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Police crack down on 'Ndrangheta mafia in sweeping bust across Europe

Police across Europe staged a vast, coordinated operation on Wednesday against the 'Ndrangheta, Italy's most powerful and wealthy mafia that controls the bulk of cocaine flowing into Europe.

About 132 people were taken into custody in early morning raids as part of a blitz involving eight European countries plus Brazil and Panama, according to EU law enforcement agency Europol.

"It is likely the biggest operation ever carried out in Europe against the Calabrese mafia," said Eric van Duyse, spokesman for Belgium's federal prosecutor's office, which began the investigation five years ago.

The prosecutors said around 150 addresses were raided across Italy, Germany, Belgium, France, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, and Romania.

Separately, Italian authorities said assets and property worth 25 million euros ($27.6 million) had been seized in Italy, Portugal, Germany and France.

The suspects were accused of crimes including mafia association, drug trafficking, arms trafficking, money laundering and tax fraud, following a top-secret probe that confirmed the global reach of the 'Ndrangheta.

Rooted in the southern Italian region of Calabria, the crime organization is Italy's most powerful mafia, operating in more than 40 countries.

Besides its main source of wealth — drug trafficking — it is involved in money laundering, extortion, trafficking of illegal waste and other criminal activities, using shell companies to invest illegal gains in the legitimate economy worldwide.

Most of the arrests were in Italy, the others concentrated in Germany and Belgium, in an operation Europol said involved more than 2,770 police officers.

Operation Eureka "now stands as the largest hit involving the Italian poly-criminal syndicate to date", the agency said in a statement.

The operation was focused on a criminal network led by several 'Ndrangheta families based in the town of San Luca, in the southern Italian province of Reggio Calabria.

A bloody feud between rival clans from San Luca had helped raise global awareness about the 'Ndrangheta in 2007, when six people were killed outside a pizzeria in the German town of Duisburg.

German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said Wednesday's raids dealt "a significant blow" to the mafia group.

The network targeted "was mainly devoted to international drug trafficking from South America to Europe, as well as Australia," Europol said.

They had links with Colombia's "Gulf Clan" cartel and an Albanian-speaking group operating in Ecuador and across Europe, it said.

Between May 2020 and January 2022, investigators tracked more than 6,000 kilogrammes of cocaine passing through ports of Gioia Tauro in Italy, Antwerp in Belgium and Colon in Panama — more than half of which was seized, Italian prosecutors said.

This trade resulted in an estimated 22.3 million euros changing hands, spent on cars and luxury goods, as well as in businesses in France, Portugal and Germany, including car-washing, they said.

Details also emerged Wednesday on the activities of 'Ndrangheta boss Rocco Morabito, one of Italy's most wanted fugitives, who was arrested 2021 in Brazil following his escape from a prison in Uruguay in 2019.

His associates offered to sell a container of weapons via Pakistani intermediaries to Brazilian paramilitaries, in exchange for cocaine to be delivered to Gioia Tauro, Italian prosecutors said.

Belgian prosecutors said the raids were triggered by an investigation that opened there five years ago "under the greatest secrecy."

Italian authorities confirmed they had begun their investigations in June 2019, at the request of the Belgians, focusing on one San Luca family active in the Belgian town of Genk.

A Belgian police officer told a news conference organized by Italian authorities how he and his team befriended some of the suspects at a port in Belgium before being "invited to join them on their holidays in San Luca."

That friendship allowed them to gather key evidence against them, he said.

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