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Italian police strike new blow against "fierce" 'Ndrangheta mafia ring with early-hour blitz by over 300 police officers

Hunting members of Italy's mafia, 'Ndrangheta
'Ndrangheta: Hunting members of the mafia that's bigger than La Cosa Nostra 01:41

Italian police said Thursday they have dismantled a 'Ndrangheta mafia ring dominating a large area of southern Calabria and seized assets exceeding 250 million euros.

The early-hour blitz by over 300 police officers centered on areas of  Italy's poorest region controlled by the Mancuso clan and its affiliates -- a powerful branch of the infamous 'Ndrangheta, many of whose top operatives are among hundreds of defendants in an ongoing maxi-trial.

Fifty-six people, many already in prison, were put under criminal investigation for a series of crimes including mafia-related conspiracy, extortion, kidnapping, bribery and possession of weapons, police and prosecutors said.

Besides alleged mafia members, the operation also snared businessmen, a regional councillor released from prison days earlier, a former head of the regional tourism board and two civil servants, police said.

The incarcerated boss of the clan, Luigi Mancuso "The Supreme," is the biggest fish in the massive mafia trial that started in January 2021.

Still, police said his clan and affiliates, including the La Rosa and Accortini families, have continued to dominate activity in Vibo Valentia province on the toe of Italy's boot, known as the 'Coast of the Gods' for stunning coastal views.

A panoramic view shows Vibo Valentia, Calabria, on November 19, 2021.  GIANLUCA CHININEA/AFP via Getty Images

One mafia scheme involved the infiltration of a foreign tour operator in Pizzo Calabro, overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea.

In Calabria, the extent of the 'Ndrangheta's reach in the local economy has made it near impossible to eradicate.

Controlling the bulk of cocaine flowing into Europe, the 'Ndrangheta has surpassed Sicily's Cosa Nostra in power and wealth. It has extended far beyond its rural roots and now operates internationally, with illegal gains reinvested in the legitimate economy.

In the area around Vibo Valentia, extortion of local businesses and the fixing of public tenders is also common.

The allegations against those arrested Thursday include the transport and sale of stolen farm machinery to Malta and Romania, police said.

The sting Thursday extended to other parts of Calabria, to Palermo in Sicily and as far as Rome and Milan, police said.

In a press conference, anti-mafia prosecutor Nicola Gratteri, whose efforts to defeat the 'Ndrangheta have forced him to live under police escort for over 30 years, called the group a "fierce mafia syndicate" controlling areas around the tourist resort of Tropea.

Francesco Messina, who leads Italy's organized crime investigative unit (DAC), cited the economic power of the clan, relying locally on "substantial" extortion activity.

The "total absence" of complaints to authorities was striking, Messina said, underscoring the 'Ndrangheta's power to intimidate.

Just last week, authorities arrested Italy's most-wanted fugitive, taking mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro into custody after a 30-year manhunt. The 60-year-old fugitive was caught in a "health facility in Palermo, where he had gone for therapeutic treatment," officials said.

On Monday, Italian police in Sicily said they arrested Andrea Bonafede -- the man whose identity was used by Messina Denaro during 30 years on the run, authorities said.

In issuing the warrant for Bonafede's arrest, Judge Alfredo Montalto said Bonafede was suspected of being a member of Cosa Nostra, and helping Messina Denaro to carry out his role as a major mob boss.

Messina Denaro was considered "Mafia nobility" — the last of three top mafia bosses, the others being the notorious Salvatore "Toto" Riina and Bernardo Provenzano, both of whom also eluded capture for decades, continuing to live clandestine lives in Sicily.

Riina, the so-called "boss of bosses," was on the run for 23 years before his arrest in 1993. Provenzano spent 38 years as a fugitive and was finally captured in 2006.   

Italian police capture mafia boss after 30 years on the run 02:52

Anna Matranga contributed to this report.

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