A joint investigation by judiciary and police forces has culminated in the largest, coordinated joint action against an organized criminal group to date in Europe.
During a joint action day starting in the early hours of December 5 2018, judicial and law enforcement authorities in the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Belgium and Luxemburg moved against the ‘Ndrangheta. This aggressive, mafia-style organized criminal group is one of the most powerful criminal networks in the world, and controls much of Europe’s cocaine trade, combined with systematic money laundering, bribery and violent acts.
The word “’Ndrangheta” comes from Greek, meaning courage or loyalty. The ’Ndrangheta formed in the 1860s when a group of Sicilians was banished from the island by the Italian government. They settled in Calabria in southwest Italy and formed small criminal groups.
The FBI currently states there are about 160 ’Ndrangheta cells with roughly 6,000 members. Cells are loosely connected family groups based on blood relationships and marriages. They specialize in kidnapping and political corruption, but also engage in drug trafficking, murder, bombings, counterfeiting, gambling, frauds, thefts, labor racketeering, loansharking, and alien smuggling. In the U.S., there are an estimated 100-200 members and associates, primarily in New York and Florida.
The ‘Ndrangheta network is known to operate by starting legitimate businesses in other countries as a cover to expand overseas. By splitting the activities per country, the mafia network aims to exploit legal differences between criminal jurisdictions and to escape attention, since each crime, if only investigated separately, may appear as an isolated act rather than part of an international operation.
The operation against the network, code-named ‘Pollino’, is the biggest of its kind to date in Europe. Several hundred police, including special intervention units, were engaged in the action, together with prosecutors and investigative officers. The judicial authorities and law enforcement agencies involved have been working intensively together since 2016, including in a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) supported by Eurojust – the EU’s Judicial Cooperation Unit and Europol in The Hague, to prepare the action.
Approximately 4,000 kg of cocaine and hundreds of kilos of other drugs have been detected across Europe during the course of the investigation. By 12.00 noon on the action day, 84 suspects had been reported arrested, including high-ranking members of the mafia network. An estimated EUR 2 million in criminal assets are expected to be seized and many witness hearings and house searches will be conducted, securing important evidence to be used at trial. Actions are also taking place in Suriname.
The case originated in 2014 when the Dutch Fiscal, Information and investigation Service (FIOD) referred an investigation of possible money laundering to Eurojust. The investigation looked into partners of Italian restaurants in Horst and Venray in the Netherlands and showed connections to the Nordrhein-Westfalen region in Germany as well as to criminal activity in Reggio Calabria in southern Italy. The Dutch desk at Eurojust therefore encouraged the other countries concerned to look into the case.
The practical support through EU Agencies like Eurojust and Europol has played a crucial role in Operation Pollino. The JIT has been facilitated and financed by Eurojust, who also organized of a series coordination meetings to regularly bring the actors together, support the development of a joint strategy and facilitate the mutual understanding of the different judicial systems at critical junctures of the investigation. Europol has contributed through data analysis in the context of Analysis Project ITOC, which supports cases investigating the criminal activities of mafia-structured organized crime groups originating in Italy and impacting other countries.
During the joint action day on December 5, prosecutors from the judicial authorities followed the action in real-time from the coordination centre at Eurojust, which allows for swift analysis of new data as it is being collected during the action and makes it possible to adapt the strategy as required. Europol has also assisted the Italian police with in the field with a mobile office.