infiltrated by the mafia.

Charges against those arrested included drugs and arms trafficking, extortion, murder, usury and other crimes. The pre-dawn blitz was carried out by more than 3,000 police officers.

The Calabrian, clan-based ‘Ndrangheta was previously widely believed to have a horizontal, cell-like structure – unlike the more hierarchical leadership of Sicily’s Cosa Nostra. But police revealed that their arrests included 80-year-old Domenico Oppedisano, appointed “boss of bosses” of the ‘Ndrangheta at a clan meeting last year.

Pino Neri, the mafia group’s alleged leader in Milan, was also arrested as police sought to break the ‘Ndrangheta’s expanding grip on industry and finance in Italy’s wealthier northern regions.

The ‘Ndrangheta has emerged in recent years as the most powerful of Italy’s four main regional-based criminal organisations, deriving the bulk of its income from smuggling cocaine from South America, trafficking in arms and toxic waste, extortion, and exploitation of government contracts, mostly in the health sector.

Increasingly, according to anti-mafia prosecutors, the ‘Ndrangheta have expanded their reach into northern Italy, especially in the construction sector, and beyond into major European cities where they have reinvested their income from narcotics.

SOS Impresa, an anti-racket business association, estimates that mafia revenues last year totalled some 135bn euros, equal to nearly 10 per cent of Italy’s GDP.

According to local journalists, the investigation had its roots in an ‘Ndrangheta north-south power struggle which erupted with the killing two years ago of Carmelo Novella in the northern town of San Vittore Olona, some 20 km from Milan. Mr Novella’s clan is based near Catanzaro, Calabria’s regional capital, and his murder led to a spate of killings in the area, including a victim targeted during a religious procession, another in a street in broad daylight and twin brothers gunned down playing cards in a bar.

Robert Maroni, interior minister, congratulated the police forces on their work, calling the operation the largest against the ‘Ndrangheta in recent years, demonstrating the government’s commitment to the fight against organised crime.

Anti-mafia prosecutors, many of them more closely identified with the left in Italian politics, have praised the efforts of Mr Maroni, a senior member of the ultra- conservative Northern League which forms part of Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition government.

One senior judge told the FT that Mr Maroni, with his powerbase in Milan, was less politically compromised in leading a crackdown against the southern-based mafia.

Mr Berlusconi, defending his government’s record on television last week, noted that over 5,000 mafia suspects had been arrested and 12bn euros of assets seized since he came to office two years ago.

While praising the interior ministry, prosecutors have been openly critical of broader government policies which they say have benefited the mafia, including a generous tax amnesty and a controversial bill in parliament that would curtail the use of wire-tapping by police.

Organised crime is a particularly sensitive issue for the prime minister who has fiercely denied accusations, made by Gaspare Spatuzza, a convicted mafia killer, that he made an alliance with the mafia in the early 1990s as he was preparing to enter politics.

Last month Marcello Dell’Utri, a Sicilian senator and long-time business and political associate of Mr Berlusconi, lost his appeal against a conviction for mafia association. Mr Dell’Utri, who denies the accusations dating to the period between 1974 and 1992, is taking his case to a final appeals court.

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