Police investigators raided dozens of commercial and private addresses in Germany, Italy and Bulgaria on Wednesday as part of a massive, multi-country investigation into the complex financial world of the Calabrian mafia.
Tax authorities in Bavaria told Reuters that the raids on 46 properties were part of a year-long investigation that began in the south German state. Eleven people were detained – four in Germany, six in Italy and one in Bulgaria – and will go before magistrates this week after questioning.
The raids focused on a luxury car ring that police allege laundered more than €13 million (about £11 million) through a tax fraud scheme where cars were sold multiple times so that the VAT could be illegally collected from multiple transactions despite the cars not actually changing ownership.
“We are not done with the searches and with each search or questioning of suspects we learn of new places to search and people to talk to,” said a German police official in Berlin, who cannot be identified according to German law. “The first searches are only the start and we are holding information back because we don’t want some suspects to know they are being watched.”
Europol - the EU’s version of Interpol - has said the Calabrian mafia, known as the ‘Ndrangheta, controls up to €75 billion (about £63 million) worth of assets around Europe ranging from commercial real estate to banking and all manner of money laundering enterprises in between.
“These raids are part of the war on their money. The ‘Ndrangheta are the best and most sophisticated money launderers we have ever seen, this is their power now,” ‘Guido,” an Italian law enforcement official, who uses a pseudonym because of years of undercover work and threats from the mafia, told Vice World News.
“Anyone can make millions smuggling cocaine – if they’re not jailed or killed – but most gangsters have no idea what to do with the money once they’ve earned or stolen it. Not the Ndrangheta. They’re so efficient that it is likely billions of euros of their holdings are legal at this point.
“Raids like [Wednesday] are part of a program to stop the money or the assets from being absorbed into the legal economy where they cannot be touched.”
The Ndrangheta formed more than a century ago in the rural southern province of Calabria. After pivoting from rural thuggery and protection rackets to industrial scale kidnappings of wealthy or prominent Italians in the 1970s and 80s -- including the heir to the Getty fortune in 1973, who was freed after a ransom of $2.2 million dollars (£1.6 million) were paid but not before the kidnappers cut off his ear and sent it to his family.
“They collected millions of ransom and needed to invest it, to launder it,” said Guido. “In the early 1990s, they began to exploit free markets and globalisation to dominate the international cocaine trade. So today we consider them the most dangerous and powerful of all organised crime groups.”
In January, the largest Italian mafia trial in decades began for 335 suspected members of the group and corrupt government officials, who will face as many as 900 witnesses and take at least two years.
But Guido warned that despite the size of the trial, it will cause little disruption to the gangsters and their business.
“It's a win because a lot of bad guys will probably go to jail for a long time,” he said. “But it's just the beginning of understanding and focusing on this group that for decades has managed to stay fairly low profile and avoid all the publicity and notoriety that came to LCN in the 1990s. A few dozen raids and a few hundred arrests are not going to dent what might be the most powerful criminal group in history.”