Italy police arrest 40 mafia suspects for drug smuggling via Chinese money brokers

Italian police officers check vehicles after new travel restrictions came into effect, in Rome

MILAN (Reuters) - Italian police arrested 40 people on Tuesday in a new crackdown targeting the 'Ndrangheta mafia, with suspects accused of drugs trafficking with counterparts in Latin America using shadow networks of Chinese money brokers.

"Today's raid is a crucial operation that showed how the 'Ndrangheta is an octopus that reaches everywhere with interconnections all over the world," Guardia di Finanza police captain Angelo Santori said.

The breakthrough comes less than a month after an operation in which European police arrested more than 100 mafia suspects in a major operation against drugs and weapons smuggling.

Santori, who led the latest investigation in the northern city of Bologna, said police were executing 40 arrest warrants, including for four Albanians and two Chinese suspects, as well as restricting the movements of suspected Calabrian mafia members in seven Italian regions.

The investigation, spanning late 2019 to July 2022, traced the traffic of 1.2 tonnes of cocaine, 450 kg of hashish and 95 kg of marijuana, Guardia di Finanza police said in a statement.

The network was able to handle drug shipments with powerful South American cartels, including the Brazilian Primeiro Comando da Capital, and Colombian, Peruvian, Mexican and Bolivian criminal organisations, police said.

The 'Ndrangheta, which has its roots in the southern Italian region of Calabria, has surpassed Cosa Nostra as the most powerful mafia group in the country, and one of the largest criminal networks in the world.

"An active role was played by a network of Chinese subjects through the so-called 'fei ch'ien', an informal money transfer system with which more than 5 million euros ($5.50 million) was laundered," Santori added.

According to Italian police, after receiving the cash, the Chinese money brokers forwarded it to trading companies in China and Hong Kong. The companies then delivered the money to the drug brokers and the South American cartels themselves through agents based abroad.

Several recent investigations have shown how drugs cartels in Italy are increasingly using shadow networks of unlicensed Chinese money brokers to conceal cross-border payments.

The investigation was helped by accessing encrypted chats on a platform that was dismantled in 2021 by a Europol Joint Investigation Team, and cooperation with the U.S. Homeland Security Investigations, the Italian police statement said.

($1 = 0.9084 euros)

(Reporting by Emilio Parodi; Editing by Keith Weir and Alison Williams)