A major cocaine trafficking ring run out of a Queens pizzeria was dismantled after a trans-Atlantic probe revealed how the Italian 'ndrangheta crime syndicate has expanded its ties with New York's traditional Mafia crime families, Italian police and U.S. FBI agents said Thursday.
At least 13 people were arrested in pre-dawn raids in Calabria, the region in southern Italy that is the power base of the 'ndrangheta, which has increasingly taken advantage of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra's disarray to consolidate its influence and operations in the United States, officials said at a joint Italian-U.S. news conference in Rome.
Three Calabrians, identified by Italian and U.S. authorities as Gregorio Gigliotti, his wife, Eleanora, and son Angelo, were arrested in New York two months ago. All were members of the family that ran the pizzeria in Corona, authorities said.
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Angelo Gigliotti's lawyer, Gerald McMahon, said the case against his client is weak. His client pleaded innocent following his arrest on March 11 and is being held without bail.
There was no immediate response to messages left Thursday for the lawyers of the two other defendants in New York.
The restaurant, Cucino a Modo Mio, which means "I cook it my way," was the command center for an international trafficking operation, said Andrea Grassi, who is in charge of an Italian state police special operations unit known as SCO. Authorities said they seized more than 60 kilograms of cocaine in the Netherlands and Spain during the probe that began last year.
"In the evening, the family ran a good pizzeria. In other hours they were running" the drug trade, Grassi said.
The pizzeria also served as a weapons cache for drug traffickers, investigators said
Police said operatives bought the cocaine in Costa Rica with cash brought in specially constructed suitcases. The cocaine was warehoused in Wilmington, Delaware, and Chester, Pennsylvania, until it could be shipped, using a produce company as a cover, to northern Europe and Italy, investigators said.
The 'ndrangheta has operatives in Australia and Canada, but this probe, code-named Operation Columbus, convinced investigators that the syndicate has increasingly moved its foot soldiers and bosses to the United States, said Renato Cortese, a top Italian police official.
"Because of its blood ties, the 'ndrangheta is a terrible organization," Cortese said. He was referring to the syndicate's ironclad rule of relying on members who have either family or marriage ties. Family pressures discourage turncoats, a small army of whom helped weaken Sicily's Cosa Nostra, which largely chose its mobsters based on skills and not blood ties.
The Calabrian family that ran the pizzeria in New York allegedly turned to the U.S. Mafia's Genovese crime clan for financing so they could invest in the cocaine trade, Calabria-based anti-Mafia prosecutors said.